Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

I study people, technology, and the worlds they make

Tag: innovation

On the Hungarian microcar

The Economist (of course) has an excellent article on the creation (and creativity behind) the Hungarian microcar, which flourished in the early Cold War.

After the Soviet takeover in the late 1940s, the Russians set up Comecon, the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance, to co-ordinate economic relations across the Soviet bloc. In line with the principles of socialist planning, each country was ordered to make certain products but not others. Czechoslovakia, Poland and Romania were allowed to make cars, but Hungary was forbidden to, probably because it had no existing car industry. But a national vehicle, like a national airline, was a symbol of patriotic pride, especially in eastern Europe. Hungary’s Communists were soon determined that Hungary should have its own cars. Accordingly, they quickly found a very Hungarian solution. The way around the Comecon restrictions was via the Magyar speciality known as the kiskapu, or “little gate”. When one door closes, the kiskapu usually opens, often lubricated by an envelope of bank-notes. So under Communism, if, for example, X was forbidden, something rather like X—but not actually identical to it and arguably something else—was surely permitted, because only X was forbidden.

The answer to the prohibition on the manufacture of cars, Hungary’s Communist leaders decided, was to make an enclosed geared vehicle with a steering-wheel and petrol engine that transported people in safety, but did not qualify as a car because it was too small: the microcar. As the Magyar microcar was not actually a car, it could drive through both the kiskapu and the thickets of Communist bureaucracy, or so the argument went, and so the microcar did, with some success.

Of course, Hungarian engineers are known for being wildly ingenious under the right conditions, and sometimes the wrong ones– “A Hungarian, the old joke goes, is someone who enters a revolving door behind you but comes out in front”– and the piece has some useful things to say about the role that constraints can play in stimulating creativity. But this isn’t just an historical footnote:

Nowadays the Magyar microcars are a footnote in automotive history. But they were much more than engineering whimsy. The principles underlying their economy of design, ease of production and simplicity remain relevant today. Currently, about half the world’s population lives in cities, a figure projected to rise to 60% by 2030. Even if urban developers provide decent public-transport networks, many people will still want their own cars. This is especially true of the rapidly growing new middle classes of India and China. Microcars, which have fewer emissions, cost less to run and take up less parking space, are the obvious answer. Hence the Tata Nano, launched with much fanfare in India a year or so ago.

Review of Steven Johnson, “Where Good Ideas Comes From”

My review of Steven Johnson's new book, Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, is now available on the Los Angeles Times Web site. (Interestingly they publish some of the reviews online first, then publish them in the newspaper.)

More at Contemplative Computing.

Update 9 December 2011: Here's the full text of the review:

The author explores the history of innovation, which is firmly rooted in collective efforts and learning things the hard way.

Steven Johnson's "Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation" is misnamed. Natural history was pioneered by 18th century naturalist Gilbert White, and its blend of scientific fieldwork, travel writing, physical geography and anthropology was meant to convey the majesty and intricate interdependency of God's creation. The time-traveling Johnson overshot his mark by a couple of centuries. "Where Good Ideas Come From" reveals hidden relationships between disparate realms, decodes ancient mysteries, argues that we all have untapped powers and shows how to turn everyday materials into valuable ones. In short, it's a Renaissance alchemical guide.

Granted, the everyday materials Johnson writes about in his fluid, accessible book are not lead or dross, but people, places and very tiny animals. But today's alchemist wouldn't be interested in materials. Recently, Facebook was estimated to be worth about $33 billion, and gold was selling for nearly $1,400 an ounce; that means the social networking company was worth more than 700 tons of gold. We live in a world in which Farmville is worth a lot more than Sutter's Mill.

So what's the philosopher's stone for creativity, the elixir for making innovative places?

A "series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments," Johnson argues, be they companies, cities or coral reefs. Good ideas, whether expressed as patents or paintings or DNA, flourish in liquid networks stocked with old ideas and physical resources that can be cannibalized, recycled and repurposed. Liquid networks give creative groups the chance to explore the "adjacent possible," the new functions or capabilities opened up by incremental innovations; discover new uses for old ideas; and explore potentially fruitful errors.

Finally, they serve as a proving ground for ideas, making it easier to experiment, fail quickly and cheaply and iterate faster. (Maddeningly, though, it's not clear how liquid networks select good ideas. In nature, species thrive when they fit their environments; but good ideas aren't inherently good — they can be counterintuitive and perverse — and "Where Good Ideas Come From" never quite explains whether markets are better than patrons, or tastemakers better than crowds, at identifying them.)

What emerges is a vision of innovation and ideas that is resolutely social, dynamic and material. Despite its trendiness, Johnson's perspective is at times wonderfully, subtly contrarian. Ideas don't spring from the minds of solitary, Galtian geniuses: They may start with smart people, but they're refined, extended and finished by creative cultures that are shaped by their physical environments.

But good ideas also don't emerge magically from crowdsourcing and promiscuous networking; they're slow hunches that "fade into view" during years of reflection, tinkering and exploring dead ends. Creative ferment may be accelerated by the Internet, but place still matters. And innovation is driven much less by competition than by obvious and subtle forms of cooperation: Even the most radical- looking invention builds on old ideas and recycled parts.

Like all of Johnson's books, "Where Good Ideas Comes From" is fluidly written, entertaining and smart without being arcane. But is it any more successful than Renaissance recipes for turning lead into gold? "The more we embrace these patterns" in innovative spaces, Johnson says, "the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking."

I'm not sure it's that easy. Fish might not mind artificial reefs, but humans sure seem to. Efforts to create innovative spaces still yield results that feel like computer animations: bright, sharp and unreal. For example, Frank Gehry designed the Stata Center at MIT to encourage serendipitous connection and intellectual cross-fertilization among computer scientists.

But people are most innovative when they make their own creative spaces and connections, not inhabit someone else's. It's hard to do the kind of appropriation and reinvention of space that supports real innovation when you're working in a building that reflects a creative vision as distinctive as Gehry's.

The surrounding Cambridge neighborhood, on the other hand, is a bricolage of old houses, small factories and warehouses set on streets blazed by cows in the 1600s. It's flexible and can be repurposed endlessly — and it works brilliantly.

In other words, Cambridge (like Hollywood or Silicon Valley) is itself a good idea, the product of serendipitous connections, slow hunches and rich trial and error. If this is so, then creative environments can only be described, not designed. For all its promise to reveal the elixir of innovation, maybe "Where Good Ideas Come From" is a natural history after all.

This is why “cyberspace” matters

It's a powerful conceptual metaphor, to borrow a term from Lakoff and Johnson. Venkatesh Rao explains how metaphors structure our thinking about technology, and can hinder innovation:

As much as we focus on developing new technologies, it is also essential that we break free of certain metaphors that bind and restrict our thinking about what these technologies can ultimately achieve. The familiar “document” metaphor, among others, has cast a long shadow on how we think about the web, and is standing in the way of some innovation.

Consider these terms: page, scroll, file, folder, trash can, bookmark, inbox, email, desktop, library, archive and index. They are all part of the document metaphor, a superset of the “desktop” metaphor. Some elements, such as scroll, desktop and library pre-date the printing press, but all are based on some sort of “marks on paper-like material” reference.

I think you could add to this list a similar set of metaphors that have shaped social media, and in some ways limited it. Think of the use of the term "friend" or "follower," as applied by Facebook and Twitter, respectively. Facebook (and other social networking sites) have been accused of collapsing a wide variety of social connections into a flat category of "friend," making it hard to distinguish between people you're actively socializing with in the real world, people you were friendly with in high school but haven't seen in 25 years, people you don't really care about but don't want to offend, coworkers or superiors, and your family. "Followers" has a sound that I find alternately amusing and creepy, as if I were either a cult leader or target of stalkers.

Back to Rao:

It is important to understand that the document metaphor is more than a UI metaphor. It is in fact a fundamental way of understanding one domain in terms of another. For better or worse, we continue to understand the web in relation to how we understand documents. Unlike figurative metaphors, such as “he was a lion in battle,” which are simple rhetorical statements, conceptual metaphors (a notion introduced in the classic “Metaphors We Live By” by Lakoff and Johnson) like document-ness are pre-linguistic, and quietly ubiquitous. They infiltrate how we think about things on a much more basic level….

It is much easier to create technology that conforms to dominant metaphors. What we need to do as we enter the third decade of the web, however, is consider what we want the web to be rather than awkwardly fitting that vision into older descriptive paradigms.

Easier said than done, of course, but it's essential. Perhaps this is one of the reasons user co-creation or reinvention has become such a thing: users may be more likely to engage in this conceptual reframing than inventors and marketers, who spend a lot of time defining products.

Finally, it's worth noting that the whole industry of strategic marketing, as envisioned by people like Regis McKenna and Geoffrey Moore, was intended to define the conceptual metaphors in ways that would help people decide to buy products.

Four secrets of innovation

My latest piece, “Four Secrets of Innovation,” appears in this month’s U.S. State Department-sponsored eJournalUSA. Naturally it starts with one of my usual historical references:

In today’s innovation-obsessed, knowledge-intensive global economy, it might come as a surprise that for most of their long histories, science and business have had almost nothing to do with each other. Had you suggested to a silversmith working in ancient China, a captain plying the spice trade during the Age of Exploration, or a Quaker brewer in 18th-century Philadelphia that science could improve commerce, he would have looked at you as if you were crazy. Even today, describing the relationship between science and business — and figuring out how science and industrial policy can be designed to work to the benefit of both parties — is a challenge….

So we seem to be entering a new age in which science is more important for innovation than ever, but is more unpredictable and harder to benefit from. In an age that values innovation, companies and countries have a harder time than ever encouraging and profiting from science.

But does that mean that science policy is now impossible? Certainly not, and successful regions and countries have learned several secrets.

So what are the four secrets? Go read it and find out.

[To the tune of Robert Plant & Alison Krauss, “Rich Woman,” from the album Raising Sand (I give it 3 stars).]

Reflections on tinkering

I spent a really stimulating day yesterday at the Tinkering as a Mode of Knowledge conference, listening and talking to people like Dale Dougherty (founder of Make Magazine, the Maker Faire, etc.), Mitch Resnik (MIT Media Lab), Rick Prelinger (the Prelinger Library and online film collection), Anne Balsamo, and others. We’re meeting for part of today, but I wanted to start reflecting on yesterday’s discussion; and in particular, I want to get at the question of what tinkering is. Is it a unified body of practices? Is it a distinct set of skills? is it an historical moment? Is it just a trendy name? This is something we spent a fair amount of time discussing, either formally or informally, and the answer is: It’s all of those. I also thinking there are a couple other important things that define tinkering.

What is Tinkering?

You can define tinkering in part in contrast to other activities. Mitch Resnick, for example, talks about how traditional technology-related planning is top-down, linear, structured, abstract, and rules-based, while tinkering is bottom-up, iterative, experimental, concrete, and object-oriented. (Resnick is very big on creating toys that invite tinkering.)

Anne Balsamo and Perry Hoberman have looked at a wide variety of tinkering activities, ranging from circuit bending to paper prototyping to open source to blogging. They argue that these varied activities are unified by a common set of principles or practices. (The following are just highlights.)

  • Tinkerers improvise, iterate, and improve constantly.
  • Tinkerers use materials at hand, combining heterogeneous parts and components (e.g., raw and finished materials, handmade and industrial objects, customized and personalized consumer products) in ways that push beyond the boundaries of their original contexts. As a result, tinkered objects tend to be collages, appropriations, and montages. Tinkering is bricolage.
  • Tinkerers are also social animals. Their success depends in part on being able to tap into porous and ad-hoc communities. For most of what they do the manual is useless; other tinkerers are the only ones who are likely to have the information you need.

Tinkering isn’t so much a specific set of technical skills: there tends to be a pretty instrumental view of knowledge. You pick up just enough knowledge about electronics, textiles, metals, programming, or paper-folding to figure out how to do what you want. It certainly respects skill, but skills are a means, not an end: mastery isn’t the point, as it is for professionals. Competence and completion are.

Is Tinkering Shallow or Deep?

One of the things I talked with several people (Mike Kuniavsky in particular) about was how historically specific tinkering is. The deeper question is, is this just a flash in the pan, a trendy name without any substance underneath? The answer we came up with is that this is like a musical style, both the product of specific historical forces, and an expression of something deeper and more fundamental. (Think of jazz: you can talk about how it emerges in the early 20th century out of blues, ragtime, and other previous musical forms, reflects particular sociological and historical trends, and is guided by certain assumptions about beauty and what music is; but at the same time, it definitely expresses a deeper impulse to create music.)

Think of the historically contingent forces shaping tinkering first. I see several things influencing it:

  • The counterculture. Around here, countercultural attitudes towards technology– explored by John Markoff in What the Dormouse Said (here’s my review of it), Theodore Roszak (his Satori to Silicon Valley is still one of the best essays on the historical relationship between the counterculture and personal computing) are still very strong, and the assumption that technologies should be used by people for personal empowerment. Tinkering bears a family resemblance to the activities embodied in the Whole Earth Catalog.
  • Agile software. Mike sees some similarities between agile software development and tinkering; in particular, both are attempts to break out of traditional, hard-to-scale ways of creating things.
  • The EULA rebellion. The fact that you’re forbidden from opening a box, that some software companies insist that you’re just renting their products, and that hardware makers intentionally cripple their devices, is a challenge to hackers and tinkerers. Tinkering is defined in part in terms of a resistance to consumer culture and the restrictive policies of corporations.
  • Users as Innovators. The fundamental assumption that users can do cool, worthwhile, inspiring, innovative things is a huge driver. Tinkering is partly an answer to the traditional assumption that people who buy things are “consumers”– passive, thoughtless, and reactive, people whose needs are not only served by companies, but are defined by them as well. When you tinker, you don’t just take control of your stuff; you begin to take control of yourself. (John Thackara talks about user innovation wonderfully in his book In the Bubble. As C. K. Prahalad argues, this isn’t a phenomenon restricted to users who are high-tech geeks: companies serving the base of the pyramid see the poor as innovators.)
  • Open source. Pretty obvious. This is an ideological inspiration, and a social one: open source software development is a highly collective process that has created some interesting mechanisms for incorporating individual work into a larger system, while still providing credit and social capital for developers.
  • The shift from means to meaning. This is a term that my Innovation Lab friends came up with a few years ago. Tinkering is a way of investing new meanings in things, or creating objects that mean something: by putting yourself into a device, or customizing it to better suit your needs, you’re making that thing more meaningful. (Daniel Pink also talks about it in his book A Whole New Mind, on the shift from the Information Age to the Conceptual Age. The geodesic dome is a great example of a technology whose meaning was defined– and redefined– by users.)
  • From manual labor to manual leisure. Finally, I wouldn’t discount the fact that you can see breaking open devices as a leisure activity, rather than something you do out of economic necessity, as influencing the movement. Two hundred years ago, tinkering as a social activity– as something that you did as an act of resistance, curiosity, participation in a social movement, expression of a desire to invest things with meaning– just didn’t exist: it’s what you did with stuff in order to survive the winter. Even fifty years ago, there was an assumption that “working with your hands” defined you as lower class: “My son won’t work with his hands” was an aspiration declaration. Today, though, when many of us work in offices or stores, and lift things or run for leisure, manual labor can become a form of entertainment.

No doubt there are other sources you could point to– microentrepreneurship or the growth of “jobbies,” the presence of an infrastructure that supports the sharing and tracking of unique handmade things (from eBay to ThingLink).

Does Tinkering Matter?

That’s a pretty varied list. And it suggests that tinkering is more than a local, Valley, geek leisure thing.

First, tinkering is a powerful form of learning. Even if it doesn’t stress mastery of skills, tinkering does emphasize learning how to use your hands, learning how to use materials, and to engage with the physical world rather than the world of software or Second Life– though tinkering does share a sensibility toward the world that lots of kids demonstrate to programs and virtual worlds: you just get in there, hit buttons, and see what happens.

This really matters because you can be creative with stuff in ways you can’t with bits, and that the more you understand the possibilities and limitations or materials– or more abstractly, if you learn how to develop that knowledge– the smarter you become. In this respect, it dovetails with “a little-noticed movement in the world of professional design and engineering” that Gregg Zachary wrote about a few weeks ago: “a renewed appreciation for manual labor, or innovating with the aid of human hands.” (I write about this at greater length on End of Cyberspace.)

Second, tinkering is forward-looking. It’s partly about how we’ll use and interact with technologies in the future. As much as any loose movement can be described this way, tinkering is a set of anticipatory practices, aimed at developing a sensibility about the future. It’s a way to develop skills that are going to matter in the Conceptual Age, in the ubiquitous computing world. As we move into a world in which we can manufacture things as cheaply as we print them, the skills that tinkerers develop– not just their ability to play with stuff, or to use particular tools, but to share their ideas and improve on the ideas of others– will be huge. (I talk about this some in an article in Samsung’s DigitAll Magazine.)

Finally, tinkering is an expression of the nature of our engagement with technology. If you buy the argument of Andy Clark that we are natural-born cyborgs, you can see tinkering as a form of co-evolution with technology, or a kind of symbiotic activity.

[Update 5/29/2009: I just published a new piece on tinkering and the future in Vodafone’s Receiver Magazine. Check it out!]

Amabile and Khaire on creativity and leadership

From Teresa M. Amabile and Mukti Khaire, “Creativity and the Role of the Leader:”

  [T]here is a role for management in the creative process; it is just different from what the traditional work of management might suggest…. One doesn’t manage creativity. One manages for creativity.

[via metacool]

Phase Z.Ro

As I was walking down the hill from Biopolis, I saw a little development between the Ministry of Education and the subway stop: several yellow buildings that announced themselves as the Phase Z.Ro, a “technopreneur park.”


via flickr

If Biopolis seemed familiar, an attempt to outdo Western scientific facilities on their own terms, Z.Ro (get it?) struck me as something potentially quite different.

For one thing, the place makes your average Silicon Valley tilt-up look like Versailles. Each three two-story building is made of prefabricated panels, making them look like cargo containers that have been painted yellow, had windows and doors punched in them, and wired with AC and Cat-6 cable.


cargo container chic, via flickr

It’s easy to dismiss such a modest place, but maybe this is the social equivalent of a disruptive innovation. Maybe the real future of innovation isn’t in glittering science cities like Biopolis, but in grittier places like this?


in the shadow of biopolis (that’s helios in the background), via flickr

Biopolis and the new urban science

I spent last week in Singapore, speaking at a conference on RFID in Asia, and visiting with various futures groups in the Singaporean government. But the thing I was really looking forward to doing in my free time was not shopping (though the shopping is very good), nor the food (which was excellent): rather, it was the chance to see Biopolis.


biopolis sky bridge, via flickr

Biopolis is one of the cornerstones in the Singaporean government’s effort to turn the city-state into a regional (indeed, global) center for biotech research. Novartis and SKB already occupy parts of two buildings; five others are mainly occupied by labs run by A*Star; and two more are under construction. Over the long run, they want to build more local talent in the basic sciences underlying biotech, and support the development of a native biotech companies.


map of biopolis, via flickr

Not only is it architecturally very exciting– the best contemporary Singaporean architecture is all post-Rem Koolhaus and Zaha Hadid swooping lines and glass, Biopolis also beautifully exemplifies a couple trends in the design of spaces for science that Anthony Townsend and I wrote about in the 2006 Ten Year Forecast (warning: it’s a huge PDF– 24MB).

Thirty years ago, if you were going to build a Biopolis, you probably would have chosen a tract of land on the edge of a city, or in some bucolic setting. Land was cheaper out there, and zoning laws were often more negotiable. You’d give your researchers quiet, so they could think seriously; they’d also be easier to protect from industrial spies.

Today, all of those assumptions have been rethought. In many cases, an urban setting is more attractive. For one thing, cities are more aggressive about pursuing R&D facilities, often as cornerstones of urban redevelopment projects. Biopolis is a 5-minute walk to the Ministry of Education (important because of the need to bring more of a biological emphasis in the school curriculum), and short bus rides to National University of Singapore.



via flickr

Companies are also less likely to assume that research will somehow find its way into new products; today’s spaces mix research, product development, and other functions, with the aim of making research more applications-minded, and getting new discoveries to market more quickly. There’s also an assumption that mixing together different functional lines, or researchers in related areas, will encourage more intellectual cross-pollination.



biopolis sky bridge, via flickr

Cities are also attractive for quality of life reasons: today’s young, hip researcher doesn’t want to be in the middle of nowhere, but in a Richard Florida-certified creative zone.

In the center of Biopolis is a pedestrian axis imaginatively named “Epicentre.” (All the buildings have cool-sounding, somewhat scientific-yet-ancient, names: Nanos, Chronos, Centros, Genome, Proteos, Matrix, Helios. At first I thought the names were kind of a stretch– the sorts of names you’d assign to extras in a movie that was an evil combination of Blade Runner and 300— but they’re not so bad.) It’s got several very nice restaurants, a food court (a ubiquitous feature of urban life in Singapore), a cafe, dry cleaners, bank, and hair stylist. (There’s also child care on-site, but it’s elsewhere.)

water sculpture, epicentre, via flickr

Partly this is an attempt to create a little urban microcosm, and make it easy for people to never leave, but it’s also an effort to create a public space where people from different labs can meet up.



water sculpture, epicentre, via flickr

The Bioinformatics Institute is another central meeting-place, as a 2003 Nature article remarked:

Walkways join the… A*Star institutes to one that is central — both literally and figuratively — to them all, the BII, which will provide informatics support to all of the surrounding institutes. Emphasizing the BII’s importance, its building also houses the Biopolis cafeteria and lecture halls. “Everyone has to come to the BII for the seminars and the meals,” says Gunaretnam Rajagopal, the institute’s acting executive director.



via flickr

Finally, new science spaces take advantage of the city as an experimental subject. Lots of computer science and wireless researchers are locating in downtowns, or urban redevelopments, because they want to be able to prototype new technologies in urban environments, get easy access to beta-testers, or watch how people use and interact with technologies.

The relationship between Biopolis and Singapore is a little different, but arguably more profound. Biopolis is both a microcosm– a city within the city– and a space to develop the skills that Singapore sees as important for its future economic growth. The design of Biopolis is intended to attract and inspire world-class scientists; those scientists and facilities will foster the growth of a national biotech community; and that community will help drive the next phase of Singapore’s economic growth. Urban space, innovation, and the future all play off each other: the science city becomes the template for the science-driven city of the future.

(Many more pictures are available on Flickr.)

© 2017 Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, Ph.D.

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