Monday, September 26, 2011

Rolling Fat: A Motor Trend

Recently in the gym, I picked up a magazine to read while I warmed up on the bike. In a recent Motor Trend magazine, I happened upon an article,Technologue: Rolling Fat: Is Our Auto-Centric Lifestyle Making Us Obese?

As I’m burning off some calories, I find some recent research by Sheldon Jacobson, a Professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois, linking automobile use and adult obesity. Their trend analysis of vehicle miles driven divided by the number of licensed drivers from 1985 to 2007 highly correlated (98 %) with annual obesity rate information from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention.

While there are many candidates for blame in the spiraling epidemic of obesity in the U.S., Jacobson submits that the number one source is our staple of modern life that we can’t seem to live without – the automobile. As he points out in the article, “Obesity is an energy imbalance, and driving is one of the lowest energy expenditure activities we do in any day.” But what can we really do about such a fundamental part of the nation’s daily routine? Is it possible to continue our driving patterns and still eliminate obesity? The research team sees this topic as complex requiring that we, as a society, will have to rethink the way we use our automobiles if we want to address obesity.

The following quote captures some perspective and change actions:

Turning its numbers around, the U of I team asserted that America’s obesity problem would be eliminated if we each replaced 12 miles of daily driving with a more physical means of transportation while continuing to do the same things. Jacobson knows this will never happen and notes “if the changes that lead to obesity are small, the changes that reverse it can be small, too – but they must be persistent. If every licensed driver reduced travel by one mile per day, in six years the adult obesity rate would be 2.16 %lower, leading to $16-18 billion in healthcare savings.

In a related article, Jacobson carries the discussion further to link these complex issues in both public health and environmental perspectives. He states “at the aggregate, if we drive less, not only will our carbon footprint be smaller, we will lose more weight as a nation.”

Sunday, August 28, 2011

What Do You Believe?

Last October I wrote about watching Simon Sinek's TEDx Talk, and I've finally gotten around to reading his book, Start With Why. I also just finished reading Clarence Jone's book, Beyond the Dream, which chronicles the events and setting of Martin Luther King Jr's I Have a Dream speech. As I read both books I found a lot of overlap in the themes of the two books, both focused on dreams, beliefs, values and culture for individuals, communities, organizations and countries. We've used these themes to inform discussion in our firm related to living our Vision and realizing the potential of our Ideas-Based practice, but they hold true, and can benefit, any organization.

In Start With Why, Simon Sinek talks a lot about the importance of organizational trust, the perspective of companies as a culture, and the realization that the culture results from a strong sense of shared beliefs and values. While these are not radically new concepts, they are a reassuring reminder to keep these issues at the forefront in organizational actions. Two points stood out for me: the relationship between trust and risk-taking, and the importance of beliefs in growing/adding people to an organization. The following quote from Sinek's book makes the first point clear.

"If there is no trust, then no one would take risks. No risks would mean no exploration, no experimentation and no advancement of society as a whole."

Deep trust is a critical condition for an ideas-based practice and, as Simon goes on to point out, to leaders of organizations. He states that leaders must provide a safety net of trust, both practical and emotional, to enable the desired broad ranging, creative thought and idea generation to occur.

On the second point of organizational growth and recruiting, Simon states that the most important characteristic is finding people who believe in what the firm believes. This assumes that the firm, the whole firm, understands what it believes and the reason why it believes as it does. He notes that the search is for people who are "good fits" with the "right attitude", not just those with the skills that are needed. He underscores this with a quote from Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines, "You don't hire for skills, you hire for attitude. You can always teach skills." While this concept doesn't quite fit architectural and engineering skills, what does carry over, is how attitude and beliefs influence what is done with one's skills. Taking it one step further, Simon says:

"Great companies don't hire skilled people and motivate them, they hire motivated people and inspire them. People are either motivated or they are not."

Leaders must consciously give motivated people something to believe in, something to work toward that is ultimately bigger and of broader importance than their individual job.

Like I did in a previous post, whenever I'm off thinking about these topics I always come back to Bill Caudill and his TIB's or writings called This I Believe. The following TIB, written by Bill Caudill on January 17, 1977, was called Values -- Values and Goals.

Goals could lead us to a very exciting future -- provided, of course, we are motivated and dedicated to carry them out.


So what are values? Webster lists seven or eight meanings. I like "relative worth", but that's still too vague. Let me try to tie "value" to goals.



CRS has always had certain values. These are spelled out in detail in the document called Ten General Goals passed by the Board in 1974. Values do change throughout the years, but very slowly. Goals are more changeable depending upon current problems within and outside CRS.

You can judge a firm by what it values. Same with a person.

To reiterate the three points made by Bill Caudill, a goal must motivate, must cost something and must serve someone. He links together motivation, inspiration, investment and service or purpose to provide Simon Sinek's 'why'.

For any organization, this is a reminder to think daily about the vision being pursued, to think deeply about why the organization is doing what it's doing, and to reconfirm the beliefs that drive all decisions.

What do you believe?

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Associational Thinking

A recent post and article in Forbes, by Clayton Christensen and colleagues, presented results of research on innovative companies. Their focus was development of a method to rank and evaluate publicly traded companies with a measure called The Innovation Premium. But to me, the really important ideas that come from their new book, The Innovator's DNA, and the article, are the five skills of disruptive innovators quoted below.

Questioning allows innovators to challenge the status quo and consider new possibilities;
Observing helps innovators detect small details—in the activities of customers, suppliers and other companies—that suggest new ways of doing things
Networking permits innovators to gain radically different perspectives from individuals with diverse backgrounds;
Experimenting prompts innovators to relentlessly try out new experiences, take things apart and test new ideas;
Associational thinking—drawing connections among questions, problems or ideas from unrelated fields—is triggered by questioning, observing, networking and experimenting and is the catalyst for creative ideas.

I guess that professionals in architecture and engineering firms might very well think this article is mainly a consideration for corporate businesses, but because we are trained as creative professionals, we think that innovation is really our normal game. However that may be an arguable point. The five skills of disruptive innovators, along with the "3P's" of people, processes and philosophies, frame their understanding of the DNA of innovative organizations and provide a structure for all to assess their real innovation potential. It is a good message to understand.

Further on in the article, they ask the question "what does the average company need to achieve in these areas to spark an innovation premium?" They then lay out an answer for architectural and engineering firms to consider.

Fundamental change within senior managers (some mastery of the five discovery skills); changes in how their innovation project teams work (processes that support innovation); and changes in philosophies that foster the belief that innovation really is everyone’s job. Rare is the leader who fully grasps how to embed the 3Ps deeply enough into a company’s culture to create a powerful, positive innovation premium.

The takeaway for me in this innovation story is the importance of associational thinking. Let's take this research from the business world and related industries, and transfer it to architectural and engineering practices as the design industry deepens the growth of innovation and new ideas for the built environment.

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Blog Post Wordle

I recently created this wordle of a blog I posted Dec. 16, 2010 titled “Research Opportunities are Everywhere.” I thought it was an interesting graphical representation of the theme and tone of the post.

Thursday, June 2, 2011

Wesleyan Philosophy of Practice

During my visit to the gym last night, I happened to pick up of a copy of Inc Magazine to read while I warmed up on the bike. I came across an article on corporate social responsibility, which reminded me of our Office Life, Building Life, Architecture 2030 commitment, Open Hand Studio and other volunteer activities that are all part of our social responsibilities.

The introduction to the article had a quote from John Wesley, the founder of the Methodist movement. I must admit I’d never seen it before but was moved by the simple message. Here it is.

“Do all the good you can,
By all the means you can,
In all the ways you can,
In all the places you can,
At all the times you can,
To all the people you can,
As long as ever you can.”

It’s a practice vision from the 18th Century that offers good, simple, straightforward words for us to follow today.

Friday, May 20, 2011

What Do You Bet? - Idea Generation and Innovation

I just read an interesting innovation article called Little Bets: Think Differently, written by Peter Sims and drawn from his new book, Little Bets. His article, published in Change This, starts with the provocative quote “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” He offers an interesting perspective on idea generation and innovation that challenges some conventional wisdom. For example, he contrasts the genius and experimental approaches while also exploring the attributes of fixed and growth mindsets.

There are many useful perspectives, drawn from varying sources like Chris Rock, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos and Starbucks’ Howard Schultz, for various ways to approach the creation of ideas, and the testing and realization of those ideas. Two topics stand out for me: prototyping and “plussing”. Sims is a very strong proponent of idea prototyping and shares the collaborative design process of “plussing” as used by Pixar. The idea behind “plussing” is to build upon and improve ideas of your team mates without using judgmental language. Two good concepts and quotable thoughts relate to the architectural engineering world:

“Ingenious ideas almost never spring into people’s minds full formed; they emerge through a rigorous experimental discovery process.”

“For most of us, successfully adopting an experimental approach requires significant change in mindset. After all, we’ve been taught to avoid mistakes and failures at all costs.”

But of all the topics, discussions and examples, the theme of little bets and related small wins, is the most powerful and useful. So as Peter Sims summarizes, "It all begins with one little bet, what will yours be?"

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Active Design Guidelines

Much has been written recently regarding the health risks and future costs of sedentary life and obesity. Late last year New York City, through a multi-disciplinary effort of city agencies, academic partners and AIA NY, published what I think is the first comprehensive guideline focused on design features and elements that promote physical activity. The guide has four chapters including Design and Health, Urban Design, Building Design and Synergies with Sustainable and Universal Design.

This is a great reference and resource for use in all of our work and is very consumable through clear writing, good graphics, linkage for evidence-based design/good practice, case studies and checklists. A free download is available from

A quote from the guideline’s executive summary frames the context for the current challenge for architectural and urban designers.
“In the 19th and early 20th centuries, architects and urban reformer helped to defeat infectious diseases like cholera and tuberculosis by designing better buildings, streets, neighborhoods, clean water systems, and parks. In the 21st century, designers can again play a crucial role in combating the most rapidly growing public health epidemics of our time: obesity and its impact on related chronic diseases such as diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers. Today, physical inactivity and unhealthy diet are second only to tobacco as the main causes of premature death in the United States. A growing body of research suggests that evidence-based architectural and urban design strategies can increase regular physical activity and healthy eating.”

So every opportunity to design and construct a component of the built environment is an opportunity to carefully create a design that promotes active living. The most obvious are stairs for everyday use. Let’s actively engage this research into our planning and design work.

Monday, April 25, 2011

Together We Can Each Be More Creative

I never really though I'd learn much about creativity and design thinking from a cartoon character until I read Robert Fabricant's essay posted on Fast Company's blog, Frog Design: 3 Things Wile E. Coyote Teaches Us About Creative Intelligence. The essay does a fantastic job of helping to examine and explain just how we bring out creativity in one another. I think it's incredibly relevant to our firm and the A/E profession in general. Those design challenges, different ideas and unique perspectives that make up our profession can help drive us to be more creative.

Fabricant shows us how we can push each other to be more creative by examining the relationship between Wile E. Coyote and Road Runner. He argues, 'Would Wile E. be anywhere near as creative without Road Runner? Would his inventions emerge out of his own faculties unprompted or only in response to a situation? His relationship with Road Runner is a dynamic that constantly pushes him farther, faster and (unfortunately in more cases) higher than he imagined.'

Think about this as you work on new projects. Engage with as many fellow teammates, clients and colleagues in the profession as you can, whether they think like you do or not. Responding to challenges and seeking diverse views make for the kind of mentality and attitude that will drive us forward. It's those collaborations that can increase our firm and profession's overall creativity quotient.

Fabricant sums it up with, 'Creativity emerges out of relationships; it's the tension between different ideas and perspectives and so it is risky to define it as an ability that we inherently possess.'

Don't shy away from the tension of different ideas and perspectives. Seek them out, elaborate and strive for creative solutions to our challenging design opportunities.

Watch some Wile E. for inspiration.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Searching for Quality...

Carlo Rotella's opinion article in the Boston Globe yesterday struck a chord with me in a number of ways. First, it started on an anti-technology direction, “Why I don’t allow laptops in my classroom,” but then switched to a more favorable and interesting view. He then argues for the need to distill the current large quantity of media/social media into quality.

The example he uses is the viral hit “Thru-YOU,” by Kutiman, a compilation of tunes assembled from YouTube samples. The video, and in particular the tune called “The Mother of All Funk Chords”, shows that large quantities of uneven quality material can be distilled to produce a new level of quality. It is a good demonstration of how the great streams of online information, in this case YouTube videos, can be used to produce unexpected musical quality.

Rotella’s quote sums it up:

“But Kutiman offers a reminder that quantity is not the enemy of quality, and that to live well online one must learn to transmute quantity into quality.”

It obviously works for Funk Chords. Can it work for architecture as well as we sift large quantities of research, articles, blogs and tweets in a search for quality evidence for our design process?