The New Humble World Order

The recession is helping folks get in touch with their priorities. They want products and services that are personal, smaller, and more efficient

"I meant to do that." In the campy 1980s comedy Pee-wee's Big Adventure, whenever Pee-Wee Herman fell off his bike, he dusted himself off, looked around sheepishly, and said, "I meant to do that."

Well, we just fell off our economic bike. As we try to reconcile our financial capabilities with our material aspirations, something has to give. Can we act like we intended to do this? Baby boomers have a long history of translating their self-interest into a moral imperative: Make love, not war. Greed is good. Show me the money. Change we need. What's next: Proud to be modest?

Now that boomers (Confession: Yes, I am a boomer) have much less money than they thought they did, is it going to be cool to consume less and save more? Are consumers going to strap their spending patterns to the ever-nascent environmental movement and take pride in cutting back? Are we going to say to ourselves, "I meant to do that." Well, perhaps we really did. But unlike Pee-Wee Herman, when we do get back on our bike, it is likely to be a very different one.

What Do Consumers Really Want?

To design goods and services for these new consumers, we need to understand what they really want. In a series of in-depth consumer studies conducted before the U.S. recession and equity market collapse, we can see evidence emerging of much more modest aspirations than our spending habits would have suggested.

We recently asked a range of people across the U.S.: What would they do if their house were on fire? What would they grab as they ran out of their home? The kids and the dog came first. The answers that followed included things of no great material value: photographs, childhood toys, and other tokens of their memories—things that have essentially no exchange value, but are extremely personal.

Talking to car buyers, we learned that some young people wanted the utility that they saw in their parents' sport-utility vehicles, but packaged in a way that was smaller and more efficient. And from upper-middle-class baby boomers, we learned that they were not looking to be rich in retirement but simply to have enough.

Personal, smaller, and more efficient. Simple enough. These are the real aspirations for many people, and they will guide how they allocate their time and money.

When times are flush, people can be persuaded to want more and spend more, but our current reduced circumstances are forcing us to be more introspective. When we think more carefully about what is important to us, we are likely to make different choices and ones that align better with our real values. When consumers do come back to the market in 2010, they will have different priorities, not just quantitatively different, but qualitatively different. Everything is changing.

The Innovation Challenge

The business of design, innovation, and marketing has always been about how to meet the needs of people, and how to connect products and services to the meaning in their lives. That is how we design things that people will want. It's how we market to them in a way that makes people want to buy. But frankly, people today recognize that the connection between needs and meaning has been stretched quite thin—buy this $5,000 stove and you can have a more intimate time with your family in the kitchen. Really?

The current recession is going to force us as innovators to think hard about people's changing priorities and to be as creative in our solutions. We need to get inside the heads of these new consumers, and then envision completely new ways to meet their aspirations. Not just bigger, better, faster, but new, relevant, genuine.

Unfortunately, as the automobile companies are finding out, getting from here to there is not going to be easy. As a society, we have designed the wrong cars, built the wrong factories, and put houses in the wrong places. More of the same is not going to work, but we can't afford to simply discard what we do have.

How Design Thinking Can Help

We are surrounded by what feel like impossible innovation challenges—a small company trying to rapidly improve its product line without access to credit, a large company fighting inertia to try to change course before it is too late, a government looking for ways to foster this transformation without misallocating resources or misguiding regulation.

How can we begin to approach these problems?

1. Acknowledge that you do not know the answer. The answer may not be in the limited set of options you have in front of you, so instead of making false trade-offs, search for another way. Be open to completely new ideas that are not even in the framework of your current thinking.

2. Search for solutions—not inwardly as experts, but through the lens of consumers and customers and constituents. Conduct your research as if you were an anthropologist.

3. Explore options by tapping a broad range of people with different skills, disciplines, and mind-sets. Include people who understand well the constraints you have to work within, but also include people who do not see any constraints. New solutions often come from outside current expertise.

4. Prototype and evaluate a range of ideas. Learn, iterate, and refine until it is right. Great ideas with small flaws fail. Details matter.

People all over the world are shifting gears. People are asking questions: What do I need? What do I really need now? And what will I need for the future? Across the globe, companies are trying to shift gears to keep pace with their customers. One might call it Humble New World.

We know how to pump up a business into something more, something bigger. It is new territory to build a company or an economy around personal, smaller, and more efficient. Simply enough, it will take some very creative thinking to find a way.

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