Filtering by Category: Innovation

Deconstructing Gartner's "hype cycle" myth

Using this sunday afternoon to work on a book chapter, I was brought back to this peculiar tool created by Gartner called the "Hype Cycle"... defined in Julian's comments the other day on the near future laboratory blog as:

"The Gartner Hype Curve, where whatever the future is, it is sure to be oversold and overpromised, leading to the *trough of disillusionment and despair, after which the future sort of becomes more reasonable than the hype and slowly productizes itself. ((I’m still waiting for the Jet Pack future.))"

The underlying point of this cycle is that products/technologies have a peak of inflated expectations and it’s only after a period of disappointment that "they are adopted by people". Although the idea is promising a first, there are various problems with the cycle itself. The first one is that it doesn't look like a cycle at all, it's as if products/technologies only go through one disillusionment phase before becoming a success... which is utterly wrong. Some products fail several times, some never succeed... and what's a success anyway? We see it's about "visibility" but what does it mean more seriously? A second general problem is of course the idea that progress can't be stopped and that every single piece of tech will find its way to what other people call "the market". I've collected other problems below:

In addition, Richard Veryard has interesting points:

"Clue Number One: All technologies appear to have the same eventual outcome.

Clue Number Two: All the points are perfectly on the line. To a scientific mind, this indicates that the coordinates are not based on any real objective measurement, and that the curve itself is not subject to scientific investigation or calibration. The curve itself is based on a standard engineering pattern.

Clue Number Three: The shape of the line has not altered (or accelerated) in ten years. But all the evidence points to a shifting (shrinking) curve. For one thing, technology studies suggest that the half-life of new technologies is getting shorter. (This is sometimes known as the Red Queen Effect.) Furthermore, we might expect the quantity of attention received by each technology to be affected by the number of technologies competing for attention - and since this is increasing, the quantity and/or duration of hype might be reduced - in other words the hype curve getting steeper."

Finally, Jorge Aranda add important elements to the discussion:

" found the curve fallacious and untrustworthy for two reasons:

Irrational optimism: The curve tells you that, no matter how wacky your technology is, and how unachievable its goals, after it fails to live up to its hype things are gonna get better, always! You’ll see the light at the end of the bad-press tunnel. I find this happy ending scenario very implausible, partly because some proposed technologies do simply crash without recovering, and partly because forecasters have mistaken their job for that of cheerleaders in the past.

Disappearing acts: If you compare the curve from 2005 (below, click for better view) with the most recent one from 2006, you’ll see a number of technologies that have simply fallen out of the radar. SOA is gone. Videoconferencing is gone. Podcasting is gone. Are they past the plateau? Are they not worth a mention?"

Why do I blog this? Deconstructing other's thinking tools is always curious. That said, it might be that the Hype Cycle should not be taken too seriously and that it's just an alibi to start a discussion about the maturation of certain technological products.

There are of course other kinds of diagrams (with their own problems), see my previous post about s-curves.

Scouring dot come era tech magazines in search of product ideas

(pic by Mando Gonzales)

An interesting story from an old issue of Wired that I found on my shelf this morning:

"Morgan had become convinced that there was plenty of gold left behind when the rush ended in 2001. The idea took root in fall 2003, while he was reading The Victorian Internet, Tom Standage's history of the telegraph. Just like the most ardent promoters of the Internet, the telegraph's early boosters claimed that the fledgling technology would do everything from helping save lives to ushering in world peace. Over the half-century between the telegraph's rise to prominence and its eclipse by the telephone, it did change the way people lived and worked, but not in the ways its evangelists had predicted. "The lesson was that while new communications media do change the world," Morgan says, "they do it much slower than the early adopters think they will."

From there, it was a small step to the realization that perhaps some of the ideas from the Internet boom might simply have been a few years ahead of their time. Morgan began to revisit the startups he'd put cash into - those that had failed and those that were still breathing. "I was getting reinterested in consumer Internet plays," Morgan says. "Some of the companies I'd invested in were starting to look like they had made it through the nuclear winter, and I wanted to figure out exactly how they were different from the ones that hadn't made it." He set about systematically distilling the lessons of the recent past and applying those lessons to his evaluation of each startup that he considered funding."

Why do I blog this? Collecting examples for my book about failures and how their analysis is important in the innovation process. Of course, I am less interested in the VC thing than in the process of surfacing ideas from the past as a exercise to see what conditions have changed and how it can be relevant for the future.

The importance of futility in innovation

Convinced that innovative artifacts always seem futile at first, I am a long-time observer of weird patents or odd pet gear.

A curious article in the IEEE Spectrum entitled "Whimsy and Invention: Why ridiculous inventions are a good thing", highlights the importance of weird peculiar objects such as "A laser pointer to divert a cat? A plastic sphere of silence, for tête-à-têtes in noisy bars? A rocket belt, for escaping boring tête-à-têtes? An atomic-powered airplane? A life-expectancy watch? An electric spaghetti-twirling fork? A tiny generator of random noise, to secrete in a friend's office to drive him crazy? An air-bag bodysuit for motorcyclists?".

The IEEE Spectrum column gives some interesting lessons about all these odd artifacts:

"The more closely you scrutinize the process of invention, the less confident you will be of understanding it. We are told, for instance, that invention typically begins in one person's exasperation over a defect in the standard way of doing things. Oh, really? Then there must be a great deal of exasperation concerning the care and feeding of pets. (...) Again and again this pattern recurs: What begins as a lark develops into a major invention. Remember back when big-iron jockeys dismissed the early personal computers as mere toys? They had a point: The first PCs really were toys. Now, though, PCs and their handheld descendants rule the world. Facebook, begun as a way to keep up with members of the opposite sex on the Harvard campus, is now also poised for world domination. (...) We see the reverse pattern as well, when what begins with serious intent devolves into a form of whimsy. Take the antimissile laser: After decades of work and tens of billions of dollars of government funding, the technology has yet to prove itself on the field of battle. Yet substantial aspects of that technology have found application in protecting backyard barbecues from mosquitoes"

SOmething encountered in Lyon few years ago, I have not clue about its use.

Why do I blog this? I sometimes feel a bit lonely when I discuss with clients about the importance of futility in environmental scanning/user research. This kind of arguments (and examples) are very good to show them why it's relevant to take into account weird innovations.

This discussion echoes with the notion of "needs" and the desperate quest lead by big companies to find "new needs". Looking for these so-called new needs is not a matter of asking people what they want or asking them what they would crave for. Instead, observing how products and services that may seem futile at first can be adopted, domesticated, appropriated and tweaked for other purposes is a better strategy.

Bill Buxton on "The better we do, the bigger the problem we make"

Bill Buxton's column in Business Week are rare but always intriguing. The latest dispatch offer interesting remarks:

"what to do when an idea or product gets traction and starts generating a bunch of revenue. First, show restraint on the self-congratulation front. Next, invest a significant proportion of your resulting windfall into sussing out your next great idea. Keep moving and don't count on the continued success of your original one. (...) If you make the revenue from your great idea your only food, you are going to have a problem. The longer you take to broaden your menu, the bigger that problem will be. Great ideas need to be displaced, even when they still have the allure of the cash cow. (...) Here's the sentence that should immediately set off alarm bells for those who don't want to head to the cemetery of one-category wonders: "We can't pursue that idea, because doing so will cannibalize our existing revenue stream." If you hear this phrase, stop whatever you are doing and give what lies behind these words your undivided attention. In general, here is my advice: If you can't change the minds of those uttering it, you should head for the door."

Why do I blog this? interest towards innovation process and how temporality (or people's perception of time in the short term versus the long term) influences decisions in R&D process. Besides, it reminds me of a friend who always tell me that he tends to do the opposite of what he has done before every year (in terms of design/writing/creative) process. Finally, I find interesting to wonder about "The better we do, the bigger the problem we make" because it can be a frequent trap.

Recap of Lift seminar @ Imaginove

Yesterday evening, I co-organized a Lift seminar in Lyon, in partnership with Imaginove, a cluster of digital content companies. Located in a an old flour mill, the seminar was about new forms of video game play with a specific focus on Transmedia and Location-Based Games.


To deal with this, I invited two bright contributors: David Calvo who is Creative Director from French video game studio Ankama (as well as a fine writer, comic-book author) and Mathieu Castelli from C4M, who was also the founder of Newt Games, the now defunct company which was a pioneer in location-based games in Japan.


David started with a presentation in which he descried in personal vision of what the "Transmedia" domain consists in. He basically debunked the fuss around this term by showing how this term is now used as a buzzword. According to him, adopting a "transmedia" perspective corresponds to the following approach:

  • Building a "world model" with its own background and constraints (because design emerges out of constraints)
  • Nurture this world model by elements coming from users, but not in an explicit "user-generated content way" in which you would ask people to contribute: it's rather about having ears on the ground and observing Anakama players in game conventions, looking at forums, comments on websites, the way people name objects and gods in the game, etc....
  • Instantiate these insights into characters, book chapters, magazine articles, game mechanics, background changes...

In sum, it's a sort of implicit user-generated content harvesting that can be turned into game material for Dofus or Wakfu (and all the books, manga, magazines and on-line platforms about them).


In the second presentation, Mathieu told us the story of Mogi, a mobile service in which which the game play somehow evolves and progresses via a player's location. Developed 7 years ago for the japanese market by a French company, Mogi was one the few commercial products that reach the market. Mathieu highlighted the difficult evolution of such games and recapped some issues they encountered such as: the fairly low number of phone with GPS (at the time and now), the difficulty to test game mechanics (because you need to go on the field), the need to have a critical mass of players, etc. which are very close to what I described in my book about locative media.


Mathieu concluded his presentation by showing Playground, a new initiative that aims at providing LBS designers with a point and click platforms to implement and test their own games. This "playground" system would be tool set for the creation of what they can "Real World games" and grow the community of developers.

G.Basalla: The Evolution of Technology

George Basalla's book called "The Evolution of Technology" (Cambridge University Press, 1988) is another important resource for the game controller project. In this volume, the authors describes his theory of technological change based on the history of technology, economic history and anthropology. The whole book is driven by a strong theoretical perspective: the analogy between the evolution of technical objects and the evolutionary metaphor in order to show to that this metaphor can give insights otherwise unavailable to the history of technology Basalla uses the term "evolution" as a metaphor "at the heart of all extended analytical and critical thought" and highlight it as useful to apply this concept from biological evolution to evolution in technology. Initially this analogy was used from technology to biology (to describe living organisms in mechanical terms) and then the other way around, as a way to arrange technical objects into "genera, species and varieties and proceed from this classificatory exercise to the construction of an evolutionary tree illustrating the connections between the various forms of mechanical life". To him the difference is the following:

"the evolutionary metaphor must be approached with caution because there are vast differences between the world of the made and the world of the born. One is the result of purposeful human activity, the other the outcome of a random natural process. One produces a sterile physical object, the other a living being capable of reproducing itself. (...) Technological evolution has nothing comparable to the mass extinctions that are of interest to evolutionary biologists. History does not record any widespread, cataclysmic extinctions of entire classes of artifacts, although something similar might occur on a local level in remote communities or on isolated islands"

(The evolution of aboriginal weapons by Lane-Fox Pitt Rivers)

His theory of technological evolution is rooted in four broad concepts: diversity, continuity, novelty and selection.

Continuity Based on a fair amount of examples, Basalla debunks the notion of "technological revolutions" and the mere existence of "heroic inventors". To him, both are wrong and "key artifacts such as the steam engine, the cotton gin, or the transistor, emerged in an evolutionary fashion from their antecedents". Of course some changes are more important than others but: (1) There's always a continuity between techniques, (2) sometimes artifacts iteration is not based on other artifact but what Basalla calls "naturfacts": artifacts created after the analogy with natural elements (see the example of Barbed Wire based on thorny fence made of short trees).

He explains the origins of the discontinuous argument with the following notions:

  1. The loss or concealment of crucial antecedents: "the first automobiles were little more than 4-wheeled bicycles. Henry Ford called his car a "quadracycle",
  2. The emergence of the inventor as a hero: "Because heroic deeds are most often linked with revolutions, evolutionary explanations of technological change did not have a broad appeal. Nationalism also played a part in the 19th Century (...) The same exhibitions that glorified industrial progress, and the men who made it possible (...) A bizarre situation thus developed in which the heroic inventors of one country were scarcely acknowledged in another land"
  3. The patent system: "All of patent law is based on the assumption that an invention is a discrete, novel entity that can be assigned to the individual who is determined by the courts to be its legitimate creator. (...) Such dissimulations are the result of a system that attempts to impose discontinuity on what is essentially a continuous phenomenon"
  4. The confusion of technological and socio-economical change: the term "Industrial "Revolution" seems to imply the technological artifacts that made it up was revolutionary. Instead, it was evolutionary!

(Evolution of spark catchers for train locomotive smokestacks)

Novelty This chapter aimed at understanding how to account for differences and diversity in technological artifacts. In this part, the author substitutes the notion of "Homo Faber " ("Man the maker") to "Homo Ludens" ("Man the Player") to show the role of play in innovation. He then describes various sources:

  • Fantasy and Play: technological dreams: "the machines, proposals and visions generated by the technological community (...) epitomizes the technologists' propensity to go beyond what is technically feasible", technological extrapolations: "conservative ventures well within the bounds of possibility, perhaps a step or two beyond current practice", patents, bold and fantastic technological visions or popular fantasies: sci-fi, cartoons, fantastic machines...
  • Knowledge transfer by borrowing some aspects of a technology outside: cultural contacts because of imperialism, migration, trade, technology missions, industrial espionage, war.

In another chapter, he highlights how "human intervention can guide the variations toward a new artifact" and described the notion of skeuomorphs: "An element of design or structure that serves little or no purpose in the artifact fashioned from the new material but was essential to the object made from the original material".

Selection As defined by Basalla:

"Because there is an excess of technological novelty and consequently not a close lit between invention and wants or needs, a process of selection must take place in which some innovations are developed and incorporated into a culture while others are rejected (...) evolution by natural selection has no preordained goal, purpose or direction. This is not true for artificial selection as practiced by animal and plant breeders. Here criteria are established by the humans who select characteristics they consider worthy of preservation. (...) Variant artifacts do not arise from the chance recombination of certain crucial constituent parts but are the result of a conscious process in which human taste and judgment are exercised in the pursuit of some biological, technological, psychological, social, economical, or cultural goal."

Some additional quotes about the notion of "needs":

"According to functionalist anthropologists and sociobiologists, every aspects of culture, material and nonmaterial, can be traced directly to the satisfaction of a basic need. (...) Critics of the biological theory, however proposed a number of strong counterarguments. (...) We cultivate technology to meet our perceived needs, not a set of universal ones legislated by nature (...) the artifactual world would exhibit far less diversity if it operated primarily under the constraints imposed by fundamental needs. (...) a skyscraper is not simply a structure to protect people from the vagaries of the weather"

Why do I blog this? I was drawn to this book thanks to several discussion threads. Mostly the recurring chat about circulation of design choices with my neighbor Basile, as well as an exchange of tweets with Antonio Casilli who recommended the book. The material in there was highly useful in general and relevant to our project that aims at mapping the evolution of joypads. Given our interest in studying a "lineage" of technical artifacts, I was wary of using the "evolution" metaphor because of the underlying idea of progress that I did not want to imply.

Overall, three quotes about the use of the evolutionary metaphor are important for our investigation of artifacts evolution:

"I use the evolutionary analogy because of its metaphorical and heuristic power and caution against any literal applications, not the least, the process of speciation (...) On the most general level the evolutionary analogy serves as a useful organizing principle for studying technological change (...) A workable theory of technological evolution requires there be no technological progress in the traditional sense of the term but accepts the possibility of limited progress toward a carefully selected goal within a restricted framework"

Unusual topics for Dec 26

Two unusual topic that attracted my attention on this Dec 26th day:

1. Football/soccer evolution as an interesting model of futures thinking as described by this quite curious article in The Guardian that Scott Smith dispatched on Twitter. Some elements to draw here in terms of culture, foresight and the diffusion of innovation: "maybe North Korea, which is about as close as football gets to the Maliau Basin, will take advantage of its isolation to generate something new (...) Isolation in itself, though, is not necessarily a good thing, because it often leaves the isolated vulnerable to predators to which the rest of the world has built up immunity ", "Evolution, though, is not linear. It hops about, goes forward and back, and isn't necessarily for the better", "Lurking behind progress, though, are old ideas waiting to be reapplied". All these quotes actually exemplify existing theories in futures research/innovation.

Car culture

2. Car body lines and creases which remains constant over time in automobile design (as shown above). The crease is a "pressed or folded line created by the meeting of two different planes or surfaces" (as explained here). I don't really have any interests in cars but I tend to have a glance at car culture as an interesting locus for design issues (as addressed here for example).

Why do I blog this? material to keep up my sleeve for discussion about the importance of observing the mundane in design/futures research. Perhaps also some examples to use in class with students.

About Don Norman's take on "design research"

Reading Technology First, Needs Last by Don Norman the other day echoed a lot with recent discussions I had with clients, recent panel invitations, discussions with Julian and meetings last week with people such as Rémy. To put it shortly, Norman claims that design research (i.e., to him, it refers to ethnography-like observational studies) is good for improving but less at something he refers to as "innovation":

"design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs. I reached this conclusion through examination of a range of product innovations, most especially looking at those major conceptual breakthroughs that have had huge impact upon society as well as the more common, mundane small, continual improvements. "

What I find curious in the article is that this view seems to reflect a narrow understanding of what field research about people can convey (not to mention the limited vision of what is *design research*, but that's another big debate). The way Norman characterizes this notion of research-before-design is caricatural as shown by this straight-forward motto he employs: "Discover hidden, unmet needs" or "aim at one thing: to determine those hidden, unspoken needs that will lead to a novel innovation and then to great success in the marketplace". I thought we were a bit beyond this and it definitely reminded me some discussions I had with clients and some engineers who crave for finding a new "need" their technology can fulfill. This is IMHO a limited perception of what studying people can bring to the table in terms of "innovation".

Observing people and their practices is not just about finding needs and problems waiting to be solved (nor it was about asking people what they need, but that's another story). There are other possibilities, other insights that can be extracted, other opportunities that can be uncovered. A good example of which is described in "Transfer Scenarios: Grounding Innovation with Marginal Practices" by Ljungblad and Holmquist. In their paper, they described how they studied “marginal practice” (in their examples having unusual pets, such as snakes and spiders) not to regard the persons involved as "end users" but instead as a way to understand underlying human interests and qualities of interaction, relevant for the design outcome. The whole point in this case is to observe people to draw some elements about their motivations or interests and explain how this can be "transferred" as a material for design purposes. Beyond this example, observations are also about surfacing ideas, drivers, constraints and opportunities which can be turned into pertinent materializations.

Furthermore, applying observatory methods is not just meant to fuel engineers and designers as a preliminary step before design. This distinction between "Technology first, invention second, needs last" is awkward as the boundaries between all of these elements are not so firm. Observations can also be done during the design process with iterations, product prototypes (WoZ or something more complete. Given that nobody never knows how a technical object will evolve (and Norman agrees with that in his paper: "New products arose through the tinkering and experimenting of inventors. Most fail."), it can be relevant to observe the appropriation and the way it is repurposed by users... and feed this back into a new iteration. It's also about studying failures and understanding the slow adoption Norman is talking about. Understanding what the hurdles and pain points are, etc. to refine the proposition.

But then it leads to the second problem that bugged me in the article: the distinction between improvement and breakthrough (or what he calls "revolutionary innovation"). the idea of revolutions and the rhetoric of innovative breakthroughs is surprising to me. Especially when discussed by someone such as Norman. It's weird to bring David Nye (the introductory quote) into this given that a great deal of researchers in history of sciences and technologies have published a lot about how technical objects such as the dish-washer or the phone never came out from the blue. The situation is much more organic, lots of people are working on similar topics, some products are released and fail, are reinterpreted, etc.... and it becomes hard to date what is the first "phone" (as a commercial success). Perhaps it's a framing issue but the notion of a "breakthrough" seems a bit weird when one think about the whole history of technologies. This terms seems more appealing to the marketing/business people than observer of how objects evolved over time.

One of my favorite book about this issue about the history of the dish-washer (sorry for the obscure french reference) shows how this device has evolved over time from both technical possibilities AND the work done by inventors to understand what is the practices of cleaning, what is important to potential users, etc. ... to a point where some of the first patents for dish-washers has been set by inventors and their wives (the users of the device at the time, sadly enough). Of course, it's hard to say that "design research" had an impact on the invention of the airplane or the phone at a time where this term wasn't used. However, the activities undertaken by "inventors" at the time covered many things: tinkering technical material, finding business models, etc. and surely observing people. What I mean here is that the skills great inventors (such as Edison) had certainly shared some common patterns with what good ethnographers can bring to design. Should it be called ethnography? design research? maybe, maybe not indeed.

That said, it's however fair to question the extent to which insights coming from field research help and nurture design. It's indeed hard to evaluate the influence of such approach. As Jan Chipchase described here:

"For all the current buzz currently surrounding ethnographic / anthropological research - this isn't the only way to feel out what or how to design (in the broadest sense of the word), doesn't always provide value, and absolutely shouldn't be part of every design process - anyone who thinks otherwise isn't asking enough questions about what their client needs and hasn't factored in the skills of the team at hand. At it's worst ethnographic research is an expensive, time-consuming distraction that can take the design team (and the client they represent) in the wrong direction."

Why do I blog this? this debate is highly interesting and the lines above are just my two cents on this. Lots of the issues raised by this article are very important lately and it's surely something I'll try to discuss with students in my course about field research for design. The problem is see in all the fuss about field research to nurture design is rather about how to translate observations and implications into materializations, that's quite an issue.

See also Steve Portigal's feedback on the same article.

Lift 2010 in Geneva

We've just launched the new website of the upcoming Lift 2010 edition in Geneva. The event will revisit the myths about connected people:

"Lift10 will explore the most overlooked aspect of innovation: people. Known in the techno-parlance as users, consumers, clients, participants, prosumers, citizens or activists, people ultimately define the success of all technological and entrepreneurial projects. They adopt or refute, promote or demote; embrace, reject, or re-purpose. Their approaches are unique, influenced by cultural and generational diversity. A decade after the rebirth of user-centered design and innovation, it's time to explore the myths and uncover the reality behind the "connected people"."

Also check the current speakers roster and the program format/sessions:

"Generations and technologies How to go beyond the usual clichés on generations, with Seniors unable to benefit from technology and Millenials ruining their future careers on social networks?

The redefinition of Privacy What is privacy in the 21st Century? Is personal security threatened by the massive collection of personal data?

Communities Since 2006 Web 2.0 has celebrated the so-called "amateur revolution". What did we learn in the past 5 years? Are we reaching the limits of Web 2.0?

Politics Beyond the much talked-about political campaigns on Facebook, how to turn users into engaged citizens in public action?

The old new media Newspapers are struggling, TV is not sure of what the future holds. What is at stake nowadays when informing, reaching and involving people?"

For this edition, our friends from Bread and Butter did a great job to instantiate our theme in a proper and original graphic identity. As they explained on their weblog:

"We tried to find a new way to represent the fragile balance between connected groups of people. We are all sometimes influencers, sometimes pirates and sometimes just an audience. Therefore the concept of a "mobile" seemed just the right transcription. Without saying that it also fits the Conference's spirit and is easy to apply on all applications from website to stickers and from Marseille themes to korean's alphabet."

Let's observe the different steps from their generative metaphor:

Individual blame

Attributing one's failure to use (or problematic use) of a certain technical object is often refered to in the literature as the "Individual Blame Bias". In his book "Diffusion of Innovation", Rogers gave the following example:

"Posters were captioned: «LEAD PAINT CAN KILL!» Such posters placed the blame on low- income parents for allowing their children to eat paint peeling off the walls of older housing. The posters blamed the parents, not the pain manufacturers or the landlords. In the mid-1990s, federal legislation was enacted to require homeowners to disclose that a residence is lead-free when a housing unit is rented or sold."

Why do I blog this? Always been intrigued by the tendency to hold individual responsible for his/her problems rather than system. It's definitely a recurring topic when you run field studies, it's as if people wanted to take responsibility for causes that are beyond their scope (bad manual, missing information, etc.).

Of course, this issue has some consequences in terms of the diffusion of innovations and Rogers proposed to overcome this bias when studying the diffusion of innovation by refraining from using individuals as the units of analysis for diffusion (it then remove the possibility of blame on particular individuals).

Infrastructure issues for Vélib

A velib in a good state The NYT has an interesting article about the infrastructure problem with regards to the Velib in Paris. Some excerpts I found relevant below (I've taken the picture above once in Paris, a nice Velib utterly destroyed in a cardboard box):

"With 80 percent of the initial 20,600 bicycles stolen or damaged, the program’s organizers have had to hire several hundred people just to fix them. And along with the dent in the city-subsidized budget has been a blow to the Parisian psyche. (...) “We miscalculated the damage and the theft,” said Albert Asséraf, director of strategy, research and marketing at JCDecaux, the outdoor-advertising company that is a major financer and organizer of the project. “But we had no reference point in the world for this kind of initiative.” (...) At least 8,000 bikes have been stolen and 8,000 damaged so badly that they had to be replaced — nearly 80 percent of the initial stock (...) JCDecaux must repair some 1,500 bicycles a day. The company maintains 10 repair shops and a workshop on a boat that moves up and down the Seine. (...) “For a regular user like me, it generates a lot of frustration,” she said. “It’s a reflection of the violence of our society and it’s outrageous: the Vélib’ is a public good but there is no civic feeling related to it."

Why do I blog this? such an interesting example of how a technical objects rely on its socio-economical milieu to evolve. The figures here are tough but that illustrates the difficult life of innovations. I wonder about other cities where JC Decaux implemented this scheme.

Lift @ home

Lift Asia 09 just finished and we're announcing a new side-project to the conference. It's called Lift @ home and is based on community meet-ups. As described by Laurent the other day:

"Lifters meetups have been happening around the world. Zurich, Toronto, Lausanne are the few we are aware of, but we know our community likes to meet up around an idea - or a beer.

Last year Michele Perras told me the that as she and others could not attend Lift09, she organized a Fondue back at her place, watching the Lift videos from the previous day. "It was pretty cool!" she said, and this reinforced the idea that we needed to do something to encourage these gatherings as much as we could. Lift at home was born!

Every conference has to become more open, letting external contributions in, reaching to global audiences via online talks. Today's conferences are not conferences, they are communities of people who share the same interests and values.

At Lift we have considerably extended our community in the past years, adding social features to our site, launching a conference in Korea, one in France. Lifters are all around the globe, living in different locations, sharing a common envy to meet, brainstorm, share and explore. We decided to encourage such gatherings, to structure and promote them. Here comes Lift at Home!

This is beta, we don't know where it will end up. But we think that a good idea and good people always end up creating something interesting. We look forward to see you at the upcoming events, and to hear your propositions!"

Lift Asia 2009

Phone booth in Jeju Back to Jeju for the Lift Asia 2009 conference. We're in the final rush given that the conference starts tomorrow. We have a fantastic set of speakers from lots of different place, more than 400 participants and we recently added a surprise to the program:

"20 years of Korean internet: the pioneers who built the Korean internet will share their story, reflecting on a soon-to-be 20 years old industry, offering insights on the future of a media that went from being an early adopter tool to become a society changing technology used by 40 million people in Korea.


  • Jin Ho Hur, CEO of Neowiz, operators of Korea's second largest social network,
  • Jaewoong Lee, Founder of Daum,
  • Soon Hyun Hwang, Vice President, NC Soft
  • Dong Hyung Lee, cofounder of Cyworld and Runpipe"

Lift Asia is coming

Right after the Lift Marseille edition, we had to get back to our pen and pencils to build up the upcoming edition in Che-Ju (Korea). The event is taking shape with "Serious Fun" as a theme. Make not mistake, the point of the conference is definitely not to address serious games but rather to adopt the following perspective:

"The Internet started as platform for academics, then it became a huge business platform. Now it is an entertainment playground for users. People spend time having fun on the Social Web, access virtual worlds on their cell phones or interact with robots and networked objects.

Now we believe these services and platforms go far beyond mere leisure: their usage may reveal new social practices that will spread in other contexts (business, education), and the services first targeted at entertainment can lead to original innovations. This year's Lift Asia will focus on the lessons we can draw for fields such as innovation, sociology, management, business, design and education"

We already have a speaker roster with people such as Adrian David Cheok (Mixed Reality Lab, Singapore), Benjamin Joffe (Plus Eight Star, China), Julian Bleecker (Nokia Design, LA), Kohei Nishiyama (CUUSOO, Japan), Minsuk Cho (Mass Studies, Korea) or Rafi Haladjian (Violet, France) and others.

We love

A side note for swiss entrepreneurs who may be willing to join, we organize again the "asia venture trip" that help start-ups develop and promote themselves on the Korean Market, meet potential clients, suppliers, partners, or investors. Last year we had the likes of Poken, Arimaz, KeyLemon, Secu4, Lighthouse, Pixelux. It resulted in more than half the start-ups developing strong ties with the country of the morning calm, some finding new clients, others new suppliers (especially if you work in electronics or robotics). Look at the call for project and send us your application!

Tools to analyze weak signals

Spent last friday in Zürich presenting the Lift screening process and trend analysis with Holm Friebe's class at the Design Hochschule. The morning was about the Lift Conference, more specifically about our process to scout for speakers and ideas, to set a theme and work it out. The message was that the wide range of signals (ideas, memes, "trends", technologies, social phenomena, scientific discoveries, etc.) and inscriptions (books, magazine, blogposts, articles, academic papers) is scanned and filtered through different criteria: preference towards social implications than technologies for the sake of technologies, avoidance of technological determinism (as much as we can), stepping a bit from terms that are too *hip* (such as "web2.0"), etc. In the afternoon, we took some time to discuss different tools to filter the signals and forms of change. The tools are actually quite common and stem from the mix of methods we encountered in our work/readings/studies and meetings with lots of people. Most of the conversation addressed the use of s-curve, coming from diffusion theories of innovation. It shows how adoption is slow at first (depicted by a flat curve at the beginning of the time period) till a tipping point (the steep curve mid-way) and a plateau. This last phase corresponds to the adoption of the technology by adopters (which does not correspond to everyone on earth). To put it shortly, the s-curve is a way to represent the number of people who adopt a technology over a particular time period. As C. Christensen puts it, "it states that in a technology’s early stages, the rate of progress in performance is relatively slow. As the technology becomes better understood, controlled, and diffused, the rate of technological improvement increases . But the theory posits that in its mature stages, the technology will asymptotically approach a natural or physical limit, which requires that ever greater periods of time or inputs of engineering effort be expended to achieve increments of performance improvement"

Tool for discussion

Of course, we should distinguish the different ways to use s-curves. You have the sociological use where you draw the s-curve with real-data of technology adoption (as described in here). But you also have a more metaphorical use of the curve, which is the one we discussed in the course. Using a s-curve in this context is relevant to structure the discussion about where an innovation (technology, social change, etc.) stands at a certain moment in time, where it came from and where it might be in the future.

A good way to start drawing an s-curve, in the context of such discussion, is to look at different information sources: you can for example map data points depending on the information source represented on the following figure:

Tool for discussion

Tool for discussion

As one can see on the two figure above, there are two important points in s-curves:

  • The beginning: that I exemplify through these 2 quotes by Paul Saffo and William Gibson. They simply show that s-curves' beginning are already here and the point is to spot them through different data sources (be they readings, field studies or always-on attitude.
  • The tipping point: the moment in time when the rate of adoption increases, which depends both on technological improvements and, above all, on "contextual" issues such as " the active participation of all those who have decided to develop it" (see Bruno Latour's work about the "model of interessement"). On a methodological note here, I would say that the use of s-curve in conjunction with Latour's work may be a bit flawed. Will need to think this through later on.

Another way to see an s-curve and to discuss how to apply it to a certain innovation is to adopt a people/user/market viewpoint:

Tool for discussion

This standpoint can also be summarized by these three phases of idea/meme/technology adoption (based on Scardigli's work):

  1. Phase 1: The “time of prophecy and fantasy” (enthusiastic or terrifying) where revolutions are predicted and technique is “inserted socially” (right after invention and R&D). It correlates with a discourse around the hopes and fears linked to these issues which are recurring in history. What happen is that fantasy, scientific knowledge and actions are intertwined and even the weakest signal is turned into an excessive hope or fear. Prophecies become necessities and then self-justificated. Some example: "3D web platforms like Second Life will change the Web forever", "Mobile social software will be a revolution", etc.
  2. Phase 2: The “delusion phase” that suggest how the expected technological revolution does not lead to a social revolution. Or, when we realize that there is a gap between forecasts and realizations/effects. At the same time, some people start appropriating, adapting, using the idea/meme/technology differently. This is generally less publicized as the press thinks that the "innovation is a fad" and it's not worth talking about it.
  3. Phase 3: “the side-effect phase”: 20 or 40 years after, the real diffusion of the technique is effective and some social and more long term consequences appear but often different from the one expected at first. This is what happened with the video-phone, it never really worked as a independent box at home but people are now using it on their laptop through Skype; and it allows interesting new social dynamics and usages.

Tool for discussion

Of course, back to the evolution of technologies, you can also take a "sales" viewpoint: if you look at the rates of acquisition/sales instead of the adoption. For each product, you then this sort of succession of curves that represents cycles of adoption (video game consoles in this case):

Tool for discussion

Finally, we also discussed the importance to consider the large diversity of human behavior, which was depicted by this well-known Bell curve that I've taken from a book by Don Norman (who actually took it from G. Moore's book "Crossing the chasm").

Tool for discussion

What we can draw from this curve is that:

  • There is diversity, not juste "one normal human"
  • People who are at the beginning of s-curves are the early adopters.
  • You can be an early adopter for a certain topic (iphones) and a conservative person for others.
  • Besides, this curve also relates to the previous representations in the sense that the s-curve can be seen as being made up a series of 'bell curves' of different sections of a population adopting different versions of a certain product

Why do I blog this? trying to formalize a bit the tools we used the other day is interesting as it forces to describe why and how they're relevant. It's important to point out, though, that these tools are definitely not a perfect algorithm/process to give you the answer about “how a signal would evolve into a fad or a success". Instead, they should be seen as a a way to structure the discussion of signals and topics we collect. Which is why I smiled when, few streets ahead in Zürich, I stumbled across the name of this company:

systematic absolute return

Thanks Holm for the opportunity!


For a project about the future of the interwebs that I recently completed, I read The Future of the Internet -- And How to Stop It by Jonathan Zittrain. Beyond the internet topic itself, I was struck by his thoughts regarding "generative technologies", i.e. systems that are flexible enough to create even more ideas, methods or processes. Or, according to the author, generativity on the internet is the ""capacity for unrelated and unaccredited audiences to build and distribute code and content through the Internet to its tens of millions of attached personal computers". Here's how Zittrain frames the evolution of generativity:

  • "An idea originates in a backwater.
  • It is ambitious but incomplete. It is partially implemented and released anyway, embracing the ethos of the procrastination principle [by which he means that most problems confronting a system such as the internet/OS/computers can be solved later by others if they express the need to do so].
  • Contribution is welcome from all corners, resulting in an influx of usage.
  • Success is achieved beyond any expectation, and a higher profile draws even more usage.
  • Success is cut short: "There goes the neighborhood" as newer users are not conversant with the idea of experimentation and contribution, and other users are prepared to exploit the openness of the system to undesirable ends.
  • There is movement toward enclosure to prevent the problems that arise from the system's very popularity."

His point is that there is a "paradox of generativity": an openness to unanticipated needs can lead to a bad or non-generated waters. In the context of his book, Zittrain describes how the Internet can be locked down if certain problems (security, viruses, malware or privacy intrusion) spreads. Therefore:

"The keys to maintaining a generative system are to ensure its internal security, and to find ways to enable enough enforcement against its undesirable uses without requiring a system of perfect enforcement"

Why do I blog this? I was less interested in the part about how security issues of the internet but found interesting this notion of generativity to have a macro-view of technological evolutions in society. It shows the important point that the situation is dynamic and that an innovation cannot be taken for granted as it is; evolution happens and its intrinsic characteristic (e.g. generativity) is not a given as it can lead to opposite consequences. Furthermore, as the project I had was about policies and regulations, it was fruitful to understand this notion.

Definition of "black-boxing"

A quick definition of "black-boxing" by Bruno Latour (in Pandora's Hope: Essays on the Reality of Science Studies): a process by which

"scientific and technical work is made invisible by its own success. When a machine runs efficiently, when a matter of fact is settled, one need focus only on its inputs and outputs and not on its internal complexity. Thus, paradoxically, the more science and technology succeed, the more opaque and obscure they become."

Ubiquitous computing naming issue

There's an interesting discussion of the term "ubiquitous computing"by Mike Kuniavsky at Orange Cone. Mike basically explains the ambiguity of terms and deconstruct the very notion of ubicomp:

""Lately, I've been thinking about why "ubiquitous computing" has such problems as a name. When I talk about it, people either dismiss it as a far-future pipe-dream, or an Orwellian vision of panoptic control and dominance. I don't see it as either. I've never seen it as an end point, but as the name of a thing to examine and participate (...) Why don't others see it the same? I think it's because the term is fundamentally different because it has an implied infinity in it. Specifically, the word "ubiquitous" implies an end state, something to strive for, something that's the implicit goal of the whole project. That's of course not how most people in the industry look at it, but that's how outsiders see it (...) As a side effect, the infinity in the term means that it simultaneously describes a state that practitioners cannot possibly attain ("ubiquitous" is like "omniscient"--it's an absolute that is impossible to achieve) and an utopia that others can easily dismiss."

The problem is then that "Anything that purports to be a ubiquitous computing project can never be ubiquitous enough"! Then, what shall be done? As Mike points out, other terms such as "artificial intelligence" also had the same issues.

"Do we need to rename "ubicomp" something like "embedded computing product design," something that promises less so that it can deliver more? Maybe. I still like the implicit promise in the term and its historical roots, but I recognize that as long as it has an infinity in part of its term, there will always be misunderstandings"

Why do I blog this? preparing my Lift talk about failures I am interested in the difference between the imagined futures (endpoints such as ubiquitous computing, artificial intelligence or flying cars) and the reality as it is experienced by people (users?). Mike Kuniavsky makes interesting points about this issue here by looking at the how naming research domains/trends can be misleading.

If as a citizen you can no longer fix your own car...

Finally got some time to meet-up and discuss with Rob van Kranenburg yesterday in Amsterdam at Waag. It's been a while that we only briefly exchanged during conferences and I wanted to know more about his work. It also immediately led me to read his recent book about the internet of things.

There is one aspect of his work that I find strikingly important and that is developed in the book: the connection between objects characteristics and people's agency. See these excerpts:

"Just think back a decade or so. Did you not see cars on pavements and guys (mostly) trying to fix them? Where are they now? They are in professional garages as they all run on software. The guys cannot fix that. Now extrapolate this to your home, the streets you walk and drive on, the cities you roam, the offices in which you work. Can you imagine they would one day simply not function? Not open, close, give heat, air…

As citizens will at some point soon no longer be aware of what we have lost in terms of personal agency. We will get very afraid of any kind of action, and probably also the very notion of change, innovation - resisting anything that will look like a drawback, like losing something, losing functionalities, connectivities, the very stuff that they think is what makes us human. (...) If as a citizen you can no longer fix your own car – which is a quite recent phenomenon - because it is software driven, you have lost more then your ability to fix your own car, you have lost the very belief in a situation in which there are no professional garages, no just in time logistics, no independent mechanics, no small initiatives. (...) Any change in the background, in the axioms that make up the environment has tremendous consequences on the level of agency of citizens. They become helpless very soon, as they have no clue how to operate what is ‘running in the background’, let alone fix things if they go wrong. As such, Ambient intelligence presumes a totalizing, anti-democratic logic."

Why do I blog this? these excerpts echoes with lots of various discussions I have lately during a foresight project concerning the future of the internet. The importance of hardware and knowledge about it is a crux issue that seems a bit left aside in the occidental world (as if it was ok to shy away from techniques and infrastructures). There are some consequences of this situation and Rob describes both what they are and how to act in his book.