The price of a typical Vancouver home rose 21 percent in the past year, which somehow manages to feel quaint in the face of San Francisco’s median price-tag, now standing at $1.1 million, according to Zillow. And amid the uproar in Los Angeles around the city’s seizure of tiny makeshift homes from its homeless — and similar situations in encampments all over North America — it’s clear that housing crises are a symptom of much deeper economic shifts.

A global group of diverse innovators spent six months working through a process of human-centered design and business innovation at THNK School of Creative Leadershipto see if harnessing the benefits of digital currencies and alternative economic systems (sometimes known as financial tech or FinTech) might offer novel ways to increase access to housing options, across the spectrum of urban dwellers.

What resulted were new proposals for public/private partnerships, mobile platforms, and on-the-ground efforts: an app that allows people in need to locate and access housing, food or medical services using controlled digital currencies; a mechanism for turning smart home data into a non-monetary asset that younger renters might use as currency to secure housing in intergenerational communities; and a specialized agency that matches a broad range of citizens with high-impact social venture investment opportunities that directly benefit their cities. The complete findings can be found in the recently released Future of Capitalism Innovation Report, but the factors that went into shaping the outcomes are almost as important as the insights themselves.

To continue reading this article, please click here to see the original publication on TriplePundit.com.

Posted
AuthorKaz Brecher

I’m a passionate technologist who believes that tech alone will never solve our ills. And while the fashion is currently to claim that “[insert whiz-bang jargon] is the new literacy” (see “Code is the new literacy” from Alex Peake or “Creativity is the new literacy” from SXSW speaker Chase Jarvis), I would posit that good old-fashioned empathy is the only literacy that matters.  Without the ability to grasp the deeply human mechanics behind how and why we engage with the world and others in it, and understand context and constraints apart from those we know first-hand, not even the best innovator can cook up a solution to create positive impact – and with megacities on the rise, swelling middle-class populations demanding the same comforts other industrialized cultures have enjoyed, and limited resources being transformed into unruly stocks of waste, a true human-centered approach is required.

If you’re even a bit skeptical about this, consider the classic consulting lament that the worst thing you can do is spend your time coming up with a brilliant solution to the wrong problem.  How often do innovation efforts focus on developing skills around finding the crux of the matter rather than applying a well-packaged process to solving whatever the client may present? No matter how facile we are at devising solutions, if we don’t know how to FIND (or ask) the right questions and understand the relevant context, we won’t find a solution that sticks – or, I’d argue, is worth wasting time even pursuing. As is too often the case in cutting-edge technology innovation, we become fixated on the capabilities.  But just because we can, does not mean we should - as beautifully illustrated recently with the use of an Oculus Rift for chickens as a way to redefine free-range living.

It begs a short discussion of how we view “empathy” here at Curious Catalyst.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also:  the capacity for this.”  We go a bit further and view it as a discipline that requires practice and can indeed be learned.  It’s almost a “Spidey sense” that harnesses intuition in the midst of critical observation – so that mere seeing is transmuted into knowing when something is ripe for disruption.  Often, the simplest innovations are the most profound precisely because they address a real pain point. 

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An inspired practitioner of this kind of empathy is Wendy McNaughton, who is known as a “graphic journalist” in addition to a delightful illustrator.  In Meanwhile in San Francisco: the City in Its Own Words, she offers unbiased observation that leads to keen insight around individuals and their complex social patterns.  The book reminds me of a more whimsical version of Thoughtless Acts, the formative visual guide from IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri – a master of turning empathy into innovation.

Curious Catalyst was founded in part as the result of asking how experience in emerging technologies could be put to better use for our collective good.  And, much as IDEO was the first consulting organization to make anthropologists and ethnographers a central part of cross-functional innovation teams, we need to bring this approach to bear in all of our urban planning and civic decision-making.  Our global village now contains too many different flavors of needs, cultures, and humans co-existing to devise solutions without this critical context.  And this brings us back into the increasingly important realm of systems dynamics and complexity science, which we discussed a bit previously here.

Years ago, I met Monica Rosenthal, a visionary behind the theater built at Inner City Arts in Los Angeles - and what I learned on that site visit has stuck with me.  This unique campus has developed programming that proves the value of different kinds of arts pursuits for some of our most at-risk populations.  According to The Arts and Education: New Opportunities for Research report (Washington, D.C.: Arts Education Partnership, 2004), dramatic arts are particularly effective in strengthening reading, writing, self-confidence, empathy, and tolerance.  Inner City Arts proffers, “in high-poverty communities, empathy can be transformative. If you can act your way into someone else’s skin during a theater production, you can imagine yourself in another world, another life—a life that includes achievement and belonging.”

So, the great news about developing empathy is that anyone can do it, and it’s never too late to start.  It just requires focus and a bit of practice.  What are you waiting for?

Posted
AuthorKaz Brecher

Just about everyone uses “agile” or “lean” in describing their business these days, but very few people actually use the terms in ways that embody their real meaning.  And, while it may help with marketing, if you say you’re running lean, and you’re not actually practicing the discipline, consider yourself warned.  Project and product management methodologies are disciplines, and they require rigor and practice in order for your company to reap the benefits.  As a certified SCRUM Master, I take my disciplines seriously.  But this is as a result of surviving the kind of cautionary tales one hopes only to read about in glib blog posts.  And I hope this primer helps you avoid some of the pitfalls to which I was exposed.

Let’s start by imagining a scenario.  You’re in New York City, and you’re craving a unique dining experience.  You’ve heard about a place up in Boston, but you’re not sure if it’s really what you’re looking for, even though you’ve researched whatever you could about it.  And, if you want to go up there, you’ll need to commit.  That means, get on the freeway or hop on a train, and head straight there.  The only drawback is that you might arrive and find it’s not at all what you imagined.  Then your investment in the journey is a waste, and you have little choice but to go back and start researching again to find a better fit. 

 MVP of a Curious Catalyst Opportunity Map

MVP of a Curious Catalyst Opportunity Map

However, if you were to hop in the car and drive to your current favorite restaurant and ask them where you should go, they’ll probably have a recommendation closer and one that’s more inline with your vibe, as you have some shared criteria.  And even if you drive a short distance more, only to find it’s not your cup of tea, you’d get another recommendation and more information about what you actually thought you wanted, so that you can make a better decision over time.  This loosely speaks to the assumptions underlying both agile and lean methodologies: that shorter bursts of activity, with built in feedback loops, for gathering user insights and refining the offering, will ultimately lead to a more satisfying outcome.  Note that I didn’t say less expensive, and this is one of the most misunderstood principles when deciding which development approach is right for you and your company.

But let’s begin by clarifying a few terms.  Traditional product development is called “waterfall” because when you plot sequential design with dependencies, progress looks as though it flows down from step to step over time.  This practice developed in manufacturing and construction industries, where there is a clear case to be made for building the framing of the house before you can proceed to painting the walls.  It also should be obvious that in waterfall projects, if you have changes to requirements mid-way through the process, the cost will be exorbitant.  For example, if you’ve built a house, put tiles in, and decide to change the entire shape of the kitchen, you can do it, but you can be sure you’ll pay for it.  The key assumption here is that you never proceed to the next step until the previous one is complete.  And, from a team planning standpoint, resources with different skill sets can roll on and off the project as needed.

 A traditional waterfall project plan often called a Gantt Chart

A traditional waterfall project plan often called a Gantt Chart

During the early heydays of digital agencies, the idea of “agile” entered the lexicon as the new way to save costs and push the boundaries of technical innovation and development.  As one of the most widely adopted flavors of agile, Scrum was first defined as "a flexible, holistic product development strategy where a development team works as a unit to reach a common goal" as opposed to a "traditional, sequential approach" in 1986 by Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka in the "New New Product Development Game."  They claimed this approach would increase speed and flexibility, based on case studies from manufacturing firms in the automotive, photocopier and printer industries; and they called this the holistic or rugby approach, as the whole process is performed by one cross-functional team across multiple overlapping phases, where the team "tries to go the distance as a unit, passing the ball back and forth."

More recently, in 2011, Eric Reis coined the now frequently used term the “lean startup” to describe a method for developing business and products in shorter cycles.  Central to his approach is what he calls “validated learning” – or a combination of business-hypothesis-driven experimentation and iterative releases. Ries' overall claim is that if startups invest their time into incrementally building products or services to meet the needs of early customers, they can reduce the market risks and sidestep the need for large amounts of initial project funding and expensive product launches and failures.  The art of doing this well is in knowing how to define the fundamental unit of testing, which Reis calls the “Minimum Viable Product” or MVP.  As I am known to say, this can be half a product but it can never be a half-baked product.  And, at best, the MVP captures the core value and biggest user need, so that the product grows organically out of a truly human-centered solution.

Generally, both agile and lean methodologies put primacy on rapid iterative and incremental design with a dedicated, self-organizing, multi-disciplinary team.  The requirements and solutions then evolve over a time-boxed period of intense effort called a “sprint” with well-defined tasks.  In both cases, estimation, storytelling, frequent communication and reporting are critical for success - and this skill set is as much art as it is science.  With daily check-ins, teams can immediately and flexibly respond to issues, changes, or discoveries, before getting too far along.  And by being clear about actionable metrics and a backlog of additional features, all team stakeholders can make clear, informed decisions at critical moments before deciding to push on or pivot the product.

 A great capture of the SCRUM cycle courtesy of Agilitrix.com

A great capture of the SCRUM cycle courtesy of Agilitrix.com

As you look to evaluate vendors or consider putting one of these disciplines into practice, beware the jargon and look for experience, which probably comes from emerging technology, mid-stage startups or the rare intrapreneur with a mandate to experiment.  More than anything, agile and lean practices produce artifacts of directed thinking and prototyping, user feedback and guideposts to the next sprint. 

At Curious Catalyst, we expand on the Opportunity Map sketch you see above as the key deliverable coming out of Discovery and Visioning sprints.  Each “roundabout” represents a critical assumption and a potential area for investigation.  And, depending on what we find during a given sprint, we may continue on in the direction we were going to prototype, or we may recommend changes to the strategy behind the solution we’ll test next.  This allows us to remain responsive to rapidly changing market demands, to leverage new insights in real time, and to demonstrate traction after mere weeks instead of years.  Let's take the example of our foray into using re-imagined food trucks to mitigate the complexities of food deserts.  In this case, we should start with the most obvious assumption, which is that people will buy food (produce, prepared food, frozen food) off of trucks.  If that isn't proven to be true by our group of citizen stakeholders, it would be a waste of time for us to investigate and prototype solutions around mobile recipes and grab-and-go dinners.

When tackling the increasingly complex challenges that our urban centers are facing, we believe an approach combining agile and lean methodologies is the only way forward – for harnessing broader expertise, wisely allocating limited funds, and building a tangible vision for change that can be implemented sprint by sprint.

    

Posted
AuthorKaz Brecher