Brainstorming with 699 Minds in Dubai.

It’s one thing to do collaborative innovation over a digital social network but it’s another to do it physically in a huge room in Dubai—which is what I did yesterday. And it kinda worked, at least it sparked a lot of new ideas that could lead to better solutions to many of the world’s problems. It also highlighted why problems do not get solved—the micro-cultures of science and technology and NGOs do not always lend themselves to the most optimal solutions.

The concept at this World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda is to cross-pollinate silos of thought on key global issues. And after a day of doing that—walking from one GAC to another, sitting down and talking to experts in many fields—I feel we need to do a lot more of it. Here are a few of my experiences:

Climate Change was clearly high on everyone’s list of important isues and the experts in this group specifically asked for folks in the Design group to come in and help them out. Boy, do they need help. The conversation in the Climate Change group was all about the stick—forcing governments to accept limits on carbon emissions. “The planet is burning and there’s no time left.” That was the message. It was about 50% or 80% reductions being imposed from the top.

The designer response was to look for opportunities to enable people and companies to reduce their carbon footprints. The design response was positive, optimistic, opportunistic and generative (we came up with a half dozen ways to get started) in contrast to the negative, punitive and ideological Climate people (mostly scientists and NGOs who all focussed on just one program of caping carbon and lowering it without regard to growth, jobs, or individual choice). Very different cultures.

A similar thing happened in the Health GAC. Scientists and NGO folks were good at reading the data but bad at developing solutions of choice. They kept returning to punitive rules imposed by government. They relied on the logic of data and moral norms to rationalize action and the primary action was government regulation.

I believe there is plenty of room for government sticks. One of the most important in the US is forcing utilities to give individual households the tools to see their carbon usage in their homes and the ability to change their behavior to cut down that use. Imagine a simple iPhone-like device that shows you how much energy you use and money you spend when you turn on each appliance at each time of day. People would start saving both energy and money immediately. Right now, most utilities don’t permit these devices in homes. Ridiculous.

But by and large, offering transparent data and choice to people works better than imposing rules and design is great at visualizing new options and choices. To me, this was one of the big lessons of Dubai, reinforcing my belief in the process of design thinking (call it innovation if it works better for you).

One other thought. Thanks to the designer skills and drive for visualization of ideas of the Design group, the cubicle we were in looked terrific—with concepts and ideas written all over the walls, photos illustrating solutions, and even a presentation of a Parson’s student award-winning idea of using soap in the shape of landmines sold to finance the elimination of landmines (now going into production). It was all about data visualization and it drew dozens of people from other GACs to the Design pod to talk. Very powerful.