2014 IIT Institute of Design Strategy Conference - Day 1 Recap

by New Idiom

Guest contributor Alorah Harman is a design strategist at THE MEME design, a design innovation consultancy in Cambridge, MA.

IIT's annual Strategy Conference is in session, and the first day marked a host of fantastic speakers who pushed conference participants to think on topics such as future-focused frameworks for design and business, finding the right blend of intuitive-analytical thinking, and designing for privacy in a big data era.

Early morning, participants filter in.

Patrick Whitney, dean of IIT ID and conference chair, kicked us off bright and early Wednesday morning at the Spertus Institute, introducing IIT's president for opening remarks. In light of the spate of travel chaos that impacted O'Hare and Midway on Tuesday, catching some out-of-state participants off guard, cracks about aviation and delays cropped up throughout the morning program

The first keynote was Jim Hackett, longtime CEO of Steelcase, retired this year. Framing his talk in the context of wicked problems and the era of big data, Jim introduced a series of forward-looking frameworks for companies who want to get ahead and stay ahead. Similar to the hockey mantra 'Skate where the puck's going to be,' Jim says "we can triangulate to the future to be where it will go," skipping the step of trying to catch up by moving faster. These days, says Jim, it's not enough to compete. Using the analogy of how he had to adapt to working with people in different time zones during international travel, mentally keep track of those parallel contexts, he suggested that CEOs need to learn to think in different phases simultaneously. Great companies need to keep their minds on a 0-3 years in the future phase, a 3-5 years in the future phase, and a 5-10 years in the future phase just as one might keep track of 3 different clocks.

Following Jim's talk was Roger Martin, academic director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the Rotman School of management in Toronto, where he spends his time disrupting business education. Roger's talk hinged around a single visual: a sketch of the design thinking overlap space between "business" and "design" temperaments. Stepping through over 8 ways of reframing this important middle ground, he shared perspective from his varied work on integrative thinking and business design strategy. Responding to a recent article that declared "the MFA is the new MBA," Roger quipped "Well good luck to you if it is. About 300,000 MBAs graduate each year, and around 15,000 MFAs graduate each year, so if it is, we're not going to have enough of them." He also pointed to the need to reform education on design as far back as grade school, where a child can opt out of art as early as 5th grade.

Russell Redenbaugh of Kairos Capital Advisors shared his inspiring story in a talk on "shifting the narrative." After a childhood accident that left him blind and missing several fingers, he says he was able to accomplish his great feats -- including being the first blind student to finish Wharton (in the top percentile of his class) and the reigning Jiujitsu champion in his weight class at two world tournaments (not to mention silver and bronze medalist in the unlimited weight class) -- by actively designing the narrative he wished to live by. Similarly, he explained, "designers are designing the narrative or story that their customers will live in." In this talk, Russell spoke to the challenges of changing our own narratives, let alone the narratives of others, and the opportunities that lie in crafting the right stories.

We also saw a fireside chat style discussion between Patrick Whitney, Roger Martin, and the irrepressible Don Norman, grandfather of human-centered design. In this conversation, the speakers bantered and traded insights about their current initiatives (Roger's work at Rotman and Don's recent decision to create a design program at UCSD ), discussing topics such as the future of design education, the future of business education, the purpose of large corporations today, and the challenges internal R+D facilities face in such corporations. It's always an opportunity to see great minds speaking candidly about complex issues. 

Following lunch, Chris Gladwin, founder of Cleversafe, also spoke on the topic of Big Data, highlighting themes such as designing for new complexity and the need to develop new innovations for storing and parsing massive amounts of information. Using the analogy of how our main method of transferring information switched from telephony to the internet, he explained the mechanics behind the shift from traditional storage to dispersed (cloud) storage. "People don't delete data anymore. The cost of deleting is greater than the cost of keeping it."

Kim's recent book, Communicating The New, is available for purchase at the conference pop-up shop

Kim Erwin, professor at IIT, built on topics from earlier in the day by pushing the focus from big data ("n=all") to "big personal data" ("n=1"). Bringing us back to qualitative vs. quantitative, she pointed out that concerns of data scientists (e.g. clean data) are generally quite different than concerns of the rest of us (e.g. "whats worth knowing?"), and emphasized the need to insert a human-centered process into the quantitative analysis currently leading the field. To illustrate, she told a captivating story highlighting a recent research project of ID students Maggee Bond and Ashika Jain. Assigned to study task-switching behaviors on laptops and mobile phones, the students used tracking/sensing software to generate a massive amount of data on only two research participants. The end result turned out to be highly refined computational data in the form of a visual pattern language (representing behavioral activity) specific to each participant. (As an analogy, Kim compared the participant-specific, time-based patterns to sheet music.) Ultimately, the students invented a hybrid qualitative/quantitative process for dealing with large amounts of data; one that could be repeated, refined, and potentially developed into a powerful algorithm. The idea is suggestive to say the least.

John Byrne, chairman and editor-in-chief of C-Change Media Inc., led a compelling talk on the topic of introducing a user-centered content design process to a field where it's been traditionally absent: journalism. Previously editor-in-chief at both BusinessWeek.com and FastCompany magazine, John shared perspective on the role of a journalist as more than one who delivers facts, but instead one with a responsibility to deliver an opinion attached to those facts, gained from the (often) qualitative process of interpreting them in context as part of deep research. A question John is exploring, which he remains optimistic about, is whether it is possible to maintain a level of unbiased rigor while acknowledging the needs and aspirations of the reader to a greater extent than traditionally practiced in the discipline.

Lori Andrews, distinguished Professor of Law at IIT, rounded out the program with a provocative talk on "Privacy by Design." Touring us through increasingly unnerving violations in privacy perpetuated by large companies, apps, advertisers, and even school districts, she pointed out how few pieces of data someone needs to be able to identify us (often as few as these benign three: zip code, birthdate, and gender). She also pressed the audience to think about the deal often given to us by companies: give up privacy in exchange for using their services. "What if it were some other human right? Would you give up the right to vote? Or what about the right to reproduce? … Can 13 year olds give up a right?" She concluded her discussion by emphasizing that companies need to be thinking about building in privacy through every step of product development.

After the collection of great talks, the day ended with a reception up on the ninth floor where ID students gave conference participants a sneak peak of their final projects.