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Technology and Creativity: As technology advances there's a danger of concept design being overlooked

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There is someone who designs the car. There is someone who drives the car. There is someone who builds the roads. There is someone who embellishes the destinations. There is someone who chooses where to go.

At a recent TED conference in New York, there was an impressive display of technology which could be used in education. The technology was there - but what the technology was being used for remained rather old-fashioned. New technology can create new concepts, but rarely does so by itself.

Technology is far ahead of the values that we ask technology to deliver. With the car analogy, we could have excellent cars and excellent roads, but the destinations and the choice of destinations would remain rather dull.

We put more and more effort into technological development because this is what we know how to do. We then use the technology to carry out existing concepts. Very rarely do we use the opportunity offered by new technology to develop new concepts. Creativity in technology is rather easier than creativity in value concepts.

INFORMATION
If your school is far from a major natural history museum, there is a high value in having a CD-ROM which brings the museum right into the classroom. You can see pictures of dinosaurs, examine each and every bone and read up more facts than any museum dares to offer.

If your school is in the same city as a major natural history museum, then you would be better off going to the museum. Information availability and information transport are the obvious advantages of technology. You can get your own dinosaur CD-ROM or you can access dinosaur information on the Internet.

But is information enough? Education has always been about information - because it was so difficult to get information that providing information became a major occupation of educators. Youngsters needed to know all there was to know. Today that is no longer possible.

Yet we still follow that tradition. The more you know, the better educated you will be. There are said to be over four million references to my own work contained on the Internet. It would take you about 15 years to spend one minute on each of the references.

EXPOSURE
Education still believes that 'exposure' is the key learning experience. It is, up to a point, but not beyond that point. Thinking is now becoming more important than information - because we are no longer short of information.

Thinking is needed to create value from information. Information has a high value if you specifically need that information to fill a gap. If not, then information has a general value, but this is actually quite low. More and more information may make you a better informed and more interesting person to talk to, but that is all.

DESIGN
Design is an important part of thinking, because it involves putting things together in order to deliver some value. In design there are constraints and specifications. For an artist there are relatively few constraints, but with design in the real world there are many (gravity, cost, acceptance, pollution, etc., etc.).

There is a huge difference between design and analysis. Analysis seeks to identify components and ingredients in order to understand something and to know what to expect (or how to deal with it). Analysis seeks to solve problems through identifying and removing the cause.

Analysis is all about 'what is'. Design is all about 'what can be'. In the case of the dinosaur, technology would allow youngsters to design their own dinosaur. These designs could be put together and then tried out in a simulated real world to see what would happen.

If it was not possible to allow a totally free design exercise, there could be a choice of options. In a parallel way a youngster might design a suitable environment for dinosaurs. This environment would then be tried out and the effect on the dinosaurs would be seen.

The above are relatively simple technological exercises. They do, however, shift the emphasis from just 'knowing' to 'thinking'. They are also the type of exercise which it would be very hard to do without technological support. Would it make sense to 'farm' dinosaurs? How much food would they eat? Compared to cattle, say?

Simple frameworks for working such things out could be provided. We might even ask why it is so important to know about dinosaurs. Many school children know all about dinosaurs, but virtually nothing about the world around them. They have not the slightest idea how the corner shop works.

VALUE CONCEPTS
As competence becomes a commodity, as technology becomes a commodity, the only things that will make a difference are value concepts. Where are they going to come from? Managers obsessed with cost cutting are not going to generate such concepts.

Technologists who are very creative in advancing technology are not usually motivated to design new value concepts. Inventors are more interested in hardware because that is easier to patent, to demonstrate and to licence.

As a result there is a serious gap in value concept design. Yet it is going to become increasingly important. In my book Surpetition (Harper Business 1992) I suggest setting up a 'Concept R&D' group. The function of such a group would be directly to focus on reviewing concepts and designing new concepts.

It would then be a matter of seeking out the technology to support such concepts. Recent research from INSEAD has indeed shown that corporations which focus on competition do add value, but those which focus on value creation do better.CONCEPT DESIGN

Ideas are easier to design than concepts. This is because ideas are specific. Ideas can be tested. You can imagine an idea in use. You can put together known ingredients to form an idea. Concepts, on the contrary, are vague and intangible. A concept has no practical value until it is turned into an idea. As a result many people are impatient with concepts. They ask for specific hands-on ideas. They want to know what to do, what to copy and what to modify. This is very limited creativity.

A good concept can breed many ideas. Some of these ideas will be much more practical than others. Some of the ideas will be more attractive and more profitable. Ideas do not breed ideas. Concepts breed ideas. Sometimes it is possible to design a concept directly by framing a process in a general way.

IDENTIFY THE CONCEPT
For instance, a way of dispensing cash at any time without people might have led to the ATM machines. There could be other ways of carrying through the same concept. At other times it is easier to take an existing idea and seek to identify the concept behind that idea. For example, behind the ATM idea there might have been the concept of 'coded access to cash'. This might have led to ideas of obtaining cash from shops through the use of authorising codes. Note that with this concept there is not the 'people-free' aspect there was with the first ATM concept.

One of the reasons why people find concepts difficult is that there is no one right answer. Both the above ATM concepts are valid. Each may breed rather different ideas. How can there be several possible concepts? In the same way as there might be several possible angles of view of a building. It depends what you are looking at.

If 'people-free' is a high value, then the concept should include this. If 'widespread' availability is a high value, the people-free part may not be so important. Just as a thinker plays around with different definitions of a problem, so a thinker tries out different concepts.

TECHNOLOGY TO DELIVER
Once the concept has been spelled out, then the idea is generated. Ways of carrying out the idea are explored. In many cases there is a need for technology to deliver the idea. In the case of the ATMs there is a need to have, and to verify, authorised codes. There is also a need to prevent abuse. These things could be done with low-level technology (carrying photo-identification, checking by telephone, etc.) but are much speeded up by a higher technology.

It is true that a good knowledge of the technological potential allows us to conceive and develop concepts we would otherwise have dismissed immediately. Being aware of the technological possibilities makes concept design easier. But technological knowledge by itself does not develop wonderful concepts.

So leaving concept design to the technological team is not a good idea. The result is too often clever ideas which deliver very little value. Because you 'can' do something with technology does not automatically mean that it is worth doing. The development of value concepts is a focus and skill in its own right - and demands more than technological know-how.


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