In recent years, globalization has lifted billions of people out of poverty and created vast wealth, but has also spawned hyper-competitive markets that make a secure niche ever more difficult to find. Everyone from cabbies to multinational businesses find it’s harder and harder to maintain an edge. Meanwhile, in the world’s younger economies, particularly China, companies face another challenge: unlike Westerners who grew up loyal to particular brands, Chinese consumers did not have that; and as markets consolidate, consumers are selecting a few favorites. So how should companies deal with these new trends?
Unlike technology, design seldom follows a neat curve. When it comes to questions of style, it’s hard to chart steady improvements. At the moment, however, design does seem likely to become an even more powerful business driver—provided it isn’t undone by its own popularity. In a number of sectors, executives are becoming more and more aware that smart design can be a shortcut to competitive advantage. The growth of Starbucks and the rise of Apple are two stories about the power of good design, but a number of industries have been similarly transformed by an idea that was less technically novel than packaged in a more appealing way.
Economists and business strategists have long noticed that industries tend to converge on just a few places. Milan for fashion, London for finance, Silicon Valley for technology—for any given sector, there are usually one or two points on which the whole world revolves. Over the past few decades, this insight has led many policymakers to try to nurture not just individual companies but a whole ecosystem—a cluster—around a single industry. When does a cluster strategy work to spur innovation and when does it backfire? Should creative clusters be engineered by governments or should they be allowed to evolve and flourish on their own?
A number of businesses have made remarkable gains by integrating design thinking into their development process—not the least of which was Hovey-Kelley, which morphed in the early ’90s into IDEO, the international design giant. Some universities are even beginning to include a mandatory course in design thinking in the general curriculum. Some corporate strategy experts argue that design thinking is nearing the kind of inflection point that the Quality movement reached in the late 1980s, when the total quality methodology became an inescapable part of doing business. Yet some critics are saying design thinking is dead. But the truth is its value lies in the worldview it propagates.
Once upon a time, design was a coat of paint on the locomotive of the real economy. Today, value depends less on oil, steel and sweat, and more on how a product looks, runs and, most importantly, makes the consumer feel. In this series, we look first at the factors that have made design a prime economic force; next, at how executives have learned to create value by training the entire company to think like designers; then at ways in which cities are seeking competitive advantage with design; and finally, at how design itself is changing—and what those changes will mean to the way we work and live.
Ten years from now, business historians will offer a number of reasons financial services had changed so radically since 2016, from general advances in technology to the regulatory reaction to the crash of 2008. But one factor appears likely to stand out above all the others: the blockchain, a distributed database that serves as the backend of the virtual currency Bitcoin. Today, financial services are investing billions in blockchain technology. Many believe it will lead to a radical simplification of banking and payment systems everywhere—a world where money and other assets take nanoseconds to transfer, cannot be lost or stolen, and require no intermediaries to process.
For consumers in mature markets, the financial technology boom doesn’t seem very exciting. What they’ve seen so far is technology that shaves a few minutes off an efficient process, such as being able to deposit a check by taking a picture of it instead of going to the ATM. But for parts of the world where people still buy and sell things with banknotes, the FinTech boom is likely to be a major event with important economic consequences.
From the crash of 1929 to around 1981, banking was generally considered a fairly dreary business. And between now and 2025, banking seems likely to undergo a digitally driven transformation that will change how we save, spend, borrow and invest. Even as regulators do their best to try to make banking a boring business again, and politicians still vow to rein in the “banksters”, a number of well-financed start-ups look poised to reinvent almost every aspect of finance—and could even make banking sexy once more. First we look at how regulators’ push and FinTech’s pull may be setting the stage for some dramatic changes.
The sharing economy has gone from being a niche idea most familiar to Silicon Valley insiders to one that has reshaped our lives—you’d be hard pressed to find a city dweller who hasn’t at least taken an Uber or stayed in an Airbnb. But for all that expansion, the ideas underpinning it are not so well understood, a fact routinely demonstrated in the often fraught debates concerning what the sharing economy means for workers’ rights, traditional incumbents and the role of regulation. Rachel Botsman, co-author of What’s Mine is Yours: How Collaborative Consumption is Changing the Way We Live, explains the intricacies of this still nascent phenomenon.
About 15 years ago, Brian Robertson was feeling frustrated with the management hierarchy traditionally used by companies. He felt it had a tendency to stifle innovation, create inefficiencies and prevent individuals from fulfilling their potential. Robertson channeled that dissatisfaction into the development of one of the best known self-management systems, Holacracy, something that has been adopted by the likes of Tony Hsieh, CEO of online shoe retailer Zappos. In this interview, Robertson, the author of Holacracy: The New Management System for a Rapidly Changing World, clears up some of the misconceptions and gives an overview of Holacracy.