The Iceberg Illusion

September 11, 2018

Something to reflect on and always bear in mind! Sylvia Duckworth is an award-winning teacher from Canada and uses sketchnotes (as above) extensively.


Feynman and Climbing Mont Blanc

August 28, 2018

Poster for a current Caltech Archives special exhibition on the occasion of the 100th anniversary of Richard Feynman’s birth (1918-1988)

I’ve written previously (see here) on how the famous physicist Richard Feynman figured out how to get out of a creative block that occurred after his initial revolutionary successes (for which he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965):

That’s what I’d forgotten!” he shouted (in the middle of the night). “You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing.” At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, “I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!”

However recently I came across an article by John Preskill of Cal Tech which mentions another viewpoint attributed to Sidney Coleman (who was a Professor of Theoretical Physics at Harvard University). Preskill is the Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Cal Tech:

Feynman often told students to disregard what others had done, to work things out for oneself. Not everyone thought that was good advice. One who disagreed was Sidney Coleman, a Caltech grad student in the late 50s and early 60s. Coleman says: “Had Feynman not been as smart as he was, I think he would have been too original for his own good. There was always an element of showboating in his character. He was like the guy that climbs Mt. Blanc barefoot just to show it could be done. A lot of things he did were to show, you didn’t have to do it that way, you can do it this other way. And the other way, in fact, was not as good as the first way, but it showed he was different. … I’m sure Dick thought of that as a virtue, as noble. I don’t think it’s so. I think it’s kidding yourself. Those other guys are not all a collection of yo-yos. Sometimes it would be better to take the recent machinery they have built and not try to rebuild it, like reinventing the wheel. … Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart. He really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot.” 

There are lots of nice stories and insights in the Preskill article (entitled ‘Feynman After 40’) which is well worth a read.

Grand Challenges and Anticipating the Future

August 22, 2018

I met up with a colleague recently who works in the transport area and she recommended I take a look at a couple of articles including (for general context) the UK Innovation Strategy. The document detailing this (published in Nov 2017) can be found here, including:

“As well as setting a path to improved productivity, our Industrial Strategy sets out four areas (Grand Challenges) where Britain can lead the global technological revolution.”

It’s interesting to consider these big picture themes as it’s all to easy to get locked into details in specific projects.

The Four Grand Challenges are (plus some further explanatory extracts, see here):

1. Artificial intelligence and big data

They can be seen as new industries in their own right, but they are also transforming business models across many sectors as they deploy vast datasets to identify better ways of doing complex tasks – from helping doctors diagnose medical conditions more effectively to allowing people to communicate across the globe using instantaneous speech recognition and translation software.

2. Clean growth

The move to cleaner economic growth – through low carbon technologies and the efficient use of resources – is one of the greatest industrial opportunities of our time. By one estimate, the UK’s clean economy could grow at four times the rate of GDP. Whole new industries will be created and existing industries transformed as we move towards a low carbon, more resource-efficient economy.

3. The future of mobility (people, goods, services)

The UK’s road and rail network could dramatically reduce carbon emissions and other pollutants, congestion could be reduced through higher-density use of road space enabled by automated vehicles, and mobility could be available when we want it, where we want it and how we want it.

4. Meeting the needs of an ageing society

The prospect of longer lives will require people to plan their careers and retirement differently. Ageing populations will create new demands for technologies, products and services, including new care technologies, new housing models and innovative savings products for retirement.

The first three you could see as predominantly technological challenges but the fourth is far more complex as it will need to take into account inter-generational attitudes and mindsets. A good example of a cross-disciplinary project.

A Playbook for Innovation Learning

May 18, 2018

Sample page from (free) NESTA Innovation Playbook

Interesting collection of innovation practices from NESTA:

Over the past four years, we’ve had numerous conversations with colleagues, partners and practitioners about how to build innovation capacity within both the public sector and development sector. We’ve often found ourselves quickly sketching a model or pulling out a diagram to support the conversation, and so we have collated these in the ‘Playbook for innovation learning’.

The playbook includes 35 diagrams, each with a short description explaining its purpose and background and how we use it to help others think about and discuss learning for innovation. We see this playbook as a collection of learning ‘design patterns’ that can be used in a non-linear, interactive way by combining and ‘mashing-up’ different tools to get the job done.

The playbook is aimed at innovation practitioners with several years of experience, but we believe that newcomers might also find it useful.

How To Achieve Great Things

May 6, 2018

“To achieve great things, two things are needed: a plan, and not quite enough time.” – Leonard Bernstein

Regarding the latter point, it’s insightful that when a tight deadline is sprung on you, it’s easy to figure out what’s critical and what isn’t (OK we’re not talking about great things here, but often quite important things).

Sometimes you can actually have too much time to get things done, as you end up looking at all sorts of possibilities that are merely ‘elaborate procrastination’.

Unfortunately, I’ve never found a way of tricking myself into believing that I had a deadline to work to when I didn’t!

Unlocking Links and Changing Habits

January 11, 2018

I’m a Fellow of the RSA (The Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce). It has a long and interesting history:

It was founded in 1754 and was granted a Royal Charter in 1847. Notable members have included Benjamin Franklin, Karl Marx, Adam Smith, William Hogarth, John Diefenbaker, Stephen Hawking and Charles Dickens.

The RSA was set up to “embolden enterprise, enlarge science, refine art, improve our manufactures and extend our commerce”, but also to reduce poverty and secure full employment.

There was an interesting article recently on their blog by Ian Burbidge on the topic of habits, and here are some extracts:

We try to understand these issues by looking through three lenses that provide perspectives on the incentives and power dynamics that influence our behaviour and illustrate, ultimately, the complexity of making change happen. Why is this relevant for behaviour change? Well, change is change, a shift from one state to another. It’s too easy to look at an individual and say ‘just do it’. Seeing our lives as complex and interlinked allows us to identify and then unpick the full range of ties that bind us in our current habits and behaviour…

Knowing does not equal doing. Even if we receive and inwardly digest the public health messaging around alcohol, it does not automatically follow that we act on that information. For many of us, no amount of information will lead to new behaviours. But we can disrupt habits by interrupting or changing their behavioural triggers. Further, the evidence from my work with Do Something Different is that once you begin to untangle this web of linked behaviours, all sorts of magic happens across all elements of your life. This magic happens because everything is linked: whether we smoke, work or exercise; who we socialise with, whether we volunteer in our community, what we eat, how we spend our spare time… this is our life and it’s often messy, always interlinked. Unpick one set of links and it impacts on all the others.

I quite like this idea of a web of links and thinking how displacing some may lead to magical (unexpected) behaviour.

A more pragmatic view on habits has been discussed in a preceding post.

James Dyson’s Best Advice

January 6, 2018

From an article in Fortune on the entrepreneur James Dyson:

“My father died when I was 9, and I remember doing the household chores to help my mother. I loathed changing the vacuum cleaner bag and picking up things the machine didn’t suck up. Thirty years later, in 1979, I was doing chores at home alongside my wife, Deirdre.

One day the vacuum cleaner was screaming away, and I had to empty the sack because I couldn’t find a replacement bag. With this lifelong hatred of the way the machine worked, I decided to make a bagless vacuum cleaner…”

Dyson’s best advice:

Product is king.
Whatever your product is, make sure everyone in the company understands the product. We have every employee on their first day make a vacuum cleaner—even if you’re working in customer service.

Ban memos.
People live off memos and emails and don’t speak to one another. The real value occurs when we meet each other at work, spark off each other, argue with each other. That’s when creative things happen. Having a philosophy of disliking emails is healthy.

Create an open environment where everyone’s involved and appreciated. If you don’t put people down for making a silly suggestion, you can get great ideas. A lot of great new ideas come from silly suggestions or wrong suggestions.