Todd was recently interviewed by Forbes.com columnist Victor Hwang, an venture capitalist and entreprenuer based in Silicon Valley. This interview originally appeared in Forbes.com on February 11, 2014. Posted here with permission from the author.
Todd Johnston was a designer before designing was cool. For decades, he and his colleagues have practiced design to accelerate innovation for corporations and countries. His team designs the collaborative sessions at the World Economic Forum in Davos, where they are often tasked to help leaders tackle the biggest challenges. Next week, Todd makes his debut as the Head of Design for our Global Innovation Summit in Silicon Valley.
We set a simple challenge for ourselves: if we believe that innovative ecosystems can be designed across entire countries, then surely we can create an ecosystem in a single conference. Therefore, working with Todd, we have turned the conference into a giant design laboratory. Instead of listening to one-way lectures, our participants will be working in small startup-like teams to tackle real problems in real time. Instead of talking in abstraction, our participants will be building tangible, 3D prototype solutions to tackle systemic challenges.
I wanted to share some of Todd’s insights on design with you, as they are particularly interesting and relevant to anyone trying to accelerate innovation, entrepreneurship, and economic value creation.
Victor Hwang: What does design mean to you?
Todd Johnston: The first definition I remember learning for design was “to mark out,” which comes from the Latin form of the word (dēsignāre). The simplicity of this definition speaks to me and does as good a job as any definition in getting to the heart of the matter. To design is to mark out a pattern as a means of making meaning of an experience. A design marks out a vision for what can be; the act of designing is to move with intent to close the gap between existing conditions and that vision.
Hwang: How do you practice design?
Johnston: Design as I have practiced it has always been prefixed with “co-“, meaning together, mutually with others. When done well, collaboration unleashes collective intelligence and channels that intelligence into the design process to produce dramatically better results. Co-design recognizes that everyone has expertise to offer, and that there are no experts in the fields of the unknown and undiscovered. The complex problems we face today call for all kinds of intelligences, voices and vantage points.
Hwang: Why has design become so important today?
Johnston: Design is a hands-on endeavor of the mind, body and soul. It is both playful and thoughtful, and can be highly liberating. Worthy design is immensely challenging. Rarely are boundaries or solutions clear or easy to come by. This is a great time to be a designer, as I believe we are living in a time when a fundamentally new paradigm, or way of understanding and interacting with the world, is being formed and coming into being. What better reward could a designer ask for than to help give shape to this?
Hwang: You talk about how the knowledge economy has transitioned into the creative economy. What does that mean?
Johnston: Let me first say what I’m not saying. I am not saying that the knowledge economy is going away, or that knowledge is becoming a less relevant source of what shapes our collective worldview. Over the last quarter century, there have been a number of overlapping descriptors of the social, economic and technological paradigms in which we live. It is largely accepted that what was known as the industrial economy is no longer dominant, and has been replaced by the knowledge economy and network economy as more accurate descriptors of what shapes the marketplace. Part of what is driving this transition is that knowledge is becoming easier and less expensive to store, share, transfer and replicate.
Hwang: What is the result of that transition?
Johnston: The ability to creatively combine and apply various bodies of knowledge in new and more powerful ways is becoming of great and greater significance. In other words, it is not just about knowledge, but what you do with it. Steve Denning, who has been writing about the creative economy for several years, characterizes it as “an economy in which the driving force is innovation… in which organizations are nimble and agile and continually offering new value to customers and delivering it sooner.” Building on this, I’d argue that networks are in many instances replacing organizations as the primary mechanisms for combining disparate bodies of knowledge in innovative ways, and are typically more likely to be nimble and agile. Thus, the creative economy is the name I give to what is emerging from the combination of the knowledge economy in the networked age.
Hwang: How do you describe the philosophy behind your work?
Johnston: From a practical point of view, the power really comes from its recognition that design, creativity, collaboration, modeling, meaning making, problem solving … all of these things are inherently part of who we are as human beings. There is a quote attributed to Bucky Fuller that goes something like “All children are born geniuses; 9,999 out of every 10,000 are swiftly, inadvertently de-geniusized by grownups.”
Well, maybe one way of looking at the MG Taylor philosophy [in which I was trained] is the process of re-geniusizing people to their fully human selves. How? By doing. By bringing people into the hands-on experience, as a community, designing their future together. From the get go, the Taylors recognized the value of any concept, theory or idea, was in what it enabled you to do.
Hwang: What lessons have you learned from you work at the World Economic Forum in Davos?
Johnston: First, dealing with the constraint of incredibly short sessions. … I’m talking about true, experientially rich, participatory design sessions, in which we are asked to take on a subject or theme complex in nature and provide a platform for 40 – 60 participants to move through several iterations of the creative process in order to make significant, meaningful progress on an issue with global impact. Intellectual property, transatlantic relations, gender equality, climate change, access to water, responsible wealth, and so on….
Secondly, with the World Economic Forum, the teams and programs I’ve been a part of are just a small fraction of the overall system and community that is brought together. … So, what we, as a small team of facilitators have learned and are continuing to learn, is how and where we can make a difference to the system. Where are the critical leverage points we can leverage for greater impact? How do we make the work visible beyond just those that participate in a session? What can we do to facilitate connections between individuals and parts of the system that may not otherwise be made?
Hwang: How will your participation at the Global Innovation Summit be similar or different from Davos?
Johnston: I am very much focused on what we can do to facilitate participants having an integrated, progressive experience. What I mean by this is that I want participants to both get great value from each individual aspect of the program but also for them to make sense of the whole and leaves them feeling as though they have contributed to and accomplished something meaningful collectively.
The key difference, and challenge that we’ll have to meet, is in my work with the World Economic Forum, we have fairly robust facilitation teams and overall smaller groups of people that we’re working with at any given time. So, [the large size of the Summit] will undoubtedly stretch my thinking and my skills to a place they haven’t been before. And that is one of the things that is most attractive to me. New ground. New challenges. Bring it on!
Victor W. Hwang is a venture capitalist and entrepreneur in Silicon Valley. He is Executive Director of Global Innovation Summit + Week (February 17-21, 2014), an event focused on catalyzing systemic innovation across companies, communities, and countries.