Design, Design, Design!

What if I told you to read one book this year for the sake of your — and your employer’s — survival?

I have read one such book.  As a matter of fact, I’ve read it twice, taking care the second time to write notes in the page margins.

As a matter of fact, I would — if I could — require every Cooperative Extension professional in the United States to read this book.  As I see it, the very survival our organizations depends on whether we heed the lessons outlined in A Whole New Mind: Why Right-Brainers Will Rule the Future by Daniel H. Pink.

If you are unwilling to read any further, I’ll summarize the basic theme of the book: Design!

To drive home the importance of this theme, I suggest that it be repeated as often as possible, almost like a Vedic mantra: Design! Design! Design!

So what accounts for the centrality of design in this emerging economy?  Pink cites three factors.

Abundance, Asia, Automation

In the past few decades, the global knowledge economy has produced something beyond the wildest dreams of earlier generations of humanity: abundance — a dazzling cornucopia of products encompassing every size, description and function.

But there’s a deeper, more disturbing dimension to this.  In the United States, most of the knowledge jobs — the sort of high-paying, high-tech professions that that inspired earlier generations of Americans to slog through four-year engineering curricula and similar courses of study — are rapidly and inexorably being outsourced to Asia.   As Pink stresses, the reason stems from simple economics:  overseas engineers and other high-tech professionals can be paid less to do the same high-tech work.

He also cites a third factor. Within the last few years, engineers have achieved quantum leaps in processing capacity, which have resulted in a new generation of computers equipped to undertake many highly complex tasks.

Pink cites a small British company, Appligenics, which has created a new application capable of writing hundreds of lines of software in less than a second.  Moreover, the processing power of computers has advanced to such a degree that tasks that once required the assistance of skilled knowledge workers — medical diagnoses or legal assistance, for example — can now be handled on-line with a few clicks of a mouse.

As Pink observes, some 100 million people across the planet go online to access health and medical information via more than 23,000 medical sites.  Needless to say, this is changing the way physicians serve their patients.  Ditto for attorneys.

Pink describes these three forces as “abundance, Asia and automation.”

Right-Brained Thinking

So, what is a professional in the West to do to survive within this radically changed environment? For starters, cultivate the part of the brain that is seldom given the credit it is due: the right side.

Pink contends that as three forces — abundance, Asia, and automation — exert more influences across the planet, the curtain is rising on a new era in human history: the Conceptual Age.

What does this new era mean for U.S. workers?

Mere survival today depends on being able to do something that overseas knowledge workers can’t do cheaper, that powerful computers can’t do faster, and that satisfies one of the nonmaterial, transcendent desires of an abundant age.

This will involve incorporating a high-touch, high-concept approach into every product.  Likewise, workers will be judged by how well they are able “to create artistic and emotional beauty, to direct patterns and opportunities, to craft a satisfying narrative, and to combine seemingly unrelated ideas into a novel invention.”

This will require ample amounts of creative ability associated with right-brain thinking — the reason why Pink predicts that the MFA (Master of Fine Arts) will ultimately replace the MBA as the professional credential of this new Conceptual Age.

Back to that word: design.

There is a lesson here for every professional, and especially those in Extension work.

In this Conceptual Age, no one can afford the luxury of winging it — of simply designing a mediocre educational product and assuming that since a certain brand is attached to it that people will use it.

Unless it incorporates Conceptual Age values — unless it’s high concept and high touch — it will be ignored for something else that fits the bill.

Yes, I know, back to that word again.

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