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Reporting on innovative ideas in business.

Radical Openness: How to Best Understand it, Manage it, Harness it?

Not so long ago, in the mid-2000s, many conversations in offices, schools, and even parties centered around the exciting concept of radical openness made possible by then-new social media. But now, as the 2010s are in full swing and social media are established, dominant platforms, how can we--as designers, strategists, organizations, consumers, and individuals--best harness the widespread acceptance of radical openness? The recent TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh, Scotland, offered a fascinating and widely varied lineup of speakers who, collectively, helped to answer this question. Or at least will help propel the discussion forward, long after the conference ended on June 29.

Four main themes emerged across five days of talks both on the TED stage and impromptu conversations around Edinburgh, among speakers and attendees. From the lips and minds of neuroscientists to educators, artists to activists, musicians to political theorists, the key points to emerge were:

- The act of making is a powerful learning process--for individuals and organizations. Making--as practiced in the truly do-it-yourself sense--can encourage people to better understand how the world works and consequently articulate their needs. The DIY movement is likely to result in more informed consumers who demand better products and services. Otherwise, they just might create them and compete in the marketplace themselves. And, may I add, makers often create cool, playful stuff quickly, because most DIY projects must take place urgently, in spare hours and minutes outside of official “work” time. Passion is essential, and that’s always been the fuel for the most exciting new objects and ideas.

This idea echoed throughout a focused session on June 26 called “Tinker Make Do,” featuring speakers such as Arduino creator Massimo Banzi and smart materials expert Catarina Mota, as well as in numerous other presentations. Ramesh Raskar, a researcher of camera technology at MIT’s Media Lab said that he hopes “DIY will show us...the next dimension in imaging,” for instance. Scarily, the world’s criminals are using the maker’s sensibility in very sinister ways to harness new technologies to cause mayhem and even kill--but acknowledging this phenomenon can help authorities outsmart them, said future crimes expert Mark Goodman. The power of making, empowered by online commerce, can be seen more abstractly in the idea of “Peers, Inc.” presented by Zipcar and Buzzcar founder Robin Chase, who discussed how people are launching new DIY businesses among their friends to fill gaps not met by traditional companies, as well as profit from them as their personal networks are amplified thanks to social media.

- Play is a key ingredient to achieve success across nearly any discipline. Whether the goal is to overcome a personal health crisis, to conduct breakthrough scientific research, or to conceive and launch compelling design projects, approaching a desired outcome with a sense of humor and a dose of healthy competition is an advantageous strategy. Educational researcher Beau Lotto said in his talk that the best psychological and other experiments “are games,” essentially. Harvard Business School professor Amy Cuddy discussed how “power posing”--or copying confident body language similar to that of Wonder Woman or Superman-- is proven to help in job interviews or sales meetings. Jane McGonigal, a game designer, discussed how she turned away from her own suicidal thoughts after a serious concussion by creating a game to beat the “bad guy” of her brain injury. John Maeda, president of the Rhode Island School of Design and a respected media artist and designer, discussed how executives can learn from the playful thinking of artists to re-think management in an era of heterarchies, not hierarchies.

- The ability to successfully manage change is one of the most valuable new skills for human beings, nations, and businesses to master in coming years. In a world with rapidly changing rules and a dramatically bumpy economy, not merely acknowledging change but learning to practically deal with it will become ever more important. Educational researcher Andreas Schleicher discussed on the TED stage how “success depends not on what we remember from school, but how prepared we for change.” A similar point was made by business educator Eddie Obeng, who runs an online management school and cites IBM, Microsoft, Citigroup, and numerous other companies as his corporate clients. Organizations and individuals reluctant to change from yesterday’s model of protecting intellectual property or keeping information private will struggle, unable to embrace the power of crowds and collective thinking, as Don Tapscott discussed in his talk.

- Openness is a starting point, not an end point.
While the conference celebrated the promise of radical openness, many speakers discussed that it shouldn’t be merely a noble final goal, but the beginning of an era of constantly improving communication, governance, science, medicine, culture, and business. Openness, many speakers suggested, has always been a human pursuit throughout history, and it has to be carefully analyzed and executed to be fruitful.

“Openness alone can’t drive change,” as Margaret Heffernan, management expert, said. “Constructive conflict is necessary...we must be willing to change our minds.” Fascinatingly, design curator Deyan Sudjic presented a lovely talk in which he discussed how the concept of opacity in architecture may be a more appropriate physical metaphor for openness today than full transparent glass. Opacity, he stated, offers a “sense of possibility, with some ambiguity.” Social media guru Clay Shirky weaved in and out of media history to discuss how radically open platforms, including Gutenberg’s printing press, give new voice to the masses--but it’s not always immediately a constructive phenomenon. Even back in 1499, erotic novels were published as books, a startling 150 years before the first scientific treatises were printed and distributed, Shirky said. “More media means more argument,” Shirky also observed, acknowledging that instead of the “world peace” that the telegraph, the radio, and TV promised, the opposite (at least in terms of heated debate) followed nearly every new communications medium of the last century or so. And in a talk that’s likely to be argued in lively debates, filmmaker Kirby Ferguson likened copying to the act of invention itself, suggesting ideas are meant to be shared, and those that are borrowed often are dubbed the best. Bob Dylan and Steve Jobs, he pointed out, were masters of re-interpreting the ideas of others. “Our creativity comes from without, not from within,” he said--implying creation may just be a team sport.

On that note, it will be fascinating to see how these ideas and the many, many others presented and discussed at TED Global 2012 will spread, mutate, blossom, inspire, and transfer into fresh new projects and products, as well as address existing challenges. For the beauty of such a conference as TED is that it exemplifies the very themes it presents and promotes--game-changing concepts that its organizers, speakers, attendees, and extended community online believe can, and will, improve the world.

Pictured, from top: Clay Shirky, Catarina Mota, John Maeda, Kirby Ferguson. All images: TED Conferences/Flickr

Reena Jana is frog's Executive Editor. Based in New York, Reena is the former innovation department editor at BusinessWeek, and has contributed to a variety of publications including Wired, the New York Times, Harvard Business Review online, Fortune.com, and numerous others.