Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Arlene Blum: Earth Day Hero

There are two ways you may have heard of Arlene Blum, as a consumer product safety researcher focusing on the removal of toxic chemicals or as a mountain climber.  Either way, it is clear she is up for big challenges.

With a PhD in biophysical chemistry from U.C. Berkeley, she co-authored a ground breaking research paper that led to a federal ban on flame retardants in kid's pajamas.  The ban removed both brominated and chlorinated Tris from use, a major environmental safety achievement in the late 70's.  Around the same time, she also became well known in the international mountaineering world, when she led the first all women ascent on Annapurna in Nepal, at 26,545 feet, one of the top ten tallest mountains, and statistically rated most dangerous.

Eight years ago she founded the Green Science Policy Institute at U.C. Berkeley and launched a series of campus seminars on "The Fire Retardant Dilemma."  The Institute's stated purpose is to provide unbiased scientific data to government, industry, and non-governmental organizations to facilitate informed decision making about the use of chemical in consumer products.  Their primary focus has been the modification of flammability requirements for the California Technical Bulletin, TB-117, which regulates furniture flame resistance, and AB-127 which Governor Brown signed in 2013 directing the State Fire Marshal to review code requirements regarding flame retardants in foam building insulation.  These actions are fueled by her published research that has shown that code required flame retardants used in furniture and foam building insulation do not provide the intended fire safety.  Further, the research shows that the retardants result in toxic smoke in the event of a fire, and that their long term environmental and human effects are or may be persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic.  This evidence should influence policy and architectural practices, particularly with regard to the selection and specification of furniture and building insulation products.

Arlene's research and advocacy about the impact of these chemicals (more info in this U.C. Berkeley news article), show her to be a relentless and tireless fighter to improve the environment.  She is my nominee for a true, Earth Day Hero, and someone we should all recognize and learn from.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Interaction or Interruption?

I recently tweeted links to a discussion on the HDR Blog regarding solitude and collaboration in the workplace.  Some of the research cited there, was from a Steelcase study, Balancing 'We' and 'Me': The Best Collaborative Spaces also Support Solitudepublished in the Harvard Business Review last October.  Here are some of the arguments and evidence for more private working environments that balance we and me.

'The open office has a lot of critics these days.  But it remains the dominant form of workplace design for a reason:  It can foster collaboration, promote learning, and nurture a strong culture.  It's the right idea; unfortunately, it's often poorly executed - even as a way to support collaboration.
Organizations responded by shifting their real estate allocations towards open spaces that support collaboration and shrinking areas for individual work.  But the pendulum may have swung too far:  Our research now suggests that once again, people feel a pressing need for more privacy, not only to do heads-down work but to cope with the intensity of how work happens today.
While privacy means different things in different cultures, our study showed that workplace satisfaction and engagement are deeply connected to a sense of control over one's environment.
As organizations come to understand the need for privacy at work, they must also recognize that privacy does not compromise collaboration.  By improving privacy you can actually enrich and strengthen collaborative activities.
Open offices are not inherently good or bad.  The key to successful workspaces is to empower individuals by giving them choices that allow control over their work environment.' 

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

The Truth about Breakthrough Strategies

While this title appears a bit bold, the blog that came out recently from Strategy+Business does offer some good and straight forward advice regarding innovation and breakthrough strategies.  Much has been written about the approaches and environments that support design innovation, but I think this piece is an excellent summary.  The article offers a number of innovation stories and strategies and, while each strategy is distinctive, they all share common characteristics which can be boiled down to four points.

1.  All appear to have started with flashes of insight prompted by working on big problems.
2.  Research indicates that innovative strategies are sparked by precedents from unexpected places.
3.  Breakthrough strategies always involve a 'creative combination'.
4.  Breakthrough strategies are created by people, not companies.

This quote from the end of the story ties it all together.

'So what does all this tell us about breakthrough strategies?  They rarely come from a typical strategic planning effort.  Nor do they typically result from the common practice of generating and evaluating strategic options. ...  Instead, they start with individuals working on big, specific challenges who find novel ideas in unexpected places, creatively combine them into innovative strategies, and personally take those strategies to fruition--against all odds.'

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Rules of Business vs Laws of Nature: 1948 Donora Smog

I find it interesting when one event brings an awareness that triggers and reinforces others in quick and overlapping ways.  It can be called serendipity.  For me the collision that I want to share includes E.B. White, Donora, PA and Amy Larkin, the author of Environmental Debt, the Hidden Costs of a Changing Global Economy.

Over the weekend I was reading from a book of essays by E.B. White and happened on an essay, Sootfall and Fallout, which was originally published in the New Yorker in 1956.  The essay played out his growing concern at the time with industrial pollution and global contamination resulting from above ground nuclear testing.  This story penned well before the modern American environmental movement had gathered much momentum and gives an interesting historical perspective.  Some excerpts from the essay give his concerned perspective.

'I think Man's gradual, creeping contamination of the planet, his sending up of dust into the air, his strontium additive in our bones, his discharge of industrial poisons into rivers that once flowed clear, his mixing of chemical with fog on the east wind add up to a fantasy of such grotesque proportions as to make everything said on the subject pale and anemic by contrast.  I hold one share in the corporate earth and am uneasy about the management.' 

'I belong to a small, unconventional school that believes that no rat poison is the correct amount to spread in the kitchen where children and puppies can get at it.  I believe that no chemical waste is the correct amount of discharge into fresh rivers of the world, and I believe that if there is a way to treat fumes from factory chimneys, it should be against the law to set these deadly fumes adrift where they can mingle with fog and, given the right conditions, suddenly turn an area into another Donora, Pa.' 

While I had some sense and historical knowledge of the concerns that E.B. White exposed, I had no knowledge of the chemical fog that enveloped Donora sixty six years ago.  So after a little investigation, I discovered that the tragic events at Donora have been credited with the increased environmental awareness that eventually resulted in the first Clean Air Act in 1963 and its subsequent amendments.  One of the best summary articles, 'A Cloud with a Silver Lining: the Killer Smog in Donora, 1948' tells this story of environmental insensitivity.

Donora at that time was a small, 14,000 resident, steel town with two major mills, American Steel and Wire and Donora Zinc Works, employing 6,500 people, located south of Pittsburgh on the Monongahela River.  For five days, starting on October 26, a temperature inversion trapped all the steel industrial emissions and created a dense, acrid yellowish fog that initially killed 20 people, sickened 6,000 others and left a trail of chronic illness.  Long after the fog was broken on Halloween by a rainstorm, the debate raged over the blame and responsibility.  Some cited nature, the temperature inversion, as the cause and others blamed the businesses for the unhealthy emissions from the mills.  Strange as it may seem even to this day, the reports from the Public Health Service concluded that the deaths and illness in Donora were due to the temperature inversion and seen as a 'freak of nature' while the steel companies called it an 'act of God.'  The steel companies did make some reparations but they never admitted responsibility.

These conflicting and conflicted perspectives are underscored today in Amy Larkin's book that focuses on aligning the rules of business and the laws of nature.  Among many business/environmental topics, she cites air pollution costs in U.S. healthcare as greater than those of tobacco, and as largely a public cost and not one assigned to sources.  This data is hard to understand now that we are fifty years beyond the initial Clean Air Act.  In her Nature means Business Framework, the first principle she advances is that pollution can on longer be free or subsidized.  This is the battlefield where the true cost must be assigned to the source.  Clean air is certainly still one of the challenges of our times.

Donora smog at noon
But let's return to Donora to see how one great nature/business paradox played out.  Not long after the tragic events, families that could evacuate or migrate did, and housing values dropped starting a long decline.  By 1956, the Zinc Works closed and by 1966, after the passage of the first Clean Air Act and numerous labor strikes, the remaining steel plants closed.  Formerly known as the 'Home of Champions' due to athletes like Stan Musial and Ken Griffey, today Donora has been reduced to a struggling community of about 5,000 residents with a monument to the fog in the Donora Smog Museum, and the prospect of further environmental issues related to gas extraction from the Marcellus shale.  As one long time Donora resident stated in an interview for a 2009 NPR story on clean air, 'We here in Donora say this episode was the beginning of the environmental movement. These folks gave their lives so we can have clean air.'

Thursday, October 23, 2014

Measure What Matters

The attached article, Return Policy, in Architect Magazine, is a reminder that learning design organizations need to measure what matters to them.  If what matters is high performance buildings and spaces that foster the performance of users, then as the article highlights, a post-occupancy evaluation can be an effective technique to measure that performance.

Citing best practice recommendations from three design firms, the article lays out both methods and strategies focused on revisiting the spaces that you have designed and built.  Janice Barnes from Perkins and Will sets out a perspective on bringing post-occupancy into a design practice. She offers four key steps a designer should take to create effective evaluations that both provide design direction and measure design effectiveness.

1.  Make sure it's a priority.  Does your firm have a mindset that this is important?  Because if not, it will always be pushed aside.

2.  Don't reinvent the wheel.  Invest once in developing a consistent protocol that includes a diverse set of tools for research and evaluation, such as focus groups, interviews, surveys and on-site visits.

3.  Refine your standard protocol for specific industries.  Consider the issues that consistently arise in that typology and build the necessary research into the process.

4.  Get the protocol evaluated.  Perkins and Will established their standardized PPOE and then vetted it through a research university.

Barnes offers a further insight that the key to successful post-occupancy evaluation is actually the pre-occupancy research.

'In order for the (POE) data that you're collecting to give you valid results, you have to first measure the problem you're solving, then design to solve that problem, and finally see if you solved it.  It's collected data pre- and post-occupancy.  That's why (at our firm) we call it PPOE instead of POE.'

While there are a number of factors that may make it complicated to integrate POE's into practice, the benefits to clients and design firms are becoming more clear.  In order for our practice to grow and learn, no matter what POE method is used, designers need to know how well their design solutions are addressing the challenges they have set out to solve for and with their clients.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Design is a Research Process

In the last few years there have been a number of articles focused on the integration of research into the design process. The majority of these articles have been framed from the perspective of a healthcare practice, however a design research perspective is applicable to any client project.  Two of these articles: How to Convert Key Design Issues into Research Questions by Mardelle Shepley and 6 Steps to Integrate Research into Healthcare Design by Upali Nanda and Tom Harvey offer advice from experienced researchers and practitioners regarding the challenge of integrating research into design and making it a formative part of the process.

As you look at the articles you will see that Mardelle Shepley acknowledges that designers are prolific generators of research topics, and that these important design questions are formed during the programming phase when primary design goals are formed. She shows how a design goal can become a design hypothesis by identifying examples of goals, defining components of a hypothesis and then sharing examples from three case studies. Her case study examples are particularly useful for taking a typical, somewhat general design goal, and crafting it into a design hypothesis which identifies a clear design feature and states a clear outcome. From my experience, this is one of the most important steps in clarifying design intentions.

In the second article Upali Nanda and Tom Harvey from HKS/CADRE take on many of the
same practice issues, but make an effort to link research issues with traditional design
phases. Their simplified framework is broken into six steps which are summarized and displayed in a graphic to show how the steps interface with typical design phases.

1. TARGET - Create designs based on key performance goals of the organization: set targets based on important client goals and define performance metrics to assess these goals.

2. EXPLORE/EXPERIMENT - Gather knowledge, understand users, simulate scenarios and test prototypes using tools that balance technology with empathy : explore and experiment with the potential of design options to answer design goals and design questions leading to a design hypothesis.

3. DEFINE - Link design solution to performance hypothesis: every design decision is a performance hypothesis and based upon project importance can be crafted into a clear testable hypothesis.

4. MEASURE - Identify key metrics for design and performance and collect baseline data. All measures are not quantitative: match design phase metrics/simulations with outcomes/performance metrics.

5. MONITOR - Ensure design is implemented as planned, aiming for targeted performance goals: track the project through documentation and construction to protect design features and hypotheses.

6. TEST - Test the hypothesis: to what extent did the project achieve the outcomes hypothesized and why? Remember that design doesn't "cause" improved outcomes; it creates compelling conditions for improved outcomes.

Both articles provide a useful perspectives to explore design as a research process.  Mardelle sums it all up at the end of her article.

"The generation of hypotheses during the design process is likely to clarify design thinking, support problem solving, and provide the base for potential research." 

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Go With The Flow

The introductory paragraph of this article by Steven Kotler, author of The Rise of Superman, caught my attention as an important area of useful design practices.
'Researchers define flow as an “optimal state of consciousness,” a peak state where we feel our best and perform at our best. Some of us know this state by other names--”runner’s high” or “being in the zone” or, if you happen to be a jazz musician like John Coltrane, then it’s “in the pocket” -- but whatever the lingo, the experience is unforgettable.'
The focus of Kotler’s book and this article is to break down the scientific research on high performance, decant the critical factors or triggers and share these triggers so that individuals and organizations can utilize it to create more flow. In fact a major point he makes is that assessing the amount of time employees spend in flow is “the most important management metric for building great innovation teams”.

Flow triggers are broken into four categories: environmental, psychological, social and creative. Many of the seventeen triggers are well known and are also linked to some of my own research into defining critical success factors in design projects.  Kotler states that over one hundred years of research shows that flow sits at the heart of every athletic championship, underpins major scientific breakthroughs, accounts for significant progress in the Arts, and recently has become exceptionally critical to business.

As you study the triggers you will see their importance to the business of successful design teams, including shared clear goals, good communication, equal participation, blending of egos, familiarity, rich environment, serious concentration, an element of risk and immediate feedback.

Kotler offers this final advice at the end of the article.
'One of the most well-established facts about flow is that the state is ubiquitous--meaning it shows up anywhere, in anyone, provided certain initial conditions are met.  What are these conditions?  These 17 triggers.  It really is that straight forward.'