11 January 2008

It's getting hot in here...

...so take off all your clothes? No, no, no, silly. Your mind is clearly elsewhere. Let's try again.

It's getting got in here, so harvest all of that wasted body heat and pipe it over to the nearest office building. (My thanks to LS for bringing the story to my attention.) Come again? They're going to use body heat to keep buildings warm? Isn't that just a bit... brilliant? If the whole scheme sounds too savvy to be true, that's only because it's Swedish.

A Swedish company plans to harness the body heat generated by thousands of commuters scrambling to catch their trains at Stockholm's main railway station and use it for heating a nearby office building.
I can avow, on the basis of personal experience, that the Swedish think differently. Which is why I think the current rail-station plan is just the tip of the iceberg.
Dance Club
Trust the Swedes to see that awkward singles scenes are one of our great untapped reservoirs of renewable energy.

10 January 2008

From this spark, fire

At the behest of some smart people I recently had the good fortune to meet, I'm going to start using this blog to post concept sketches for some of my business ideas. (All such posts will be filed under--i.e., tagged as--"JPs Biz Ideas") I'm posting ideas in the spirit of cooperative thinking; I hope that my thoughts inspire reflection, conversation, and maybe even action. Just remember that this is thinking toward getting something started. Whatever you have which will help move the conversation forward--thoughts, criticisms, stories, whatever--I'm eager to hear from you.

For those worried that I'm only sharing the chaff, I can understand where you're coming from, but I'm not going to be driven by my fear. What you'll see here will only be the cream. And further, just because an idea happens to sashay in front of my mind's eye doesn't mean I'll post it; only those which my satisfy my rather demanding inner impresario will be offered up for your delectation. In other words, only the truly interesting ideas will find themselves in pixels.

Enjoy! And please add to the conversation. Comments and contacts welcome!

03 January 2008

7 simple litmus tests for innovativeness

Several weeks ago, when I was complaining about the first round Innovation Challenge results for 2007, I promised that I would get around to providing a few simple litmus tests for determining whether or not an idea is truly innovative. Eh, voilà!

These tests have been designed with three purposes in mind. First, these tests specifically aim to refine the line between the categories of conventional and innovative. Once an evaluator (whether in situ or post facto) has performed her first-order triage of proposals into probably conventional, probably innovative, and borderline, these tests should help her to shake a few proposals off of the fence before she proceeds to her in-depth review.

Second, these tests provide points of departure for a structured approach to evaluating the relative merits of one proposal vis-à-vis another. My catalog of traits certainly fails to exhaust the concept of innovativeness, but it at least offers a starting point for further thought and discussion. (Please let me know if you think of a trait I've missed.) If, for example, you're trying to decide which of two possible proposals should go forward, these tests should springboard the team into a focused dialog.

And third, these tests provide innovators with a set of spot checks which are so simple and so fast that they can be applied on the fly, as the innovation process unfolds. Because the tests are rational in their structure, they can help a team build a shared understanding of what a genuinely innovative proposal would look and feel like. But because the tests rely explicitly and entirely on subjective interpretation, they can tolerate extremely intuitive applications. These tests have designed to act as guides--not straitjackets.
Litmus Paper
Would the Innovation Challenge judges of C.E. 1301 have recognized Arnaldus de Villa Nova's litmus paper for the miracle innovation it is?

Each of the following tests is constructed as a proposition which purports to highlight a particular trait inherent to innovativeness. The evaluator considers the idea or proposal in question in light of the proposition and decides to what extent the proposition applies. A positive response to the (i.e., "yes," "good," "true," or the like) indicates that the idea or proposal in question is testing positive for innovativeness. Comments are enclosed in square brackets.

  1. Fresh. "Although I grasp the proposal in its broad outline, parts of it seem strange and/or unfamiliar." [You know you're getting close to a fresh opportunity when things stop feeling normal and familiar.]
  2. Simple. "The value proposition (for the customer) is so simple that not only do I understand it, I can easily explain it to others." [Implementation can be complex, but the value proposition must be simple, because people won't buy what they don't understand.]
  3. Bold. "The first thing I think when looking at the proposal is, 'Too challenging!' 'Too risky!' or maybe even 'Impossible!'" [Challenge is what brings out the best in people and organizations; risk is the harbinger of reward; and the impossible is only another name for the as-yet untried.]
  4. Trailblazing. "If someone were to implement the proposal, I know that competitors would immediately attempt to copy it." [Fear of being copied is, in practice, equivalent to fear of being the leader.]
  5. Obvious. "Now that I've read the proposal, the idea seems completely obvious." [Great innovations are obvious, but not cliché--that is, they're ideas which many people could have implemented, but which no one has yet implemented.]
  6. Clever. "I wish I had thought of that." [Whatever inversion, riposte, or twist of thinking makes the proposal hum should inspire admiration.]
  7. Feasible. "In a close-to-perfect world, the proposal ought to be feasible." [For early-stage innovation, the appropriate test is putative feasibility. The real-world feasibility of an idea is not truly tested until a competent team commits to trying to implement it. An overweening demand for "practicality" will kill any proposal which requires an unconventional implementation strategy.]
Square Wheel Bicycle
Are you so certain this is foolish? As it turns out, he didn't reinvent the wheel--he reinvented the road.

02 January 2008

Disorganize the schools!

The NYT covers the--gasp!--new trend of tutoring students (mostly boys) who seem to be having trouble in school. OK, OK, it's not the tutoring itself which is interesting. We've known for some time that tutoring is among the most successful of teaching methods. It's the fact that the tutors aren't teaching subjects, they're teaching habits. In other words, ethical tutoring.

If you want to get 'em educated, you first gotta' get 'em organized.
(Photo by Jim Wilson for the New York Times)

As per their standard operating procedure, the NYT adds zero content to and only a confused, watery viewpoint on the conversation. (When will they stop "reporting" and start giving us the story?) We've known for some time that girls outperform boys in almost every subject until puberty hits, at which point boys edge ahead in math and science. But why? And what to do about it?

The NYT frames the problem as one of organizational habits--which is curious because it focuses not on the problem, but on the (stopgap) solution. Providing boys with better organizational skills will undoubtedly help them do better in school. But doesn't this beg the question of why schools demand that children be "well-organized" in order to receive an education? Why should high-school boys need to develop bureaucratic skills and habits in order to learn? After all, the world itself wasn't color-coded the last time I checked.
World Political Map 2004
A classic case of mistaking your map of the world for the world itself.

Too, the culture's perception of schooling has changed. I believe that parents used to be more focused on the education itself--what the child was learning, how s/he was doing in class, etc. There was a sense that the learning itself was the primary propellant provided by schools to children aimed at moving up in the world. Nowadays there's a great deal more focus on getting the certification at the end. It's the paper that matters--not the process. Especially with No Child Left Behind [free registration required], our focus become fixed on making the grade, and the means seem to matter little.

On top of our intense focus on the finish line, we still teach using methods which we know (and have known for years) don't work all that well. Is it any surprise that energetic, independent students should rapidly come to the conclusion that school isn't worth their time? Why not simply cheat, or cram for the test? And why worry at all, since that silly certificate isn't worth much any more unless you've got the right parents in any case?

Ultimately, it isn't boys who are less organized, it's our pedagogy (and indeed every institutional activity in our culture) which has become more rigidly organized. Turning in your not-very-interesting and not-at-all-important homework on time isn't equivalent to responsibility. It's just punching in. People who focus intensely on thing they themselves find trivial and meaningless are usually pretty unhappy. And no surprise there either.