Daily Design Inspirations 35: Drones You Can Eat! (#dailydesigninspirations)

Via Wired.com. When drones save lives, not kill!

Every sale of this edible Pouncer drone can save 50 lives

Aquila inventor Nigel Gifford’s Pouncer drone is capable of real humanitarian aid

Nigel Gifford makes drones with a difference. His humanitarian UAV, the Pouncer, is designed to deliver food aid in disaster zones – by being edible itself. That may sound unlikely, but Gifford, 70, has a history of succeeding with unconventional projects. He’s the Somerset-based engineer behind Aquila, the Wi-Fi-beaming drone bought by Facebook in 2014 to connect 1.6 billion humans to the internet.

In 2010, Gifford imagined Aquila (originally named Ascenta) as a high-altitude drone that could be used to beam internet or mobile-phone connectivity to civilians below.

“I absolutely believed in what we were doing; I could see how this could be a major benefit in communications applications,” he says. The UAV was designed with solar panels that would give it enough power to stay airborne for 90 days, with a flexible central section that could adapt to securely carry any cargo.

The call from Facebook dramatically changed Ascenta’s fate. It bought the drone for a reported $20 million (£16 million). Now with an enlarged wingspan the size of a commercial airliner, Aquila made its first successful flight – a 96-minute cruise above Yucca, Arizona – on June 28, 2016. Gifford is delighted: “For what it started out as and has now become, it’s super.”

Post-sale, Gifford’s new company Windhorse Aerospace has focused its energies on the Pouncer, a UAV whose three-metre-wide hull can enclose vacuum-packed foods. Its structure will be made from as yet unspecified baked components that can be consumed. “It will have a 50kg payload that should feed 100 people for one day,” Gifford says. GPS will guide it to within eight metres of its target. Windhorse Aerospace will be testing its capabilities in the spring; by late 2017, it will be in production.

Will Gifford sell this drone, like Ascenta? “We have the vision; we want to take it through to development,” he says. But any partnership allowing the Pouncer to be rapidly deployed would be a priority. “The key is getting the Pouncer used for humanitarian aid,” he says. “If this existed now it would be saving lives in Syria.”

Daily Design Inspirations 34: When CX is Designed for the Nose! (#dailydesigninspirations)

s3-news-tmp-134998-tower_transit--2x1--940In early March this year, a news item struck me – the public bus operator in Singalore, Tower Transit, will pump the new scent into 100 of its buses, following a months-long partnership with the local marketing company AllSense. In an interview with the BBC, scent expert Terry Jacobson described the smell as having a “green note” that reflects the city’s biodiversity, mixed with a cool, refreshing aroma that soothes passengers in the city’s tropical climate. And while the smell is subtle, so passengers aren’t overwhelmed, Tower Transit hopes it’s strong enough to keep riders coming back—and more importantly, to lure people away from their cars.

While it is still early to see the results, those who have had a good whiff of the Transit Tower’s marketing ploy reported, for the most part, positive reactions. Most who spoke to the local news site The Straits Time and BBC welcomed the fact that it made the buses smell fresher and said it would make them want to take public transit.

That is the objective – reduce dependence own private vehicles and make the public transport option more appealing. Now, can those feelings translate to action? Time will tell. But it reminded me of how important it is to engage with customers at sensory levels, and how rarely it is practised.

And brings us to that question we are all trying to answer – in a hyper-crowded marketplace, how does a customer tell the difference between products and services? How do we create offerings that are not just efficient and beautiful, but also emotionally compelling? How do we engage with customers through other, innovative channels that are subtle, pleasant and non-intrusive? Beyond the typical mobile/computer UI approach?

The ideal customer experience should delight the customer by engaging all five senses, not just their mobile device. And smell is a key piece of that puzzle: Scents have been proven to eliminate stress, stimulate fond memories and inspire customers. The right scent has been shown to make people more comfortable at hotels, shorten the time they think they are waiting at banks, and improve sense of performance at a gym. Nike conducted research with the Smell & Taste Research Foundation that found a scented retail environment induced more favorable product perceptions in in shoppers – making them more likely to buy the shoes, and often willing to pay more for the product.

Using scents to not only enhance customer experiences but also to inspire certain behaviors is a growing trend in marketing. According to the latest research in the Journal of Marketing, “The Cool Scent of Power: Effects of Ambient Scent on Consumer Preferences and Choice Behavior” by Adriana V. Madzharov, Lauren G. Block, and Maureen Morrin (2015), by using warm scents in store, more attention could be attracted towards high-end products.


Recall North Carolina’s steak-smelling billboard, or the many odors of the Magic Kingdom, or city streets’ infamous Subway Smell, or magazines’ scented papers, which are themselves the olfactory offspring of the perfume-strip ads that have been around since the 80s. Traditionally, however – to the extent that scent-based advertising is traditional — smells have been used bluntly. Scent is notoriously indiscriminate: It reaches all those in its proximity, promiscuously.

Back in 2012, a U.K.-based baked potato company installed ads that waft the aroma of “slow oven-baked jacket potatoes” at bus stops whenever you press a button. More aggressively, Dunkin’ Donuts in South Korea installed dispensers in public buses. Every time their jingle came on, riders were treated to—or bombarded with—a blast of coffee aroma.

Engineers employed by the shop’s marketing agency created a machine that, air-freshener-like, “releases a coffee aroma.” And they designed the device in such a way that its scent-squirt would be triggered only by the sound of the Dunkin’ Donuts jingle – so that, “When a Dunkin’ Donuts ad plays on the radio, a coffee aroma is simultaneously released.”

What’s fascinating is that, after the commuters were subjected to the olfactory factor, they were much more likely to frequent, Dunkin’ Donuts says, a Dunkin’ Donuts store. Over the course of the campaign, more than 350,000 people “experienced” the ad, Cheil estimates – and sales at Dunkin’ establishments located near bus stops increased 29 percent. The sound-scent combination – the synaesthetic approach to advertising – seemed to be, in this case, effective.

So the use of scents makes … well, you know. The power of smell when it comes to human cognitive connection is well documented; it’s fitting and unsurprising that marketers would want to capitalize on that power when it comes to brand associations. The Dunkin’ advertisers orchestrated their experiment to optimize immediacy; the point was to create a scenario in which commuters would hear Dunkin’ Donuts, then smell Dunkin’ Donuts, then see Dunkin’ Donuts … and then, you know, taste Dunkin’ Donuts. After buying Dunkin’ Donuts.

Daily Design Inspirations 33: Abraham Wald and the Missing Planes (#dailydesigninspirations)

During World War II, the UK and U.S. focused their air warfare plans on the use of strategic bombing, employing long- and short-range aircraft to lead the way and provide ground infantry with an upper hand. Much of the industrial war complexes of both these nations were focused on producing planes, and ensuring the safe return of an expensive, slow-to-produce bomber was a priority. After all, a plane that can make five or perhaps ten runs was worth much more than one which failed to return after a mission or two.

And many planes were being shot down by German fire, and the casualties were huge. In some years of World War II, the chances of a member of a bomber crew making it through a tour of duty were about the same as calling heads in a coin toss and winning. As a member of a World War II bomber crew, you flew for hours above an entire nation that was hoping to murder you while you were suspended in the air, huge, visible from far away, and vulnerable from every direction above and below as bullets and flak streamed out to puncture you. “Ghosts already,” that’s how historian Kevin Wilson described World War II airmen.

Where to Armour?

So here was the question. You don’t want your planes to get shot down by enemy fighters, so you armour them. But armour makes the plane heavier, and heavier planes are less manoeuvrable and use more fuel. Armouring the planes too much is a problem; armouring the planes too little is a problem. Somewhere in between there’s an optimum.

The Statistical Research Group (SRG) was a classified program that yoked “the assembled might of American statisticians to the war effort—something like the Manhattan Project, except the weapons being developed were equations, not explosives. The military came to the SRG with some data they thought might be useful. When American planes came back from engagements over Europe, they were covered in bullet holes. But the damage wasn’t uniformly distributed across the aircraft. There were more bullet holes in the fuselage, not so many in the engines.


The officers saw an opportunity for efficiency; you can get “the same protection with less armour if you concentrate the armour on the places with the greatest need, where the planes are getting hit the most. But exactly how much more armour belonged on those parts of the plane?

220px-abraham_wald_in_his_youthEnter Abraham Wald, who was working at SRG at that time. Born in Hungary in 1902, the son of a Jewish baker, Wald spent his childhood studying equations, eventually working his way up through academia to become a graduate student at the University of Vienna where the great mathematician Karl Menger mentored him. As he advanced the science of probability and statistics, Wald’s name became familiar to mathematicians in the United States where he eventually fled in 1938, reluctantly, as the Nazi threat grew. His family, all but a single brother, would later die in the extermination camp known as Auschwitz.

And Wald came up with an interesting idea to the question of how much armour, and where.

The armour, said Wald, doesn’t go where the bullet holes are. It goes where the bullet holes aren’t: on the engines.

Wald’s insight was simply to ask: where are the missing holes? The ones that would have been all over the engine casing, if the damage had been spread equally all over the plane? Wald was pretty sure he knew.

The Missing Planes

The missing bullet holes were on the missing planes. The reason planes were coming back with fewer hits to the engine is that planes that got hit in the engine weren’t coming back. Whereas the large number of planes returning to base with a thoroughly Swiss-cheesed fuselage is pretty strong evidence that hits to the fuselage can (and therefore should) be tolerated. If you go the recovery room at the hospital, you’ll see a lot more people with bullet holes in their legs than “than people with bullet holes in their chests. But that’s not because people don’t get shot in the chest; it’s because the people who get shot in the chest don’t recover.

Wald put together a crude before-and-after diagram. The “after” image — the plane on the right — showed where the majority of the damage was, as indicated by the shaded regions. Wald determined that most of the plane — the wings, nose, and fuselage — had taken the worst beating, while the cockpit and tail were generally unharmed.



Wald theorized that the fact that the planes lacked damage in the cockpit and tail was more telling. Certainly, the Axis’ targeting of Allies’ planes was both indiscriminate and imprecise; there was little reason to believe that the Axis forces were aiming for, say, the nose, and intentionally avoiding striking the tail. Some planes had to have taken significant damage to the tail and cockpit, and all of those planes had something in common: they, unlike the ones in Wald’s data set, did not return back to base.

On Wald’s advice, the U.S. military leadership reinforced the cockpits and tails on its planes. The number of planes (and lives) saved during the World War and Korean and viet Nam wars are difficult to estimate, but the impact of this idea was huge.


Daily Design Inspirations 32: 13 inspiring examples of design thinking from Japan (#dailydesigninspirations)

Great piece I read today.

As digital technology becomes more sophisticated and penetrates more parts of our lives, the importance of design thinking increases, too.

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to spend a week or so in Japan and there were several bits of everyday and unassuming design that struck me.

Read on. 

Daily Design Inspirations 32: Design thinking can help Swachh Bharat (#DailyDesignInspirations)

An excellent, timely piece in Livemint.com. Can we go beyond the hype and soundbytes and use Design Thinking to change the fortunes of the movement? Can Design Thinking be used to better reframe the problems, change mindsets, and come up with real solutions? 

Livemint: Design thinking can help Swachh Bharat

Amrita Chowdhury, 13th October 2016

As we look at the second anniversary of the launch of the Swachh Bharat Mission, we cannot but acknowledge how far the conversation has progressed on the vision and yet how little the needle has shifted on the outcomes.

The difference is starker in our urban areas. Cities are the windows to the nation, where the most vocal residents reside and the most influential visitors arrive. Naturally, then, the Swachh Bharat Mission efforts in cities are critical in making opinions about the efficacy of the programme itself. Rural toilet construction statistics notwithstanding, what hits us most is visible urban waste and the crumbling waste management infrastructure.

But is it just that?

Read on.


Daily Design Inspirations 31: Joe Gebbia: “Design the Farm!” (#dailydesigninspirations)

Just yesterday, at the end of a Design Challenge, we were discussing the age-old battle between the designer and the product manager. And the oldest question that is asked of a start-up: which should come first.

Joe Gebbia, in this brilliant interview points out that one doesn’t need to think that way. But design the farm instead!

Excellent watch! Here on youtube.

Joe Gebbia
Joe Gebbia


Daily Design Inspirations 31: DNA: Lessons from Italy, designs from India (#DailyDesignInspirations)

Great read today in DNA, about two Indian designers who are pushing the envelope on “sustainable” design. 

With such diverse inspirations as textile waste and kitchen utensils, designers Sahil Bagga and Sarthak Sengupta’s creations show that ancient craft techniques are not alien to contemporary lifestyle, writes Marisha Karwa in DNA

Read on:

pic: homworlddesign.com

For most of us, the internet slang ASAP stands for ‘as soon as possible’. Not so for designer duo Sahil Bagga and Sarthak Sengupta, whose assigned meaning for the acronym is ‘as sustainable as possible’. The philosophy forms the genesis of every project the Delhi-based partners of multi-disciplinary studio Sarthak Sahil Design Co undertake.

“We want to define our identity as contemporary Indian designers in the international design scene. We therefore design products that are global in appeal but local in spirit,” says Sengupta. “Our core design philosophy is to capture the human story behind every craft that we reinterpret and re-contextualise for a contemporary audience.”

The 36-year-old alumni of the National Institute of Fashion Technology (NIFT) met College of Art graduate Bagga at the Politecnico di Milano, Italy, where they were pursuing a master’s degree. Following the course, they were selected by the furniture-maker, the Poltrona Frau Group, for a project under the mentorship of master designer Guilio Cappelini.

“Working at the design firm Cappelini was a significant milestone in our careers,” observes Bagga. “We were introduced to the state-of-the-art when it came to furniture design and manufacturing. The sheer scale of their operations was intimidating and at the same time, attention to every minute detail was very inspiring.”

The stint with the century-old furniture group and the experience of life in Italy led to the pair’s most significant learning. “The Italians are very proud of their traditional materials and craftsmanship, yet they are the market leaders in the contemporary luxury market,” notes Bagga. “They know how to synergise their craftsmanship with modern technology, keeping abreast with social and market trends. They also respect human labour and understand the importance of innovation even in mass production.”

Milan, Manipur and back again

Since going into business together in 2009, Sengupta and Bagga have “indulged in a wide diversity of projects”, including gift items, product and furniture design, installations and interiors — all inspired by traditional craft techniques. They first reinterpreted Manipur’s longpi pottery for their Magia Nera (black magic) collection, creating table top accessories such as coasters, vases, lamps and more from the black-hued clay using traditional moulds of the artisans. Another collection, called Kerala Sutra, uses the state’s many art forms, including theyyam, kathakali, leather shadow puppetry, mural painting, metal casting, etc., as motifs for lamps and light installations. Yet another lamp collection is inspired by the kamandal — a vessel used by ascetics to carry water in.

The medley of work, says Sengupta, “keeps us happy from a creative sense and allows us to master new skills”. Bagga explains that new collections are either based on briefs by clients or are works of self-indulgence. Bagga describes the latter as a “bottom-up process” for which their travels and exposure to culture are the biggest “inspiration pools”. “We travel extensively, and we can’t help getting inspired by what we see along the way,” says the 37-year-old. “There is so much diversity in our nation, there is no end to rediscovering age-old practices. For example, we chose the crafts and culture of Kerala for our light installation collection for Somany Ceramics earlier this year. And last year, we choose Gujarat as our inspiration state for creating a range of stainless steel furniture for Jindal Steel.”

Sarthak Sahil Design Co’s collections have been exhibited across the world, including at the world’s largest furniture fair, the Salone del Mobile Milan, at London’s Alchemy Festival and most recently, at the International Furniture Fair in Singapore.

Staying rooted

The studio’s commitment to traditional arts is evident not only in their collections, but also from their overseas projects. Last year, when the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A), London, approached the designers for an installation to mark Diwali and Christmas for the extensive ‘The Fabric of India’ exhibition, they chose to juxtapose the rituals and symbolisms of the two festivals. “We proposed the Kalpataru — the wishing tree. The structure of this installation was handcrafted by silversmiths from north India, adorned by hand-painted murals from Kerala, depicting a foliage of trees and plants, and having ritualistic importance in Indian culture,” points out Sengupta.

Among their many works that have earned them laurels is the Katran collection. Katran, the term for the leftover pieces of colourful cloth from textile and cloth mills, is traditionally spun into ropes that are then used to make khatiyas. In the Katran collection, the ropes are used for chairs, loungers, lampshades, tabletops and more — the vivid colours adding to the quirky and tactile reuse of textile waste. “The Katran collection is true to our hearts as it is a manifestation of all our brand values — ethics, ethnicity, ecology, sustainability and meaningful design,” says Sengupta. Such is the appeal of the Katran chairs that they’ve become a part of the designers’ everyday life. “‘Love chair’ is good for sitting and working in, and our ‘Pelican chair’ is more like a lounger to relax and take a power nap in,” says Bagga.

Quick takes

Favourite architects: Antoni Gaudi, Laurie Baker, Zaha Hadid

Favourite designers: Oki Sato of Japanese design studio Nendo, Fabio Novembre, Jasper Morrison

Favourite design products: Muji stationary and Flos lamp

Pet peeves: Plagiarism, tardiness

Daily Design Inspirations 30: HBR: What Design Thinking Is Doing for the San Francisco Opera (#DailyDesignInspirations)

David Hoyt and Robert I. Sutton
JUNE 03, 2016


On March 2, 2015, a line of people stretching around the block waited to get into the Rickshaw Stop on Fell Street in San Francisco. This was not like most nights at the funky music venue and bar; the people in line weren’t waiting to see an indie band, or dance to music spun by a DJ. This night the entertainment would be opera … of a sort. The evening, organized by the San Francisco Opera (SFO), was called “Barely Opera,” with the slogan “This Isn’t Your Grandmother’s Opera.” Complete with a “Wheel of Songs” that audience members could spin to select the next song, a live DJ, opera-themed drinks, and costumes for attendees to try on, it was designed to remove the intimidation often felt by those new to opera and introduce a younger, hipper audience to operatic music.

Barely Opera was the result of a project that was part of a course at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (“d.school”). As part of the course, two students worked with SFO to help the Opera think about how to best use a new 299-seat facility that would open in early 2016. But they hoped that the benefits would extend far beyond this objective — that the project would introduce the Opera staff to new ways of thinking that offered the potential to fundamentally change how it operated.

The challenge of experimenting at an organization committed to perfection

An important part of the city’s cultural scene, the San Francisco Opera dates back to the 1850s. SFO’s facility, the 3,146-seat War Memorial Opera House, was funded by a voter-approved municipal bond in 1927. Where most opera houses are funded by wealthy patrons, this “people’s opera house” was paid for by ordinary citizens. The new facility would enable the performance of programs not well suited to the large opera house.

As one of the world’s leading opera companies, SFO has traditionally focused on perfection in all aspects of its performances. Matthew Shilvock, the company’s new General Director, described this drive for perfection as, “our blessing in allowing us to produce moments of exquisite theater, and our curse in terms of not giving us the flexibility to adapt quickly.”

Like almost every non-profit organization, SFO has limited resources. Ticket sales cover just a fraction of its production and administrative costs, with the balance coming from donations, grants and endowment. To survive and thrive with the conflicting demands of performance excellence and constrained resources, SFO has developed a highly structured organization.

As a result of these factors, previous “experiments” had typically been meticulously planned, and executed at extremely high levels of quality. Given the drive for perfection ingrained in its culture, the natural response to poor results was that the quality level had not been sufficient, and other potential lessons were often lost. This blend of perfectionism and limited resources meant that experiments were rare events at SFO.

Getting comfortable with feeling uncomfortable

“Design thinking” is a hands-on approach that focuses on developing empathy for others, generating ideas quickly, testing rough “prototypes” that, although incomplete or impractical, fuel rapid learning for teams and organizations. The two d.school students who worked with the Opera were Zena Barakat and Madhav Thattai. Zena was a John S. Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford, and previously a senior video producer at The New York Times. Madhav was in the MSx program at the Stanford Graduate School of Business, a program for mid-career managers. He had been director of product management at Dell Computer before coming to Stanford.

The SFO project began in January 2015. Zena and Madhav’s first step was to take the SFO team working on the d.school project to meet with people from outside the world of opera. One was Christina Augello, founder of the experimental EXIT Theatre and organizer of San Francisco’s Fringe Festival. She described the struggle of experimenting on a tight budget, something she considered to be an essential part of the creative process—a sign on the wall read “No Risk, No Art.” At EXIT Theatre, everyone worked as a community, sharing roles, pitching in where needed.

The opera team also spoke with Hodari Davis, the Artistic Director of Young, Gifted, and Black, and the National Program Director of Youth Speaks. He emphasized the importance of going out into the community, insisting that you can’t “wait for the community to come to you. Don’t build a space and think that the community is coming to you. You have to go to the community.”

Zena also brought in James Buckhouse, an opera and ballet fan who works at venture capital firm Sequoia Capital and formerly with Twitter. He was scheduled to be the Master of Ceremonies of an under-40 night for the San Francisco Ballet, which shares the War Memorial Opera House with the Opera. Planning for the event had just started, and it would take place in 30 days.

These conversations energized the SFO team, who realized that they usually communicated and learned from within the opera community. There was also a useful sense of competition — if the Ballet could put something together quickly, why couldn’t the Opera? The group brainstormed around this idea, and began to conceive a dramatic new prototype that would enable them to attract a new, younger audience.

To gain insights into audience perceptions, SFO team members approached strangers near San Francisco’s Ferry Building and asked if they would be willing to give 5-10 minutes of their time for some feedback. Once they agreed, they were given tickets and told to walk through some imaginary doors. The “audience members” were warmly greeted by the SFO team, given a mask, and directed to three stations, each with an iPad providing information: one station had food menus on the iPad and a person playing a bartender, one station showed a video of a wig maker, and one station had videos of a singer performing. Afterwards, each participant was debriefed.

This exercise taught the team that people in different age groups have very different needs, and also that there’s much variability within age groups. For instance, among people in their 30s, parents were vastly different than singles. They also learned that audience involvement (tested by giving participants the mask) was far more powerful than previously anticipated. They got useful input on menu items and prices.

Most importantly, the SFO team learned the power of rapid prototyping. It had taken them just two hours to pull the materials together and three hours in the field, and they had gained valuable insights. Although they were a bit embarrassed by the low-budget feeling of the prototype, they were surprised at the depth of the insights they gathered in such a short time. The feedback was so much more useful and empowering than information from surveys.

And yet there were setbacks during this early stage. Zena and Madhav challenged the SFO team to go to some event that they would never ordinarily attend, something that made them feel uncomfortable — and do it within the next two weeks. The idea was to gain empathy for their new audiences, who would be asked to come to a new experience put on by the SFO. They wanted the SFO staff to talk to people at these events to learn more about them. But only two of the seven team members completed the exercise.

Zena and Madhav scheduled another prototype to get the SFO team into the community, interacting with people outside the opera. The team went to a park in nearby Hayes Valley, played opera music, and tested ideas about including drinks in ticket prices (an idea that was not well received), various menu options for the new venue, and whether people would want to take food and/or drinks into the performance. Their d.school classmates weren’t impressed by this prototype: With the SFO team in the room, they criticized it as being too safe and encouraged Zena and Madhav to push the SFO team further outside their comfort zones.

Building a more ambitious prototype

As the SFO team walked out of the disappointing design review at the d.school, they told Zena and Madhav that they were thinking of taking over a bar for their next, more ambitious prototype. Zena and Madhav challenged them to put on the event in just two weeks, by the end of the class, which was far sooner than the SFO staff thought possible. In less than a week, the SFO team had booked the Rickshaw Stop, an alternative music venue just three blocks from the Opera, which had a stage and space for an audience of 400 people.

Zena and Madhav challenged the SFO team to go to some event that they would never ordinarily attend, something that made them feel uncomfortable — and do it within the next two weeks. The idea was to gain empathy for their new audiences, who would be asked to come to a new experience put on by the SFO. They wanted the SFO staff to talk to people at these events to learn more about them.


Zena and Madhav formed three teams to plan and carry out the event: programming (what the performance would be at the venue), experience (things surrounding the performance), and engagement (audience engagement before the event, and feedback afterwards). The seven SFO project members joined teams that were outside of their comfort zones. For instance, the marketing person was on the programming team, and the woman who would be responsible for programming at the new SFO venue joined the experience team. Each team then recruited three more people from amongst the staff, for a total of 5-6 people per team. While the whole event was intended as an experiment, each team also designed experiments within their area to provide additional insights.

They came up with a name, Barely Opera, at a brainstorming session 10 days before the event, involving all 20 people from the teams plus Zena and Madhav. As soon as the name was chosen, the engagement team bought a URL, developed a website, created a logo—all within a few hours, and without having to go through the approval process normally required for decisions at the opera. The SFO teams found this autonomy liberating.

They advertised the event on social media and on local blogs, charging a $10 “cover charge” (not ticket price). A list of songs was developed with the Adler Fellows, a group of young resident opera singers in training, who would perform with piano accompaniment. Their hope was modest: to attract 100 people.

When the doors opened on March 2, 2015, a line of nearly 400 people stretched around the block. Just inside the door was a photo booth, with costumes from the Opera’s inventory that people could put on. To make guests feel welcome, six opera-loving volunteers served as hosts — dressed in full costumes, wigs, and makeup. They greeted the attendees, took photos with attendees, asked for feedback, and served opera-themed cocktails and tamales.

The idea was to flip conventions on their head. The greeters were in extravagant attire, but the singers themselves were casually dressed—just jeans and t-shirts. The audience members were invited to try on opera costumes, but that’s where the formality stopped.

Audience members selected songs by spinning a “Wheel of Songs.” As each song was performed, a projection screen behind the stage provided translations in the form of memes (a funny image sometimes accompanied by text.) For instance, when the final singer hit a dramatic high note, a picture of Beyoncé was shown. The audience loved it.

The event was a huge success. But the real purpose was not the single event; it was to help SFO staff top change how they think about their mission and to develop new ways of operating. The next day, everyone met to debrief. As Madhav described it, “We had decided ahead of time that we were absolutely not going to focus on the outcome of the experiment.” They did not want the event to be the end, but rather the beginning of an ongoing process.

A few days later, when the group met up again, after 10 minutes of celebratory champagne, strawberries, and cupcakes, Zena and Madhav asked, “What were our failures?” The entire group then celebrated the committee that had the most failures—and celebrated the freedom to experiment and try things outside their comfort zones.

Keeping the creativity going

The project opened the eyes of Opera personnel to the power of experimentation, spurring “a new commitment to innovative thinking and creative brainstorming” as Shilvock put it. The Opera subsequently formed a number of innovation groups (iGroups) drawn from different departments to work on issues related to opening the new facility.

These in turn gave rise to a new production arm called “SF Opera Lab” to stage productions at the new facility, now named the Diane B. Wilsey Center. SF Opera Lab would experiment at the Wilsey Center, but also in other venues around the city.

For the new theater’s first season, lasting from March through May 2016, events included an a cappella opera, a one-man show, a film concert, and a program of music featuring the opera’s promising young performers (again, the Adler Fellows) and members of the Opera’s orchestra. Ticket prices for these events were considerably less than for the opera, ranging from $25 to $125. The web page for each event had a box titled “Who’s Gonna Love It,” describing the type of person who would be most attracted to the event. For instance, “Svadba-Wedding” is an a cappella opera about a Serbian bride-to-be and her friends preparing for her wedding day. The “Who’s Gonna Love It” box read, “Fans of Pentatonix, World Music lovers, or anyone planning a wedding.”

Through Wilsey Center performances and casual pop-up events around the city, the SFO team began to learn what younger audiences wanted from an opera experience.

The art form (opera) wasn’t a problem – they thoroughly enjoyed the performances – in fact, the singers performed some pop songs at the pop-up events, but the audiences seemed to react more strongly to the opera songs.

The problem for younger audiences were some of the trappings and traditions that surrounded the art form – the feeling that there were lots of rules made for an intimidating experience.


The problem for younger audiences were some of the trappings and traditions that surrounded the art form – the feeling that there were lots of rules made for an intimidating experience. For instance, Zena attended an opera at the War Memorial Opera House and noticed a sign at the main stage that encouraged people to take selfies and to share them via a particular hashtag. When she did so, an older patron scolded her, saying taking pictures wasn’t allowed.

The atmosphere at the pop-ups was much different. It was informal.   There was an emcee that explained the songs, why the singer was doing a particular song, and who generally made everyone feel welcome and comfortable. The singers also enjoyed the less formal events, in which they were able to interact with the crowd in a different way than during staged operas. They could tell jokes, talk to the crowd, and see reactions up close. They were accessible to the audience, and the audience was accessible to the singers.

Yet, as with all innovators who challenge the status quo, the iGroups faced challenges. The SFO culture had a strong bias towards maintaining the highest possible production values. Not all members of the Opera’s staff and management had embraced the design thinking “fail early, fail often” approach. And some felt that experiments like Barely Opera had diminished the Opera by not incorporating the high standards of a world-class opera company. The success of the pop-up events helped overcome this resistance. Sean Waugh, who led the SFO project team, observed that more and more staff were attending the pop-ups, where they realized “how thrilling it is to go to an opera event and see that the majority of people there are under the age of 35.”

Given the strong cultural pull of perfection, there was a risk that the pop-up events, which originally had a high degree of spontaneity, could become too polished. That SFO would get comfortable with a successful formula, and that it would lose those attributes which made it successful. For the audience and performers, keeping the show authentic, real, and unpredictable was part of the appeal.

But now the Opera had a way of fighting these impulses. As Shilvock puts it, “Design thinking is liberating for a company tightly constrained by contracts and expectations!” The d.school project “opened the door for us to be a more creative, questioning, and iterative organization, a little more willing to try and fail.”

Waugh agreed that the effect on the organization had been transformative. “This is an organization that has done almost a complete 360 after this process.  Before it was an organization that was very, very, very adverse to change, not open to the idea of failure, and now we’re embracing change to a greater degree, making SFO a more fun place to work.”

To which we can only say, “Bravo.”


Authors’ Note: Zena Barakat’s and Madhav Thattai’s San Francisco Opera project was completed for a d.school class called d.leadership: Design Leadership In Context, where a dozen or so pairs of Stanford students each year work with an external “client” to help them apply design thinking to solve thorny problems. Charla Bear also contributed to the project during a different phase. The class is taught by Perry Klebahn, Kathryn Segovia, Bob Sutton, and Jeremy Utley.


David Hoyt is a research associate at Stanford’s Graduate School of Business.

Robert Sutton is Professor of Management Science and Engineering in the Stanford Engineering School, where he is co-director of the Center for Work, Technology, and Organization, cofounder of the Stanford Technology Ventures Program, and a cofounder and active member of the new “d.school.” His new book, with Huggy Rao, is Scaling Up Excellence: Getting To More Without

Daily Design Inspirations 29: Elon Musk recounts the Secret History of Tesla Motors (#DailyDesignInspirations)


USA Today, May 31, 2016

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is talking to shareholders, starting with a history of the company. Soon, shareholders will talk to Musk.

Here’s how it is going:

5:21 p.m. — At the beginning, Musk and his fellow Tesla creators didn’t know what they were doing. “Completely clueless” when it came to figuring out how to make a car, he says. Plus, many wouldn’t give a startup the time of day. “At times, we couldn’t get suppliers to call us back.” Musk adds. “That was the usual response.”

5:23 p.m. — Musk gives a shout out to a California company called AC Propulsion that pioneered electric cars more than a decade ago.

5:29 p.m. — “Electric airplanes. Still dying to do that,” Musk jokes as he recalls the conversation that originally got him to thinking about electric cars. Tesla Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel says he brought up the airplane idea initially with Musk. But both turned their thinking to cars. In 2003 and 2004, everyone was telling them there would be no interest in electric cars. Musk says he got a test ride in AC Propulsion’s car and he told them “you’ve got to show the world this is real.”

5:32 p.m. — After being told that AC wouldn’t make an electric car just for him, Musk says he asked if he could make one himself. That’s what led him to the consortium that would launch Tesla. It was never. “this is a great way to make money.” Rather, “When I told my friends about this, they said ‘You’re crazy.'” Creating a car company would be dumb enough, but launching an electric car company was considered “stupidity squared.” Musk put the company’s odds of success at 10%. He said he put in lots of his own money — he made one of his fortunes from PayPal — because he didn’t want to risk his friends’ money on the Tesla venture.

5:37 p.m. — He blasts General Motors for killing its electric car program, which had such devoted fans that they were holding candlelight vigils as their cars, the Saturn EV1, were being crushed.

5:40 p.m. — Big mistake: Thinking that he could take a Lotus Elise and add an electric powertrain to create the Tesla Roadster. In fact, everything changed. “In the end, only 6% or 7% of the Tesla roadster” had anything else in common with another car.

5:48 p.m. — Musk says he gave early test drives to Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. The prototype developed a bug so it only went 10 miles per hour. Musk says he had to reassure them the car goes a lot faster — and they became investors. The lesson for people creating their own company: Adapt quickly, recognize and correct your mistakes. The sooner that happens, so much the better.

5:54 p.m. — Musk says he “was basically the chief designer of the body” of the original Tesla roadster. And he adds: “I don’t think I’m a good designer.” His inspirations: The Ferrari and Porsche.

5:56 p.m. — The team got 100 orders after giving test rides of two prototypes, which were barely hanging together, says Chief Technical Officer JB Straubel. Musk says “huge challenges” with the roadster including a transmission that “didn’t work.” The problem was eventually solved and Roadster deliveries began in 2008. Though it passed all required safety tests, Musk quips that the car was “completely unsafe” and “broke down all the time.” It required redesign and new suppliers. Straubel says Tesla had to move factories from overseas to California, including the battery pack manufacturer from Thailand. He says a lot of what’s special and underappreciated about Tesla is its manufacturing processes. “How important it is to build the machine that builds the machine,” is how Musk puts it.

6:15 p.m. — “I don’t know anyone who likes the current car buying experience,” Musk says. Tesla vowed to fix that, too, by not having conventional dealers. Most important thing: “Make sure that when people visit our store, they look forward to coming again.”

6:20 p.m. — Musk says designing a sexy sports car is relatively easy, but a sedan is hard. That led him to former General Motors and Mazda designer Franz von Holzhausen. “I realize it was the future,” von Holzhausen says.

6:25 p.m. — The design studio was a tent pitched in a corner of the SpaceX rocket factory. Musk told von Holzhausen he wanted the Model S to have seven seats — a very tough challenge in a sedan.

6:29 p.m. — In October, 2008, Musk says he met with head of R&D with Daimler in hopes of keeping Tesla alive. He says he was told they were thinking about an electric Smart car. He says he called and told Straubel that they had three months to have a working electric Smart car. At the time, Smart wasn’t sold in the U.S. So they sent an engineer to Mexico with $20,000, who came back with one. In a day, they had torn the whole car apart. It was the fastest Smart car ever. “You could do wheelies in the parking lot,” Musk says. The Daimler team arrived grumpy, but perked up when they drove the prototype — and they got a development contract. “If we hadn’t done that, Tesla would have died,” Musk says. It helped with credibility and Tesla needed the dough. Musk says he was tapped out and was borrowing money from friends at the time. It was early 2009, a time when the auto industry was hitting bottom and Chrysler and GM would be filing for bankruptcy reorganization.

6:35 p.m. — Tesla was losing money on every Roadster it built before the third quarter of 2009. But the Daimler investment was a turning point. “We were bailed out — by Daimler, not the government,” Musk says. Tesla had received and paid back an Energy Department loan. The loan was received in March, 2010.

6:47 p.m. — When it came to shopping the initial public offering, Musk says he found out Tesla could be polarizing. “Tesla is a company that seems to inspire love or hate,” he says. Investors were “rarely indifferent.” After the IPO, Musk says Tesla became one of the most shorted stocks on the Nasdaq — right up there with Skullcandy, Coinstar and Travelzoo. He hailed Toyota for joining with Tesla on the RAV4 electric and parting with its Fremont, Calif., factory that it operated jointly with GM. Today, it is Tesla’s factory.

6:55 p.m. — How Tesla created its Supercharger network, its high-speed chargers. Musk says it had been hoping another company would step up and install a network of high-speed electric-car chargers, but none did. Tesla was sending out teams of interns to scout locations at travel rest stops.

7:01 p.m. — The Gigafactory came about when Musk and his team realized there just wasn’t enough industry capacity to make the batteries that Tesla will need. Plus, most lithium-ion battery factories were aimed at supplying the electronics industry, not tailored to electric-car production. He says the Gigafactory will be capable of triple of the volume of what was expected. The party to celebrate its opening will come in July.

7:15 p.m.– The Model X crossover has been “challenging,” Musk says. “I need to fault myself for hubris in putting too much technology all at once into a product,” he says. He says he should have saved some of its most cool features for a version II or version III. The big problem at the moment: Making its signature feature, the gullwing doors over the second row, work correctly. “It’s a software problem. It’s figuring out how to interpret all the data from the sensors” and writing in the software in a way that knows how to open the doors under different circumstances. “Digging ourselves out of the hole” on that has been quite hard, he says. Two more software releases, which are usually sent wireless to the vehicles, are expected in the next month. “We will be at point where the doors are better than normal doors, as opposed to worse.” He added that anyone considering a Model X purchase should go ahead. “If you buy one now or soon, you will love the doors because the software will be right.”

7:23 p.m. — Musk says Nevada has put in $20 million so far for the battery Gigafactory, compared to $2 billion in investment so far by Tesla and its partners. “They are giving away nothing. It was basically bushes and desert,” he says. “It’s basically a 1% discount.”

7:39 p.m. — Musk closes the more than two hour history of Tesla by talking about how the real improvements in the future will come at the manufacturing level. “The true problem and difficulty is building the machine that makes the machine,” he says.

7:46 p.m. — A Nevada union representative criticizes Tesla for labor practices in building the Gigafactory. Musk says if Tesla had wanted to save money, it never would have built cars in California. And he noted other automakers not only build cars in states with cheaper labor costs, but other countries.

7:51 p.m. — Musk says Superchargers won’t be free for Model 3, its mass-market electric car next year, unless people buy an optional package that includes it. He says people should charge their cars where they charge their phones — not at a gas station. They need to value their time.

7:54 p.m. — Musk won’t rule out the possibility that someday Tesla made find a way to make electric aircraft, but not now. For one, he says he wants the company to stay focused. For the other, the energy density of batteries isn’t where it needs to be yet.

8:08 p.m. — Musk says no worries about the supply of lithum, used in Tesla batteries. “The nice thing about lithium is it’s extremely abundant on earth,” he says. In the next few years, Straubel says that Tesla is trying to find ways to reduce costs of lithium, but there have been no problems with supply.

8:18 p.m. — Eventually, Musk says he expects Tesla’s battery storage business, Tesla Energy, to have “roughly similar” revenue as the vehicle side.

8:40 p.m. — Musk says he’s already overdue to a board of directors meeting in closing the session.

Daily Design Inspirations 28: Jeanne Liedtka on How to Think Like a Designer (#DailyDesignInspirations)

I learned Design Thinking from her. And she remains one of the stalwarts in the space of Design Thinking, as a teacher and a practitioner.

Jeanne has been involved in the corporate strategy field for over 30 years. She is a professor at the Darden Graduate School of Business at the University of Virginia, where she teaches both MBAs and executives and consults on innovation, organic growth and design thinking. Beginning her career as a strategy consultant for the Boston Consulting Group, she has served as Associate Dean of the MBA Program at Darden, Executive Director of the Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Corporate Innovation, and Chief Learning Officer at United Technologies Corporation.

Jeanne Liedtka’s model

Here she argues that learning to approach problems the way Designers do can be a useful way to spark innovation. (Original link from Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business)