Dangerous and seductive curves

Aircraft carrier in landscape, Hans Hollein

I may have referred to this before, but recent readings bring the idea back to mind.

In one of those influential lectures very early in college, Hans Hollein, an Austrian architect, offered an insightful illustration of the relationship between technology and society. I can not remember why he was speculating on this in his talk, in that long ago time when computers were kept in special locked rooms and run by punch cards, and chalk was used on chalkboards, and his own reputation at that time was shaped by a couple of small shop designs.

He drew a graph that looked like this –

His point, reinforced over and over since then by developments none of us could have foreseen at that time, was that technological development moves inexorably on, but social development lags. When the gap between the states of society and technology becomes too great, a social revolution takes place. Society adapts to technology.

That broad contextual reference reappeared when reviewing these two graphs in a recent post by David Sherwin in his very nice Change Order blog –

He called his S-curve the “Design Investment Curve,” and offered it to designers as a way to set client expectations about an appropriate pace of development of a concept and project. I think the offering is appropriate, yet I think his perspective, and the scale of the curve, may be shifting.

I many cases, the commissions that come to us as architects and designers are already on the acceleration portion of the curve in our clients’ minds. A corporate or organizational strategy has been formed internally, budgets have been developed and schedules set, the project has been formulated and moved into the workstream of an implementation team, RFP’s have been developed and a selection process executed, and then we get the commission. Client interest, anticipation and anxiety must be high at that point, and so, as Sherwin points out, are expectations. We are by this time, as in Hollein’s graph, “society” to our client’s “technology.”

It may be very appropriate for us to adjust our client’s expectations about the probable or possible pace of a project or program. But another graph appeared in my reading recently, and I wonder if it does not set a different tone.

I was watching a video of John Seely Brown presenting to a class at Stanford recently. His new book, The Power of Pull: How Small Moves, Smartly Made, Can Set Big Things in Motion was about to come out making the argument for the need of new approaches and the rise of new institutions to meet emerging needs and be successful in emerging contexts.

His point, like Hollein’s, was that the advance of technology was inexorable. Brown’s graph illustrated technology with a very steep and very tall acceleration line and also served as a representation of the “flow” of ideas in our time. His argument was that survival/success/prosperity would mean that we get into that state of flow and adjust our strategies and programs to fit, like this –

So what does this mean for architects and designers, and their clients? Maybe this –

  • We are in the state of social revolution that Hollein represented by the vertical breaks in his graph
  • We need to adjust our own expectations, and get into the flow that our clients are in or trying to get themselves into
  • We may want to explore the power of small, smart moves, developed in collaboration with others, to uncover what matters and to sustain position in the flow
  • We need to understand how to quickly develop effective and powerful “creation spaces” for ourselves as well as for our clients

What are your thoughts?

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3 thoughts on “Dangerous and seductive curves

  1. I love your ideas here, Jim!

    Your POV is directly reflected in a lot of the work that I do in my day job—that when you map the overall expectations of a single project across a long-term client relationship and a set of highly complex products and services, you’re continually interjecting ideas to try to force positive change more effectively not only for what you’re designing, but also for organizations that aren’t able to handle rapid change.

    • David,

      Thanks first, for your blog. I’ve always enjoyed it and its a great starting point for extended thinking. And thank you for both your tweet last night and this comment.

      You are pointing out a key difference in the chain of commission to delivery from the pattern I had outlined in the post. That is, when we have not merely a project but a long-term relationship with our clients, we have a context for insight from performance and the opportunity to inform, influence and act as a trusted adviser. As in that last graph, we can participate with them in the flow and interject ideas, as you say, into the stream of their organizational purpose and development.

      Thanks again for being a great idea catalyst!

  2. Pingback: Return to “scenius” – 6 key factors supporting information spillover and communal genius « archizoo

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