Curious about…Learning

I just finished reading Lucy Kellaway’s acerbic-but-true piece (free registration required) in the FT about management consultants and all their related jargon landing in China.  And it immediately brought to mind an evening I spent in Shanghai a few months ago, where we invited a group of young Chinese female entrepreneurs to come into our office to have dinner with us and talk about their experiences of building their respective businesses there. I kicked off the evening by quoting the Mao Tse Tung proverb  (in appalling Chinese, I’m afraid) “Women Hold Up Half The Sky,” and we went from there. Each woman introduced herself; they talked eloquently about their lives and where they had come from – in some cases from poor backgrounds in surrounding villages, about the sacrifices their families had made to get them there. There were tears and laughter and lots of emotional outpouring as they talked at length about their own personal philosophies, in many cases freely quoting Confucius and other ancient Chinese traditions. As I listened, one thought kept racing though my mind:

Shut up and learn. Say nothing.

I am about to go and give a talk at a TEDx event in Sendai, Japan, the epicenter of this year’s devastating 3.11 earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear reactor meltdown. I’m pretty sure I am the only non-Japanese speaker to have been invited, which is a great honor. I have made one thing very clear to the organizers- I am not there to talk about myself or to pitch IDEO, but to listen to them, to reflect back what we are seeing and talk about how we can partner with the Japanese people to create momentum, to prototype some actual forms of tangible recovery and to avoid, at all costs, any more rhetoric, analysis or discussion about this situation. Looking around me, the Japanese resilience in times like this is incredible to behold anyway – small businesses are re-emerging in the area and the locals are rallying; whilst people are still grieving, they are moving on and creating new opportunities for themselves. One fantastically inspiring story that I heard is that the local fishermen, who now have essentially no possibility to fish in the radiated water, have transferred their craft of net-making into making hammocks they’re selling online. The hammocks are beautiful, made from green fishing twine, and I am in the process of buying one for every one of our offices ( One of them was quoted as saying: “My body and soul start to relax the moment I lay my hands on a fishing net.” Their wives are working alongside them, making woven bracelets to commemorate 3.11.  Most interestingly, I learned that they are not doing this purely to make money but “because working again makes us happy.” These people are, in the best possible sense, designing. I have nothing to add, and much to learn. My role in this is to get out of their way and help tell their story.

A client of mine once said: “Designers think with their eyes,” and I have always loved this. Simply looking, really seeing, listening, and in many cases, saying nothing but merely absorbing a person’s situation is the basis of great design. My role in all of this is to be interested, informed, and inspired. To be…well, curious. Hence the blog, The Curiosity Chronicles, which I started six months ago when I was in China and where, again, I was simply blown away by what I saw around me: normal people getting on with their lives, being excited about the new future that they were seeing and creating around them, making sense of their world on their own terms and in many cases, designing that world to fit them. No amount of charts, PowerPoints or complicated jargon could ever help with, explain, or compete with that. I learned the Mandarin 老百姓 Lao Baixing, which translated literally means “old hundred surnames,” “commoners” or just “ordinary folks.” I have thought a lot since then about the design equivalent of that, of being a Lao Baixing Designer – an ordinary person designing for and with other ordinary folks. Elitist people designing elitist products and speaking an elitist and rarified language bores me to tears.

So I will try my best in this column to give you a window into what I am seeing, hearing, feeling and hopefully, how it inspires me and how I hope it can inspire you. I once had a client tell me “The Future Cannot Be Designed in ExCel.” I start every talk with that quote, because it is not only prophetic but true, the future starts with your eyes, and using them, and I hope we can go on that journey of seeing together.

To Curiosity.

Paul Bennett is Managing Partner and Chief Creative Officer of IDEO. Among his many contributions to the firm’s evolution into a global practice he’s worked on consumer experience design; helping to establish IDEO’s presence in China; and co-founding the New York office. Paul is based in Shanghai and is focused on bringing to market commercially viable, socially significant new businesses and consumer products, services, and experiences. He is responsible for company-wide content excellence, and he actively develops ideas (and publishes articles) related to the field of human-centered, design-led innovation.

Follow the link for Paul’s other Curiosity Chronicles.

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