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Complain. Consume. Create.

The first two are easy – complain and consume. But the third, which is where the solutions are, is the most difficult. It’s easy to buy anything these days. A phone. A car. A television. Then complain about all the things that are wrong with it. But to create anything new requires extraordinary effort and the willingness to be wrong. So most of us will spend all our lives doing the easy things – and very little doing the most difficult thing

Let’s start with the complaints. Everything is wrong. Schools don’t work. Traffic is bad. Governments are corrupt. Business destroys resources. Hospitals are the scourge of the earth. Religion polarises people. Young people have lost their direction. This is something we all discuss since we experience some aspect of this in day to day life. But we are content to leave it to those who supposedly have the power and the solutions – the government. How many initiatives do we take up on our own and then champion them? Hardy anything, since the process of change, is long, mystifying and frustrating.

We’re very happy to consume. The latest phones. The biggest blockbusters. The flashiest cars. The king sized burgers. The palatial houses. The pizza with ten extra toppings. The designer dresses. The glittering jewels. The procession of cities through airplane and train windows on package travel tours. Life, in other words, is best when it is a never-ending shopping trip.Or so some people believe. Complaining about the way the world is helps to blow off steam and reduce stress levels. Consumption does make us happy in the short term, at least until the gloss and the excitement of the purchase blow over.

But creation is different. When Salman Khan set out to teach his cousins mathematics and put up those scrawly tuitions on YouTube, he had no idea that he would be redefining education in a fundamental way. He had not set out to change the world. He simply solved the problem of distance, time and repetition required to learn a subject by making it available to his cousins to learn – 24/7. Not within the confines of a classroom, but anywhere in the world. In the process, he redefined the problem of creating millions of great teachers to one of creating access because, with Khan Academy’s system, a million students can learn at the same time.

If you Google for inventions that changed the world, the results are startling The first ball point pen did not appear until 1950 – and now about 14 million are sold every day. The bicycle was invented only around 1820 or so. The bra was not around before 1913. The button was invented in prehistoric times, but the buttonhole came into being only in the 13th century! Did that leap actually require over 1000 years of thought? And it took 200 years after the lead pencil was invented to dream up the eraser! The paper clip, an essential part of every office and liberally quoted as an icon of design excellence was invented only in 1892.

Just goes to prove that we are great when it comes to consumption. I’ll leave the truth about complaining to your judgement. If only we created more than we complain or consume, the world would be a far better place!

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Passive research

The idea that simply asking people questions gets the right answers is open to debate. In surveys, people say things they don’t mean, do diametrically opposite things from what they say. So, is there an alternative? A company called Affinnova calls it evolutionary design. The research does not ask people what they prefer about a product. They simply present them with hundreds of design options and ask them to pick the ones they like. Turns out that it is a far better indicator of preferences than regular answers. When the need to articulate an answer is removed, people are more truthful.

Sounds crazy, right? But that’s the exact way we go about our purchases. We pick out products that catch our eye. So, by observing behaviour, we get a much better idea about response than by checking with questions. Which sets the stage for passive research – analysing the data we generate doing what we do every day. Travelling, Making calls. Surfing the net. Buying things online. Checking in at locations. Online ad networks know what we are interested in – and serve us more of the same. It’s getting better at predicting what we will buy – and what we won’t. Which explains the uproar and the response from developers who do not want privacy controls legislated.

But the other benefits of a highly networked world are just getting clearer. What is the asthma footprint of the world? A site called Asthmapolis has GPS inhaler trackers that record when it is used. Combine all of this and you get a clear picture of how the climate is affecting asthma sufferers – without asking them a single question. Or the T-Drive research project from Microsoft – it tracks the routes taken by cab drivers to get to a destination by combining the benefits of GPS with real-world experience. In the process, it throws up routes that are normally not considered. Somehow, researching what we really do seems to provide far better insights that what we say.

Edited: 26th June 2020: Today, I heard from a company demystifying innovation. The word has several connotations and the approach they have taken is to build a process around it. Here’s an excerpt: The stereotypical notion of smart people in lab coats churning out patents and potions is perhaps a common one, and yet it fails to tell the whole story, as innovation can also cover everything from novel business models to new processes. It can be incremental and sustaining just as much as it can be radical and disruptive.