It's always interesting to take a look back at a year's worth of books, particularly from an industry still reeling from assaults to its very existence. This year, certain clear themes emerged from writers looking at the worlds of innovation and design.
Most clearly, we have entered the age of the individual. Emphasizing every person's ability to have an effect or make a difference was a theme touched on by many. The importance of cross-disciplinary innovation was another, with many outlining the powerful idea that innovation simply won't emerge from staring into a world you already know inside and out.
And even while many admitted that there are no easy answers to our time of global turmoil, there was an overarching sense of optimism too. Perhaps that's not entirely surprising--after all, who's going to buy a book in which an author stacks up the depressing evidence that we're doomed, doomed? But the cumulative effect was also somewhat inspiring.
Finally, this year's award for the Innovation Author's Preferred Hero of Choice goes to.... Johannes Guttenberg. Yes, some 560 years after the introduction of the printing press, it turns out that citing the German goldsmith is still seen as the best way to back up a theory about innovation.
Here then, in no particular order, are eleven books that made me stop and think this year.
NYU/ITP professor, Shirky opens his latest with a dramatic statistic: Americans watch 200 billion hours of television every year. For Shirky, this is not a matter for celebration. Instead, he asks, what might happen if even a fraction of those hours were put toward more meaningful activities? Lyrically describing the Internet as "the first public medium to have post-Gutenberg economics", Shirky outlines an age in which the television is no longer the focal centerpiece of media, and recaps various initiatives whose practitioners use the tools now widely and often freely at their disposal to do good. From the fans of Josh Groban, who set up a charitable foundation called Grobanites for Charity, to the 50,000 or so members of PatientsLikeMe, who have formed communities around various diseases, these are people stepping up to have their say. While there's a whiff of idealism here, this book is an important read for anyone wondering when we might go back to the good old days. As Shirky makes clear, we won't. Concluding with a set of practical advice for those looking to thrive, he emphasizes the importance of asking the right questions and being ready to adapt. Only then will the fittest figure out how to survive.
Johnson opens his book with a lyrical explanation of the 10/10 Rule, which dictates that it takes ten years to build a new platform but another ten years for it to build a mass audience. It's a smart way to introduce a book which looks to debunk the appealing but misleading idea of the lone, maverick innovator having a lightbulb moment and plucking an idea of genius from thin air. Instead, Johnson puts those geniuses into context. Characters such as Charles Darwin, Tim Berners-Lee and inventor Lee de Forest are brought to life as they struggle to make sense of their insights, with their wrong turns proving as insightful and fascinating as their eventual world-changing successes. Johnson reaches far and wide for examples, many of which come from nature or biology though the corporate world gets a look in too. Apple's here, Google too, but this is less a how-to cheat sheet or recap of the stories you already know than it is a poetic and compelling look at the nature of ideas and how they take root in individuals and society at large.
"There's a new paradigm in town, and it's called pull." This spritely book from legendary tech world figure John Seely Brown and his colleagues at Deloitte's Center for the Edge outlines the authors' assertion that we're living in a brave new world. Yes, yes, they acknowledge. We've heard this before--but this time it's really true. Honest. After a false start or two, the Internet has emerged as a globally affecting tool and the structures of everything from corporations to governments have changed irrevocably. But this isn't merely a paean to the power of the Internet. Instead, it includes a powerful, compelling emphasis on the idea that individuals get to have a say and an influence, even on seemingly huge problems or within huge, sclerotic organizations. You too can shape your serendipity and destiny and it's up to you to harness your own potential. This is a business book, first and foremost, with all the stylistic tics and chapter-ending "action points" so beloved by this genre. But it's also an inspirational handbook outlining a provocative way to approaching life in the modern era.
For those immersed in the world of innovation, it can be difficult to remember a time before social media was tightly woven into every aspect of life, affecting everything from the way we get our information to the way we purchase goods. That means it can sometimes be difficult to remember that there's still an awfully long way to go before social media tools are truly ubiquitous and really live up to all the breathless hype. Still, great strides are made every day, and executives are clearly paying attention. In this breezy book, serial entrepreneur Lisa Gansky outlines her philosophy of a new environment in which many of the principles embodied by social media will dictate the future success of every business, large or small. Describing a corporate ecosystem based on ideas of access rather than ownership, which she calls "the Mesh", Gansky lays out how far we've come, illustrating with analysis of poster children companies such as Netflix and Zipcar--and sets up a compelling outline for where we might yet go. Gansky is measured, analytical and upfront about the challenges that lie ahead and her argument makes a good case for why this stuff really matters. The book concludes with a directory of existing Mesh businesses in industries from food and wine to health and hobbies. Many will likely fail, but it'll be interesting to monitor how these ideas disperse to seed the successes of the future.
"Let's face it. The world is broken," write the authors of this follow up to their popular book from 2007, Wikinomics. Outlining their theory that entirely new models of problem solving will be necessary to survive in the modern world, this is an impressive, ambitious look at initiatives currently underway to transform industries. Tapscott and Williams have clearly done their homework, and come up with an exhaustive outline of the current state of innovation within everything from finance to healthcare to the entertainment business. With insights and analyses of many of those driving to forge a future we can all believe in, such as Galaxy Zoo's Kevin Schawinski or Jay Rogers of crowdsourcing car company, Local Motors, Tapscott and Williams are fervent evangelists for the digitally driven movement they are describing. But, refreshingly, they're also open to the critics and skeptics, and smartly include input from those with whom they disagree. One thing's clear, they say, "collaborative innovation is becoming a societal imperative". The inspiring question a reader takes away: are you in or are you out?
Perhaps the driest book of this bunch, this book will mainly be useful for those mired in trying to innovate within the world's largest and, shall we say, less than A-list corporations. Anyone familiar with the landmines apparently hidden in every department of a big organization, ready to blow up even the most promising seeming innovation project, will likely relate to the challenges noted here. And even those not directly involved in innovation would likely benefit from the scads of practical advice on how to move a project forward. Tuck School of Business faculty members Govindarajan and Trimble include useful examples of challenges within corporations such as Dow Jones, ADI and Thomson Reuters and they are specific and precise in outlining potential systems that might provide reliable solutions to nasty problems.
Harvard Business School marketing innovation professor, Youngme Moon sets up her thesis upfront: that competitive differentiation is a myth and that by focusing so much on trying to be different, companies meekly consign themselves to a life of staggering mediocrity. Initially counter-intuitive, it's an appealing theory that makes more and more sense as Moon lays out her case. Using a ton of examples from both her academic life and the corporate world, Moon strikes an appealing balance in tone, both analytical and personal. For instance, she tells of a tactic from her early teaching days, when she'd critique students' progress and then watch, dismayed, as they promptly focused on trying to improve in those areas, ignoring their genuine strengths. Brands do this too, attempting to shore up spaces in which they feel vulnerable rather than capitalizing on what they're really good at. With smart breakdowns of "reverse brands" (Google and Ikea remove the bloat of pre-existing industries) and "hostile brands" (Mini, Birkenstock, Red Bull revel in polarizing audiences), among others, her conclusion, that differentiation is not a tactic, it is a way of thinking, should resonate far beyond the marketing department.
Former Apple executive and founder of the Nielsen Norman Group, Don Norman has lately been causing a flutter in design circles for his defiant, often contrarian stances on the industry (not least within these hallowed virtual walls: see his latest for Core77, on why design education must change.) Here comes his book-length version, in which he takes on the common trope that we're all craving more simplicity in our lives--and promptly dismisses it. It's not simplicity we need, he argues. It's smart design that provides users with an appropriate and thoughtful experience. The modern age faces us with a perplexing paradox: in order for our lives to be easier, we need more powerful and more complex tools. Norman lays out clear examples of the difference between "featuritis", the wanton addition of baffling, inappropriate capabilities, and smart, sophisticated design that users instinctively know how to use and yet barely register mastering. What he's not doing, he says repeatedly, is equating complex with complicated, and he is more than happy to point out examples of rogue design run amok. But his is a provocative theory with its feet firmly planted in common sense: Complexity is a fact of modern life. What else can we do but learn how to deal with it?
As anyone who listened to the past few years' worth of debate over the restructuring of either the healthcare industry or Wall Street knows, meaningful, lasting change is really hard to implement. That doesn't mean it isn't necessary, and in this slim whirlwind of a book, the Heath brothers (they're both academics: Chip at Stanford; Dan at Duke) offer a series of practical ways to implement change in your organization or your life. They outline three main principles to abide by: "Direct the rider" to assess a situation and come up with a bite-size plan of attack; "motivate the elephant" to remain engaged in a problem and then "shape the path" to remain very clear about the change you're trying to implement. The writing zips along at a cracking pace while the examples, of change agents such as Robin Waters using design to transform Target from a run-of-the-mill department store into the swanky, coveted yet accessible Tar-jay are often familiar but nonetheless useful and aspirational. This is a smart synthesis of thinking on a topic that remains critical to every business practice while the Heaths are often laugh-out-loud-funny. One passage detailing their failed attempts to learn how to dance had me holding my sides. When was the last time you laughed at a business book?
By rights, this book shouldn't feature in a round-up of the best titles of 2010, as it first came out over a year ago. But the story of how it came to be seen by a wider audience earns it a gold star and a place on the list for practicing what it preaches. Not familiar with the ways and wiles of the book publishing industry, the authors had decided to put their money where their mouths were, and committed to self-publishing a book based on Osterwalder's well-received PhD thesis. They solicited online contributions from paying contributors to cover costs, and together the group developed a visually intricate and provocative series of tools and techniques to help people think about developing, understanding and designing appropriate business models. Initially published only as a very limited edition hardback, the underground success of the book caught the ear of the publisher at Wiley, who published a massmarket version earlier this summer. It's a success story on many levels, but the strong, smart content will be particularly useful for any designer looking to decode some of the sometimes arcane terminology beloved by their business brethren.
Branko Lukic with text by Barry M Katz
The MIT Press
It seems somehow appropriate to wrap up this list, with their serious, thoughtful, often intellectual analyses of their subject matters with a book that is entirely unlike all the rest. Nonobject presents the "design fictions" of former Frog and IDEO designer, Branko Lukic, including the Tarati cellphone, which has holes instead of keys, and the iEat diet spoon, whose spring collapses if you load it with too much food. In his introduction, Cooper-Hewitt director Bill Moggridge writes that this book "will change the way we think about design and designing" and while I'm genetically predisposed to mulishly dig my heels in at such hyperbole, I actually can't help but agree. This is a book of ideas, concepts and provocations that are witty, thought-provoking and poignant. That they don't exist, indeed, that many of them could never exist in the world as we know it, is beside the point. By indulging his fancies, Lukic has changed the tone, tenor and nature of the current design discussion, and done the design industry an enormous service in the process. The ideas in this book made me fall in love with design all over again.
Of course, other important and useful books were published this year. (I'd love to know which you read and liked.) But there's my entirely unscientific list. And in case you were wondering, the Runner-Up Award for the Innovation Author's Preferred Hero of Choice goes to another historical figure. Thomas Jefferson's ideas on ideas were quoted by a number of the featured authors, and bear repeating here:
"He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without loosening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point."
Helen Walters is a design writer and editor, currently working as an editor and researcher at Doblin, a member of the Monitor Group. Until July 2010, she was editor of innovation and design at Bloomberg BusinessWeek. She's the author of five design-related books and also contributing editor to British design magazine, Creative Review. She tweets.