Getting hands-on with online education – A Crash Course on Creativity

Tina Seelig's Innovation EngineI’ve been following the developments in the online education space with increasing interest over the last year or so, with the available options and choice growing seemingly by the day. The likes of Coursera, Venture Lab, and Udacity now have an impressive selection of courses, across the full range of the sciences, technology, arts and humanities. Then there are the likes of Codeacademy (learn to code), Skillshare (a global marketplace for classes), and the inspirational Khan Academy.

Back in October, whilst browsing the courses on offer starting soon, I came across A Crash Course on Creativity. Taught by Tina Seelig, Executive Director of Stanford’s Technology Ventures Program, the course is described as:

This crash course is designed to explore several factors that stimulate and inhibit creativity in individuals, teams, and organizations. In each session we will focus on a different variable related to creativity, such as framing problems, challenging assumptions, and creative teams.

The course is highly experiential, requiring each student to participate actively, taking on weekly projects. Each Wednesday a new challenge will be presented, and the results are due the following Tuesday. Some of the challenges will be completed individually, and some will be done in teams. There will be a two-week project toward the end of the course that will allow you to use all the tools you have learned.

To foster collaboration and learning between the students, we will craft teams for each assignment. Each project will be done with a different team, so students get a chance to work with a wide variety of participants. All submissions will be viewed and evaluated by the course participants. There will also be a course Twitter feed and Facebook page, and several scheduled Google Hangouts that will enable active discussions on specific topics.

This was a course that both appealed to me, relevant to my work and interests, and would give me a real hands-on experience of a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC).

I enrolled right away, and by the time the course was about to kick off, I found myself jumping into something with over 35,000 other students, literally from all corners of the globe. Fantastic!

We’re coming towards the end of the course, and it has been a fascinating experience, I’ll share my progress, course assignments and observations of the experience in subsequent posts, along with some comparisons with having a crack at learning Ruby on Rails via One Month Rails on Skillshare for which I blame Mike Fraietta! 😉

Meanwhile I’ll leave you with Tina Seelig’s TEDxStanford talk: Introducing the Innovation Engine

A serious side to industry incumbents and their inability to innovate

This past weekend, returning home from a trip to London with friends, on a whim I bought a copy of  November’s Practical Boat Owner (PBO) magazine, looking forward to some interesting boating reading in-flight. So it turned out, but what I didn’t expect was for it to provide blogging material on the topic of industry incumbents and their struggles to innovate.

The article that caught my attention was looking at whether a “revolutionary new lifejacket design radically increasing the chances of survival of a man overboard”. Serious stuff for any sailor.

In many markets, brands and products make small leap-frogs over each other, mostly marketing-driven “features”  in the name of innovation. In our clamouring for “shiny and new” we often overlook this in the markets for washing machines, mobile phones, bicycles, and the like. But in the sector for marine personal safety equipment, it doesn’t strike me as acceptable.

In this case, unfortunately,  the cost was much higher than a bad quarter and a dip in a share-price.

In a previous issue, PBO had done some testing of lifejackets following the death of Christopher Reddish who “drowned in minutes, despite being attached”. The tests concluded that a “boat would need to be slowed to less than 2 knots within 1 minute to give the casualty any chance of survival”. A crew’s reaction times and a boat’s inertia combine to make those chances slim indeed.

A 22-year-old engineer and sailor Oscar Mead, was moved to act. In his words:

“I dug out some webbing, a D-ring and on old inflatable lifejacket, and experimented with attaching a harness to the back of the jacket.”

“It was so effective that I couldn’t believe no one had done it before.”

It doesn’t sound like the kind of effort a product design engineer working for an established marine safety brand would be discouraged by his management from doing. At least I hope not.

Some eighteen months later, backed by a successful patent, Oscar Mead’s TeamO lifejacket was debuted.

All traditional harnesses, using an attachment point on a sailor’s chest, pull man overboard victims through the water chest forward, effectively forcing water into the mouth and face and this can literally drown sailors who go overboard, despite being tethered to the boat.

The new TeamO design allows the harness line to pop over the wearers shoulders when called into service so that the tether load is taken from the back and the man overboard is pulled through the water with his head securely above water and his mouth away from the oncoming water.

Here’s the video clearly demonstrating the difference between a “traditional” lifejacket, and the new TeamO lifejacket.

Team O Lifejacket on test in PBO

It saddens me that it cost a sailor his life, independent journalism to run product trials, and a sufficiently motivated young man to move the dial and come up with something better.

It strikes me that the marine safety industry could well do with reading up on some of Simon Wardley‘s thinking, in particular on inertia to change:

Inertia can create quite a significant barrier to change, which is often why it is a company that is not encumbered by an existing business model that creates the change and produces the more evolved form of the activity.

And perhaps then some reflective thinking, their situation clearly framed by management innovation gurus Gary Hamel and Polly LaBarre in their recent article Making Innovation a Natural Act:

For industry incumbents, the problem isn’t a lack of resources or a shortage of human creativity, but a dearth of pro-innovation values, processes and practices.


our organizations have efficiency DNA.  Operational goals like productivity, predictability and alignment are woven deeply into management systems and processes.  Innovation, experimentation and risk-taking—not so much. Until we solve this DNA-level problem, rule-bending innovation, when it happens at all, will occur in spite of the system rather than because of it.

I wish Oscar Mead and his TeamO venture all the best for the future. I hope he can be successful with it, and avoids repeating the mistakes of the incumbents he is disrupting today.

Ford cars to become open-source crowd-enabled modular products

Tuned Pontiac console
Lego Jeep Wrangler
It’s modular!

Only yesterday I was discussing with friends and colleagues potential impacts of 3D printing, how a number of trends and technology advances are combining to put us as the consumer at the centre of product experiences, providing us with unprecedented choice and the ability to co-create as active participants in the design, configuration and even the manufacturing of our purchases.

A coincidence then that up pops an article on RWW about how Ford is looking at cars becoming “open-source crowd-enabled modular products”.

“Let’s say you don’t like these steering wheel buttons. Maybe you could slap in a capacitive touch controller,” he said. “Using this platform, people would, by themselves, be able to design things.”

Tuned Pontiac console
Tuned Pontiac console

Nice idea I thought, but haven’t we been “tuning” cars forever? How does this differ? I’d like to be clear on what I mean by “tuning”, and once again Wikipedia’s definition serves our purpose:

“Car tuning is a generalized term referring to the act of improving the performance or appearance of a vehicle….. Most vehicles leave the factory set up for an average driver’s expectations and conditions, tuning on the other hand, has become a way to personalize the characteristics of a vehicle to the owner’s preference”

Sparkly Merc

Sounds pretty similar, so what are Ford up to? Reading on I learn that Ford’s research lab aims to:

enable innovators – even those with limited resources and technical chops – to see the automobile as a platform for creativity.

1950 Mercury
1950 Mercury

That certainly made me sit up. This sounds more significant than a nice gesture to the minority of car owners adding a bit of chrome and a body kit – with respect to all the creative and talented folks customising their wheels! –  and is talk much more in line with some of the trends thinking I mentioned earlier.

In the next few months, Ford expects to release the beta version of its car app developer kit. There are already more than 1,000 developers waiting to be notified when it’s ready. At that point, this lab’s work will shift to supporting and growing a community of car hackers. “We’re interested in spurring the creation of an ecosystem,”

"Iles de Paix" modular polyhedra
Community! Ecosystem!

There we go, a “community”, an “ecosystem”, I had a feeling these two might get a mention, we can’t be going anywhere these days without them! Seriously!

But again, we might argue this is nothing new in the world of car-modding. Even as someone who has never even replaced the pommel on a gear stick, I know that there are magazines to buy, meetups to go to, engine tuning services, and a myriad of shiny but loud exhaust pipes, carbon fibre trim, LED lights, the list goes on….

The difference as I see it – and it’s an important distinction – is in the use of the word “developer”.

Ford’s OpenXC API runs on a combination of Arduino and Android platforms – technology chosen to make modding your car as easy as programming a smartphone. The system can potentially access the 1,000 or more data points, generated by sensors on Ford vehicles and served up via the 16-pin onboard diagnostics port (a standard feature of all cars since 1996). The Ford toolkit encourages development of software as well as add-on hardware.

Moving into the social, networked era…

This is taking car tuning into the social, networked era. You may think it rings of putting domotica on four wheels. Indeed, it may start with a lot of that. Yet the number of sensors churning out data will continue to grow, those 1,000+ data points exponentially. The possibilities for innovative new features begin to rack up.

Why not imagine a heads-up display incorporating real-time GPS-located braking distances based upon crowd-sourced braking distances and speeds from other motorists driving the same road?

Whilst I just came up with the idea to illustrate a point, I’d wager on it not being particularly original. T.J. Giuli – who runs the Ford lab – we can assume has many of his own. Yet even he recognises this is already something with significant momentum behind it, likely driven in a large part by the passionate car tuning community.

“Tons of people are already making car apps that work with OBD2 readers, or replacing the center stack with their own car computer. That’s happening today, and there’s nothing that anybody can do to stop it. So, it’s a good idea for OEMs like Ford to make this really easy. Hopefully, we can benefit customers with a lot of awesome new features.”

Don’t believe him? Take a quick look at DashCommand on Apple’s app store….

Whilst taking our car purchasing choices and configurations well beyond the current website-based, more marketing focused attempts can only be a good thing, what I find interesting here is the extent to which approaches like this have to potential to bring significant additional value over time.

Modular manufacturing
Modular manufacturing

There are the obvious categories such as efficiency, safety, but what about some that are potentially more challenging? it remains a reality that a car purchase is an irregular event for many of us, particularly in today’s economic climate – again, something we could argue is a good thing. Yet our transport needs change over time, whether it be lifestyle, location, children….

I’m optimistic that initiatives like this from Ford can gain the legs necessary to see innovative strides forward. Wouldn’t it be good if where we are able to re-configure aspects of our cars to help cope with those changing needs rather than simply have to go out and buy a new one….

As it turns out, that is not a new idea either! Whilst browsing for images to illustrate this post, I turned up one of Dave Gray‘s wonderful drawings, with the following details:

A US-based company named Wikispeed has adopted a modular approach with the design of the SGT01, a car designed as a modular platform which will empower suppliers to innovate freely. Each part of the car is a component that fits into a standard interface.

It will be interesting to watch this evolve.

Recommended further reading:

If you got this far and found it even remotely interesting, Dave Gray‘s article “The future is podular” is much better!