The Economic Importance of Design

When I was 13 years old, I decided that I wanted to study architecture in college. For me it seemed an obvious choice. Growing up in Tokyo, I was constantly surrounded by design from the most subtle, how your food is prepared and presented to the the more monolithic - great architecture. However, during my final two years of architecture school, I realized that while I loved the study of architecture, I wasn't so sure about the practice. Having gone to architecture school during a recession, also made me question the surety of my degree. I witnessed many architects get laid off from architecture firms they had dedicated their lives to. So in graduate school, given that I was always interested in the factors that influenced design, I decided to sit in a few MBA classes. I was going to figure out how business influenced design.

Layer House by Hiroaki Ohtani
(Image from The Japan Architect)
Years later when I was looking for employment, my interest in how businesses grow and strategy developed stayed with me. For what seemed like a tremendous stretch to many given my architectural design background, I decided to find a position in management consulting. I however, did not find it a big leap. Architectural training after all teaches problem solving and that basically is what management consulting is. It just uses less spreadsheets and more creativity and intuition. My first round of applications however, were rejected by all consulting firms. My educational background was perhaps a little too exotic and unfamiliar. Ironically, the only person I did meet that did not think that it was such an oddity for someone with a design background to go into business consulting was Roger Martin, one of the founding partners of Monitor Consulting. At that time, he had just assumed the position of dean at the Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto. (He has recently published The Design of Business. More on that later).

To make a short story, shorter, I eventually ended up working for two huge global consulting firms. One of which hailed Six Sigma and number crunching as the holy grail. Conclusions on consulting projects, even if it involved a study on less predictable factors like human behavior in a work environment were reduced to no more than excel charts. As a designer, I watched daily innovation and creativity die. Where was someone like me, a hybrid, a trained architect with a penchant for business development and strategy to go?

In the past few years however, there has been a lot of new research from various business leaders, academics and practitioners on the value of design thinking. Business thinkers like Roger Martin are advocating design thinking as strategy for companies to be more competitive, innovative and flexible.

For years now, scholars like Richard Florida and Charles Landry have been writing and consulting with governments all around the world on the rise of the creative class and the growing importance of creative professionals as economic drivers in city development. Design thinking however, takes that concept to another level.

But what exactly is design thinking? Basically it is thinking and analysis with the mindset and sensibility of a designer. Instead of solely relying on deductive and inductive logic as most business people do, designers draw more from abductive reasoning. According to Roger Martin, "A person or organization instilled with that discipline is constantly seeking a fruitful balance between reliability and validity, between art and science, between intuition and analytics, and between exploration and exploitation. The design-thinking organization applies the designer's most crucial tool to the problems of business. That tool is abductive reasoning." Martin says that large organizations and businesses often lose sight of the creativity that made them successful. Too often, before a new program or product can be implemented, leaders want proof of their success in advance and so the past is often extrapolated to determine future successes. This is the surest way to stifle creativity and innovation. Conversely, he argues, the way a designer works is to imagine a future that does not yet exist and that imagination is the advantage a designer brings. Ultimately, you make your own reality.

In a world of global outsourcing, Daniel Pink has drawn a similar conclusion on the competitive advantage design thinking brings to companies. In his book A Whole New Mind, published in 2005, Pink writes, "Design is a high-concept aptitude that is difficult to outsource or automate - and that increasingly confers a competitive advantage in business."

The process of design and design thinking has over the years gained such prominence that in 2006 it became part of the agenda at the World Economic Forum in Davos.

These new developments and research are also filtering their way down to how business schools teach. Rotman School of Management at University of Toronto has paired up with the Ontario College of Arts to offer courses that link business strategy with design thinking. Stanford University launched the Hasso Plattner Institute of Design in 2005 to teach design thinking. The University of California, Berkeley offers a MBA course that brings together students from the Haas School of Business and California College of Arts. Suffolk University in Boston offers an executive MBA with a concentration in Design Management. This is not uniquely an American phenomenon, there are business schools around the world that are altering their curriculum accordingly. INSEAD in France has paired with Art Center College of Design in Los Angeles to offer a joint MBA/design degree. The Helsinki School of Economics and the University of Art and Design in Helsinki now offer a joint program in International Design Business Management. And the list goes on....

For someone who has spent much of her professional career trying to convince companies of the versatility and breadth of a design background - this is music to my ears. It sounds like sweet redemption.


"It's Education and Trade, Stupid!"

A Toronto Star article on the awe-inspiring Greg Mortenson and the ringing of the new year got me thinking again about the plight of the world and the role of global economy and women. A couple months prior I had read a few articles and watched a couple interviews with New York Times' columnist Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn, and Vali Nasr - academic and Middle East scholar. Their interviews have continued to replay in my brain like an electronic billboard. The almost bombing of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas day and the endless stream of suicide bombings in public places in Pakistan has made me reflect even more on the work of Greg Mortenson, Nicholas Kristof and Vali Nasr and the message they have been putting forth on how to dramatically reduce radicalism, extremism and terrorism by essentially improving the plight of humanity. Their message is simple - educate poor women and girls and provide economic opportunities in the ignored corners of the world and much can change for the better.

Image from www.ikat.org

In their recently published book titled Half the Sky, Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn document a terrible epidemic largely ignored - the brutality inflicted on women around the world - ranging from sex trafficking, acid attacks, bride burnings to mass rape to a complete lack of education and healthcare. It has become evident that the countries where women are the most marginalized and girls left uneducated are also the countries that are trapped in poverty, and overwhelmed by fundamentalism and violence. Kristof and WuDunn also write, although the exact reasons are still unclear, that male domination of society is also a risk factor for extremism and terrorism.

There is a growing awareness, although from disparate sources, ranging from the World Bank to the U.S. military's Joint Chiefs of Staff to aid organizations that focusing on improving the plight of women and girls around the world is perhaps the most effective way to fight global poverty and extremism. For that reason, Greg Mortenson's work in building girls' schools all over Afghanistan and Pakistan has now been acknowledged by the international community of critical importance. Scholars argue that the reason Muslim countries have been disproportionately afflicted by terrorism has nothing to do with the religion but the low levels of female education and involvement in the workforce. There is increasing proof that empowering women in the developing world is strategically imperative and will do so much to undermine the growth of extremism and terrorism.
Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn
Image by Jason Koski - Cornell University Photography

Vali Nasr, in his new book Forces of Fortune: The Rise of the New Muslim Middle Class and What It Will Mean for Our World, offers an alternate yet complimentary perspective as to how to stem the tide of religious extremism. According to Nasr, for a long time now, the standard of living in many parts of the Muslim world have been falling; unemployment is constantly growing, the populations are getting younger and younger. Social mobility is rare and with a lack of opportunities, in areas ripe with anger and hopelessness, extremism thrives. Essentially, significant parts of the Muslim world are not included in the global economy in any substantial way; they are not part of the supply chain, production or investment and therefore, the more removed people are from the global economy, the more shielded they are from global values and are more willing to lean towards conservatism and extremism. They have not been exposed to the pressures of market forces that generally encourage a moderation in world view. Nasr presents that global values like peace, security, democracy, freedom and human rights, moderation and religious tolerance have not taken hold in Muslim lands, not because of Islam but because the commercial class or middle class that propagate and promote these values are still too small in most of these countries. As adviser to Richard C. Holbrooke (Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan under the Obama administration), he advocates the cultivation of the "critical middle" - the devoutly religious yet very modern. He cites as examples countries like Turkey, Dubai and Malaysia, where economic reforms have helped foster a thriving entrepreneurial, middle class. With rising wealth, Nasr argues, "comes conspicuous consumption, liberal social and political values, and a vested interest in engaging the world.... Those with a stake in commerce and trade will not subscribe to destructive ideas that endanger their futures." Nasr suggests that the U.S. and other western countries build real business ties with countries in the region which do not include oil and weapons; import more products from the Muslim world and help free Muslim economies from the state control.

The U.S War on Terror over the past 8 years seems to have done more to inflame anger in many parts of the world. As errant bombs continue to fall on innocent civilians in Afghanistan and Pakistan, any hopes of a different outcome seems to fade. Western powers have also clearly demonstrated for centuries that they lack the skill and perseverance for nation building. Nine years after 9/11, I can't say I feel any safer every time I'm in line for the security check at the airport.

I know I'm an idealist but imagine - if we diverted the trillions of dollars spent on war and killing, and instead focused on education and creating economic opportunities for the downtrodden - offering humanity around the world, a chance to live humanely, what a different world we might live in. Sometimes, the solutions don't have to be so complicated.

**For more information on Greg Mortenson take a look at this awesome clip: