Tim Leberecht

Tim Leberecht

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ, @timleberecht
Tim is a communications expert with a passion for connecting brands with meaning. A widely published author and speaker, he contributes frequently to Fast Company, Forbes, Fortune, Wired and other publications. He has authored the forthcoming book The Business Romantic, and his TED Talk on “3 Ways to (Usefully) Lose Control of Your Brand” has garnered more than 700,000 views to date. Every four years you can find him cheering on Germany in the World Cup.

How We Can Fight Stress at Work

An Interview with Author Brigid Schulte

August 4, 2015

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Last year Brigid Schulte’s book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time was greeted with wide acclaim and bestseller status — and for good reason. Despite the technological amenities at our disposal, we feel more stretched than ever, clinging to the idea that we can find balance — even if we don’t know how exactly.

I recently had the pleasure to meet Brigid at the WorkHuman Summit in Orlando. The premise of the conference was to harness the power of the emotional connections we have with our colleagues to create a work culture that allows us to stay true to ourselves so that we experience more meaning in our lives — not just our work lives. It has been a year since Brigid’s book came out (the paperback version was just released) and I wanted to know: have our views on work changed?

Tim: Do you think there’s now more of a mainstream movement to reconcile meaning and work?

Brigid: When I first proposed the book, the general sentiment was: “We haven’t figured out this work/life stuff, so we’re never going to figure it out.” But my publisher ultimately got it. I didn’t want to write a book about the experience of feeling overwhelmed — I wanted to take a very serious look at why we find ourselves in that state so often and what exactly we can do about it.

When I first started my research, the only answer that came up was to “drop out of life.” Because otherwise, if you stay engaged with the business world, you’re just going to be miserable — that’s just the way it is. If you really want to be happy, quit and move to Maine and become a farmer.

At the same time, two pieces came out that spoke to the very quandary I was investigating: Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article “Why Women Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s book Lean In. That’s when I realized I was much more interested in changing “what” we’re dealing with, than defining “why” and “how” it happened. An important question for me began to take shape: how can you get a sense of meaning and engagement — a sense of joy — every day when you go to work? I wanted to know if we could really transform the way we work.

I wanted to figure out how we can be fully human without freezing men into the breadwinner role and women into the caretaking role. How can you live a life of meaning where you create a bridge between the meaning you have in your public sphere and the one you get in your private one? How can you have love and connection throughout your life, with a sense of play and lightness in both?

I’m thrilled that the mainstream media, including Harvard Business Review and Fast Company, are now producing serious pieces on how we can achieve work/life balance. More companies are also examining how employees can cope better with stress. Millennials are saying they do not want to be overworked. They do not want to experience fear, panic and disengagement; they want their lives to be meaningful and not solely shaped by work. No other generation has stood so firm on the issue. Baby Boomers want to work differently as well. They still have an awful lot to offer, but they don’t want the 90-hour workweeks of their past. So you’ve got pressure from the generations on both ends of the workforce, and this has led to a fascinating movement about meaning, happiness, joy and authenticity. I can see it spreading throughout the country.

I recently did an “Inspired Life” Q&A for The Washington Post with Sara Lazar, a Harvard neuroscientist, on how meditation can literally change your brain’s neuroplasticity. That piece got more than a million views in one week, and people are still reading and sharing it. That says to me that there is a real hunger to do things differently.

Tim: What are some of your key takeaways from the WorkHuman Summit on how we should do things differently?

Brigid: The most important thing is that there is a conference about how human beings work these days. So much of the reporting I do for The Washington Post is about how we work very inhumanely. Businesses are results-oriented; they’re all about succeeding by powering through, despite uncertainty, and cutthroat competition. It has taken a toll — Gallup polls routinely find that about 70% of all workers are disengaged at their jobs and very unhappy. Yet we spend the majority of our time at work. If happiness is the joy we experience as we move toward being our full selves, as the Ancient Greeks saw it, and as happiness researcher Shawn Achor says, then it is time that we bring our full selves to work. Especially as research shows that when we’re happy, in a positive mood, we actually achieve more, and workplaces are more productive, which only improves the bottom line for businesses.

My biggest takeaway is we’re talking about business in terms of happiness and meaning. People in the United States are obsessed with and compelled to work, but their unhappiness means they are not living up to their full potential — and I don’t just mean work potential, I mean life potential.

Tim: In your book you observe a correlation between the amount of control people have in their lives and the degree to which they feel happy and engaged at work. As an advocate for more romance in business (not the “Rom-Com” kind, but the thrilled-to-be-alive kind), I believe we need to be able to lose control, take risks and feel comfortable with the unknown. That seems like a contradiction. How do you reconcile that?

Brigid: I don’t see it as a contradiction. When people feel overwhelmed and stressed out it’s because they feel out of control — but not in the way that you’ve described it. There is great value in allowing yourself to be swept away, towards something very cool and surprising behind a door you’ve never encountered.

But when I talk about a lack of a control, it’s analogous to getting the rug pulled out from under you. It’s a surprise, but not in a good way. You feel like you don’t have a say in how you spend your time. People with flexible schedules, or white-collar jobs, have some measure of control, even if they can’t always predict their workflow. Yet there is often an expectation that they must work all the time — as though somehow it’s never enough. Then you never feel in control because you can never measure up. It’s a form of management by fear, keeping you off balance. Many workers, since the recession, also are fearful that they’ll lose their jobs again, or that they’re expendable, so they stay late or work all hours in an effort to show how committed they are. That also leaves them feeling they have little control.

To your point about romance: unpredictability has two faces, just like control. There’s the unpredictability of “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s a shock to my system,” versus: “this is cool, surprising, and drawing me in.” In my book I examined the negative side of unpredictability, and in your book you looked at the positive side.

Tim: Now that we’re aware of the risks involved in being overwhelmed, and developed strategies to minimize them, do you think this could lead us to the opposite extreme, where we feel underwhelmed — even bored? Do you think there is some value in having overwhelming experiences because a part of us likes to feel stressed?

Brigid: That’s an important point, because if you’ve got so much stress you can’t see straight, then you can’t think effectively. When your heart is racing and your palms are sweating, that’s not a good place to be. On the other hand, hanging out on your couch without much to do will leave you feeling slothful and unmotivated, which isn’t good either. This is why we are wired for novelty and challenge.

When we expose ourselves to new challenges that are novel, unpredictable — in a good way — we rewire our brains. The brain literally makes new neural connections. That keep our brains fresh, which keeps our lives fresh. Each of us has a sweet spot where we are challenged but not overwhelmed, and that is where we find our motivation and grow closer to our potential.

A little stress is good; we couldn’t have evolved as a species without it. You need the stress of a challenge — but then you need to release it. Constant stress will eat you alive and shrink your brain; those are things to watch for. But a little stress, sparked by a new challenge, is actually a good thing.

Tim: Ten or fifteen years ago, Jeremy Rifkin published a book called The European Dream: How Europe’s Vision of the Future Is Quietly Eclipsing the American Dream. You write about Denmark in your book. I’m originally from Germany, but I have lived in the U.S. for many years. Here we’ve had an explosion of interest in mindfulness and work/life balance. But it seems like our interest in the U.S. was actual policy in Europe already years ago. Are our issues with stress and overwork an American issue, and can we catch up?

Brigid: We have a long way to go before we ever catch up. The United States is really different, and much bigger than, for instance, Denmark, which has a population the size of Los Angeles. The sheer scale and diversity in this country makes it unlike any other place in the world, and that’s what makes it so challenging.

What’s happening now is that we’re finally beginning to have the conversations that European countries had in the early 1970s. What’s important for us is that we have necessary and difficult conversations across our diversity and our differences of opinion. We need to come up with an American solution, or solutions, that give our work meaning, help our businesses flourish and make our lives worth living.

Tim: What’s next for you?

Brigid: That’s a great question. I came back to The Washington Post because it’s a great platform from which to write about these issues and continue the conversation. And that, along with the book, has kept me really busy! I’m hoping to make some time to think about what’s next for me, what’s my next challenge and my next book. I’ve been exploring what makes for the good life, how work is changing, the search for meaning and second acts, and how we love and connect as humans. I’m not sure I have those answers, but maybe in a moment of downtime, inspiration will come! I think what’s different now is that I sit with uncertainty rather than avoid the discomfort and cover it up with busyness. I trust my instincts more. That, even if I don’t know the answer right away, if I take the time to pause, it will come. I’m learning that just creating space around uncertainty can make you feel like you’re moving forward.

Image courtesy of Benjamin Watson/Flickr.

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If We Want More “Human” Work,
It Will Be Less Productive

Mindfulness, Values, Play and Other Themes from the Inaugural WorkHuman Summit

June 23, 2015

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Editor’s Note: A version of this post was originally published on Psychology Today.

Work has never been particularly humane. As Derek Irvine, vice president of client strategy and consulting at Globoforce, pointed out in a quick historical office tour stretching from the Ancient Greeks to the knowledge age, we have “2,000 years of experience in removing humanity from the workplace.” And the window for a more human workplace, barely a crack open nowadays, is closing fast: “Someday robots will take over the world. Until then, let’s work human,” Irvine joked.

His company, a leader in employee recognition solutions, bravely tackled this topic by hosting the first ever WorkHuman Summit (I was among the speakers) last week in Orlando. More than 400 workplace strategists, HR professionals, designers, journalists and researchers gathered for a two-day program rich with talks, debate and workshops, building upon the growing realization that somehow amidst efficiency, productivity and career advancement, our very humanity has lost out. “We brought our brains and bodies to work, but forgot our hearts,” Irvine said.

Arguably, digital technologies have fostered that disconnect and fomented a stressful culture of extreme connectivity, employee monitoring (and self-monitoring) and relentless efficiency pressures at work. Software is not only “eating the world,” as venture capitalist Marc Andreesen famously said, it is also eating our spirits. Up to 85 percent of workers worldwide are disengaged at work, according to a 2013 Gallup survey. On average, initial enthusiasm on the job fades after six months. The majority of employees report feeling disconnected from their management team and its vision.

There are several things going on here: technology-induced stress, a lack of meaning in the everyday work and, as a result of that, eroding trust in business leadership. The good news: a counter-movement has been forming over the past few years, and its proposals can be roughly divided into three interrelated areas: work-life integration, purpose and workplace experience.


1. Work-life integration: catering to body and soul

In the policy realm, firms have begun to explore flexible schedules, telecommuting, different models of leadership development, family-friendly benefits and other reforms that help integrate work and life and adjust traditional structures to a more socially progressive, mobile and demanding workforce. Like any other function in business, HR has been consumerized, and with the war for talent won by talent, enlightened HR leaders have reframed their function as internal and external “customer service.”

This includes an increasing focus on creating healthy workplaces that promote the individual wellbeing of employees, from changes to the cafeteria food to promoting and rewarding physical exercise, including mental health and happiness. At the individual level, workers are embracing the freedom to indulge in “mindfulness” (including meditation, yoga and even spiritual exercises at work), spearheaded by leaders such as Arianna Huffington (who joined WorkHuman live via satellite link) or Aetna CEO Mark Bertolini, and inspired by books such as Pico Iyer’s The Art of Stillness or David Gelles’ Mindful Work. Brigid Schulte, author of Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love And Play When No One Has the Time, spoke at WorkHuman about the stress caused by a culture that glorifies constant busy-ness. She suggested we liberate ourselves of the “ideal worker” paradigm, citing email policies that promote “digital detox” and true vacations.

The mindfulness movement is on the rise: at WorkHuman, meditation exercises were part of the main program; the World Economic Forum incorporated numerous sessions on individual wellbeing into its Davos agenda; the Wisdom 2.0 conferences sell out quickly; and Google’s popular “Search Inside Yourself” course has become an institute.


2. Pupose: inspired by something greater than yourself

A focus on wellbeing, on a workplace that enables a “good life,” is an expression of a certain set of values. There is of course no such thing as a values-free business (as there is no such thing as values-free decision-making), but the deliberate articulation of values has become more popular lately with companies, in light of social media exposing a company’s actions in broad daylight and evidence that consumers favor companies that are associated with a distinctive social mission.

A clear set of values links employee behavior to the firm’s purpose, the raison d’etre, the why, the overall moral obligation, of the business. At its core is almost always empathy, the ability to feel with and for others. Adam Grant, the author of bestseller Give and Take, who gave a rousing keynote at WorkHuman, translates this into his concept of “productive generosity,” arguing that organizations with a culture of giving (and a low number of “takers”) typically thrive. His research suggests that altruism not only feels good but boosts productivity.

Inevitably, purpose-driven businesses face a heightened risk, as the fall from grace can be painful, as Starbucks recently had to experience with its well-intended, but poorly executed, “Race Together” campaign. Yet the benefits outweigh the potential reputational damage: purpose-driven companies outperform others in attracting and retaining customers and talent, in particular the meaning-thirsty Millennials. The challenge, however, is to connect a lofty purpose with the day-to-day work experience, for it will otherwise ring hollow and lead more quickly to cynicism than a culture that doesn’t care much about others to begin with.


3. Workplace experience: designing for mystery, delight and play

Workplace culture cuts across all other areas and is a tough one to get right: employers need to straddle a fine line between overwhelming and underwhelming their employees. How much connectivity can they expect without burn-out? On the flipside, at what point does mindfulness hamper your productivity? What degree of routine, comfort and convenience is right before workers become bored to death and crave more excitement? How public should the office culture be, or how private? How open, how closed? Is transparency always positive?

The workplace is where the action is, and it must indeed be an arena of action. Key elements of employee engagement are play, surprise and even mystery. It was no coincidence that one of the WorkHuman workshop sessions focused on improv theatre. Brigid Schulte emphasized in her talk that play gives us access to a broader version of ourselves and allows us to try on alternative identities that incorporate our more emotional selves, fostering creativity, innovation and trust. She referred to neuroscientific findings that show how the brain literally expands through play.

Tania Luna, co-founder of Life Labs, author of the book Surprise, and self-appointed “surprisologist,” heralded the value of “playfulness” and presented surprise as its key ingredient. Surprises make us come alive, she said: they are the source of the “wow” moments that companies like JetBlue now quantify. Surprises create memorable experiences that shake up our routines and let us fight boredom and view the world through fresh eyes every day. Luna has helped companies such as Etsy and Google create surprises and is now running “The Experiment,” in which participants agree to being surprised at some point over the next few years.

Mystery, too, plays with the unknown, and companies have begun to make it a part of the workplace experience: from secret rooms (the latest office design trend at Bay Area tech firms) to secret societies (e.g. Etsy’s “Ministry of Unusual Business”) to the start-up Prime Produce, which holds events in the dark. As virtual reality technology is becoming mainstream, it will soon broaden the playing field and further contribute to the gamification of the workplace.


Happiness is overrated

Surprise and mystery are disruptive by design, and they celebrate the importance of “small moments of wonder” that make up our work life between top and bottom line, as opposed to a more coherent narrative (purpose) or state of wellbeing (happiness). Moments are about joy rather than happiness, which is, as positive psychologist and leading gratitude researcher Robert A. Emmons told me at WorkHuman, “not even an emotion.” A happy workplace is not necessarily a more emotional workplace (and vice versa). A truly humane workplace embraces not the perfect equilibrium but the extreme peaks of our emotional landscape, the full range of human expression. It creates space for grief and sadness as much as for joy.

In the end, it is the intensity of experience that gives us meaning, the degree to which we can be our most vulnerable, our most emotional, our most human selves at work. This matters because not only do we spend the majority of our waking hours at work; most of us also view work relationships as critical for the quality of our lives.


The ROI of meaning? Meaning!

The WorkHuman Summit offered an excellent snapshot of the paradigm shift that is underway, and it presented many of the emerging new concepts for a more humane workplace. All these concepts are advancing the conversation and have strong potential to humanize the enterprise. But they are also still fundamentally flawed, because they are ultimately instrumentalist: they are reduced to being “success factors,” performance enablers that promise more productivity, more career advancement, more success. We accept failure only as stepping stone to ultimate victory, not as an inherently rich, character-forming human experience. We encourage altruism to boost productivity. We monitor happiness to win the talent war. We cater to the heart to maintain our bleeding edge. We add some surprise so there is none in the bottom line. We maximize and (self-)optimize to succeed.

It is laudable that we have begun to measure what really matters, that we have started to implement metrics for wellbeing, happiness and purpose. But we will only be truly human at work if we value and manage what we cannot measure, if we create spaces and experiences for our elusive, unquantified, erratic, inconsistent, unpredictable selves. The ROI of meaning is not more money. It is meaning.


HR and marketing can be the great humanizers

HR and marketing must join forces for this mission. They are the emotional stewards, the strongholds of the heart, in any organization, and at the same time they are also the ones most threatened by datafication, quantification and algorithmic decision-making. Empowering HR and marketing to be real strategic drivers in maintaining human agency, in building a culture of wellbeing, learning and meaning, is the first step to empowering humans at work.

Humans may survive robots at the workplace, but we will only thrive if we keep investing in what makes us inherently human: vulnerability, empathy, intuition, emotion and imagination. We are human because we suffer, because we can feel — and feel for others. We are human because we can dream.

Image courtesy of Minoru Nitta/Flickr.

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Soft-Edged Cities

New Values Like Purpose and Happiness Are Reshaping Urban Living — For the Better?

August 26, 2014

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Aristotle once famously remarked, “People gather in cities first for security, then for economic opportunity, and then stay for ‘the good life.’” In today’s Western societies, this pattern may have been reversed. It seems people now move to cities first and foremost for “the good life,” or, to be more precise, “a good life”: a life of purpose and happiness. But will they find it?

Purpose-seeking Millennials

One demographic that is often associated with this shift are Millennials, the age group between eighteen and thirty-three. A quick look at some stats shows that this generation obviously has a seminal role to play in our urban futures: while 50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities, 50 percent of it is also under 30 years of age. Millennials will represent 50 percent of the U.S. workforce by 2020 and 75 percent of the global workforce by 2030. For this new generation of workers, consumers and citizens, the choice to live in cities is no longer economic, but cultural [PDF]. Unlike their predecessors they move to cities for new opportunities that transcend wealth and self-interest: active lifestyles, sustainable living, like-minded communities and meaning. They pursue experiences that connect to social impact and greater purpose.

Millennials are looking for meaning and connection in cities. (Courtesy of Flickr)

Millennials look to cities for meaning and connection. (Courtesy of Marcel Hauri/Flickr)

This new sentiment is also altering Millennials’ expectation toward business: “sense of meaning” [PDF] is becoming their single most important indicator of a successful career. Purpose and social impact are moving to the core of business rather than being addressed through CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) or non-profit arms. Some companies even become Benefit Corporations or B Corps, like Etsy or Warby Parker, with the triple bottom line incorporated in their legal structures. Moreover, many Millennials are leaving safe corporate jobs and launching their own purpose-driven start-ups, typically in cities. It seems like we are indeed entering an age of purpose, in fact, a whole new “purpose economy,” as social entrepreneur and author Aaron Hurst puts it, with more socially-minded “conscious capitalists” eager to do well by doing good. This purpose economy is reshaping our ideals of urban living, and policy-makers, urban planners and companies are all paying close attention. From Atlanta to Cleveland to Dallas, several U.S. cities are interested in trying on the mantle of a “Purpose City.”

Happy Cities

Purpose might be one key ingredient of a good urban life; happiness is another. While purpose and happiness are linked — “True happiness … is not attained through self-gratification, but through fidelity to a worthy purpose,” as Helen Keller wrote — happiness is in reality often the more appealing of the two, as it is less elusive and often considered more instantly (and mechanically) achievable.

Fueling this trend are behavioral economists and neuroscientists who have claimed some remarkable breakthroughs in the field of happiness research in the past few years. We know now not only that money doesn’t buy happiness, but a study published in Psychological Science last year also showed that happiness is specifically associated with the level of respect and admiration we receive from peers. Those who felt accepted, liked, included and welcomed in their local hierarchy were happier than those who were simply wealthier. Scholars have also found a positive correlation between happiness and self-employment in the U.S. and in Europe and identified mental health as the biggest contributor to happiness in all countries. Furthermore, a lack of perceived equality apparently decreases happiness levels. Compassion, kindness and (more so for men than for women) parenthood are all positively correlated to happiness. Finally, recent research claims that happier people earn more in their lifetime, are more productive and are better citizens. No wonder happiness is moving to the core of our economies — and consequently to the core of a high-quality city life.

Suburbs: soulless or solace? (Courtesy of Flickr)

Suburbs: soulless or solace? (Courtesy of LancerE/Flickr)

Rather than just viewing them as engines of wealth, many now regard cities as systems that can be smartly programmed to achieve happiness. A prominent ambassador of this new urban thinking is Charles Montgomery, who, in his book Happy City, intersects neuroscience and behavioral economics with urban design and planning. Montgomery explores the stimuli for feelings of wellbeing and contentment and how they might be applied in different spatial environments. He describes some interesting correlations between urban aesthetics and emotions: for example, how blank, cold spaces (the big-boxes so typical of malls and commercial outlets) suppress a sense of conviviality. He makes a case for dense urban living as a catalyst of happiness and wellbeing and dismisses suburban sprawl, the dispersed city, as a danger to “both the health of the planet and the well-being of our descendants.”

Montgomery’s claims are not uncontroversial. In a comprehensive rebuttal, John Muscat accuses him of ignoring the benefits of suburban life (noting that suburban growth, since 1940, has constituted almost all urban growth). He points to a Pew Research survey from 2011, for example, in which a far higher percentage of suburbanites rated their communities as “excellent,” compared to inner-city dwellers. Another study found that for each 10 percent drop in population density, the likelihood of people talking to their neighbors once a week rose 10 percent. According to Brookings Institute research, suburban areas generally also have substantially lower crime rates than “core cities.”

Social Inequity

This brings us to the issue of social inequity. How inclusive can the Purpose City be? And is the Happy City a luxury item only for those who can afford it? The forces of supply and demand have made housing in some of North America’s densest and arguably most attractive cities — San Francisco, Vancouver or New York — the least affordable. The Washington Post piquantly observed in a recent article: “The people designing your cities don’t care what you want. They’re planning for hipsters.” So-called “Luxury Cities,” the article argues, focus on the needs of the well-heeled, whereas fast-growing “Opportunity Cities” such as Dallas-Fort Worth, Houston, Salt Lake City or Phoenix, offer affordable housing and family-friendlier policies. In San Francisco, the backlash against what is increasingly perceived as a winner-take-all-city is palpable, and social tensions between bus-drivers and bus-riders, between all-access tech knowledge workers and those with limited access is rising. Diversity is shrinking, too. San Francisco’s black population is roughly half of what it was in 1970.

Moreover, income inequality is growing in Western societies. As we’ve learned from Thomas Piketty and his much-discussed book Capital in the 21st Century, wealth distribution is increasingly tilted towards the 0.1 percent of households, almost back to pre-industrial levels. The middle class is losing ground. According to the Pew study, Millennials in particular have higher levels of student loan debt, unemployment and poverty, and lower levels of wealth and personal income than their two immediate predecessor generations (Gen Xers and Boomers) had at the same stage of their life cycles. For the first time on record, a generation is economically regressing, rather than progressing. This raises the question: is the turn to a soft aspiration like purpose and happiness caused by “hard” economic factors? It would be interesting to conduct a study that looks at the correlation between economic downturns and the rise of alternative aspirations over the past fifty years.

Where Did the Romance Go?

Finally, one may ponder the fundamental philosophical question, whether such programmatic aspirations as purpose and happiness actually make cities attractive. In other words, purpose and happiness may not be accessible for everybody — and are they even desirable as primary urban attributes? Do we want to live in cities designed for purpose and happiness? Ironically, a too-rigid fixation on purpose and happiness might undermine the very urban qualities of cities.

Singapore: livable, but is it lovable? (Courtesy of Merlion444/Wikipedia)

Many New Yorkers will say that they’re “in love with their city” or at least have a love-hate relationship with it. Ask people in Aarhus, Geneva or Singapore, and it’s unlikely you’ll hear such extreme sentiments. Cities are places to experiment, to try ourselves, to stretch ourselves amidst serendipity, messiness and challenge, with strangeness and strangers in our face, a bump on every road. We might build purposeful and happy cities — but what if they are utterly boring? Will life be good in a city of do-gooders? Will we be able to experience happiness if we are constantly surrounded by its nudges? We might come to miss our old “sin cities” from time to time as we routinely go about our happy, purposeful lives.

Perhaps neuro-scientific stimuli, behavioral nudging, and “digital determinism” present our connected age’s version of the industrial age’s “great disenchantment.” Perhaps it is a myth to believe that optimizing something makes it better. Purpose and happiness: as our cities become smarter — more focused, more resourceful, and more efficient in catering to our needs — we might run the risk of depriving them of their very character. When everything is mapped, tracked, rated and easily accessible, our new norm might be the unhappy medium. When a city is found and found out, we might no longer search for its meaning. When comfort and coziness have softened our urban experience, we might get homesick for the friction, unpredictability and danger — the romance — that attracted us to the city in the first place.

Banner image courtesy of Kuba Bożanowski/Flickr.

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Designing the Purpose City

A Photo-Essay from the Purpose City Workshop in Dallas, Texas, June 17–19

July 22, 2014

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


NBBJ was an active participant in the New Cities Summit (June 17–19), the annual conference of the New Cities Foundation (of which we became a member last year), a leading global platform on the future of cities. With the theme “Re-Imagining Cities: Transforming the 21st Century Metropolis,” the summit, held this year in Dallas, Texas, convened more than 800 international urban thinkers and doers from all sectors for three days of rich discussion and dialogue.

In tandem with the conference, we produced and hosted a side-event, The Purpose City, in partnership with the New Cities Foundation and Imperative, a social design firm. Inspired by the book The Purpose Economy (by Imperative’s CEO, Aaron Hurst) and modeled on the principles of a hackathon, the day-long Purpose City workshop brought together 50 leaders in government, business, design and academia to explore how we shape our cities as the number of urban citizens swells, as the urban fabric densifies, as the digital and physical increasingly merge and as Millennials strive toward values such as purpose and meaning.

In most of the world’s cities, the information economy has driven innovation and economic growth, but a new generation of workers, consumers, and citizens is increasingly looking for experiences that connect to a greater purpose, enabling them to have social impact and find like-minded communities. How can we reinvent our cities in this new “age of purpose”? Can we build — or rebuild — city spaces in ways that enable more trust among both familiars and strangers? How do we nurture happiness and wellbeing?

The Purpose City workshop was a mix of rapid ideation and prototyping, rich discourse and debate, and hands-on collaboration. It was an incredibly inspiring and educational day that created connections between a highly diverse group of people with different perspectives and agendas. We were blown away by the energy and commitment of all the participants as well as the quality of their work.

The participants told us they greatly appreciated the unique hackathon-meets-town-hall-meets-TED format and the opportunity to collaborate with other urban stakeholders and constituents. The workshop spawned many interesting conversations and follow-up opportunities, and created a community that we are going to cultivate and grow.

A detailed report of The Purpose City workshop will be available here soon.

We are also already planning additional Purpose City events in L.A. and Berlin — stay tuned!



An invitation to think, debate and work together in an intense 10-hour setting: Mathieu Lefevre, executive director of the New Cities Foundation, in his opening remarks.



Lots of questions…



Lots of opinions…



“The information economy will not last forever.” – Aaron Hurst, CEO of Imperative and author of the book The Purpose Economy



“The city is a fusion reactor for social and economic interaction… We need to design for more informality, more blur.” – Greg Lindsay, urban theorist and author of the book Aerotropolis: The Way We’ll Live Next



“50 percent of the world’s population now lives in cities. 50 per cent of the world’s population is under 30 years of age.” – Sonja Miokovic, co-founder and director of YouthfulCities



Back to school: the workshop took place at the Booker T. Washington High School of the Visual and Performing Arts in Dallas.



“Cage matches”: practicing the art of civic debate.



Mapping out the Purpose City off-stage…



…and on stage.



From happiness to purpose: the times they are a-changing.



From grassroots to grey suits: Purpose City participants included social activists, community organizers, philanthropists, software developers, real estate developers, mayors, investors, entrepreneurs, urban designers, planners, architects, product designers, researchers and more…

Photos by Sean Airhart/NBBJ.

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Are We All Becoming Symbolic Knowledge Workers?

Start-ups Like Somewhere Redefine Our Professional Identities and Put More of Our Selves at Stake

February 19, 2014

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


A 2013 study [PDF] by the Centre for Economic Performance at the London School of Economics and Political Science claims that paid work continues to be “negatively correlated with happiness.” Comparing it with other individual activities such as sports, entertainment or travel, the study found that paid work was ranked lower than any of the other 39 specific activities the survey respondents quantified, with the exception of being sick in bed. According to the researchers, there is only one aspect of work that “results in happiness levels that are similar to those experienced when not working” — casual interactions with colleagues, in other words, socializing at work.

So if the best way to be happy at work is to chat with your colleagues, why aren’t we encouraging more socializing? Well, because it’s business. And business, for the most part, still operates under the principle of efficiency to drive productivity.

That is changing now as some business leaders are starting to see things differently: some start-ups have begun to conceive of the workplace more as a social arena and less as a conduit for productivity. At the open-source code-sharing and developer community GitHub, almost all of the staff works remotely. In its early years, the company didn’t even have a physical office. After finding a loft-like space and making it the company’s headquarters, the company turned the front third into an employee lounge, bar and party area filled with funky furniture and a DJ setup. According to Scott Chacon, co-founder and CIO of GitHub, the “headquarters” is primarily a social hub, not a work place.

GitHub’s definition of work space is even more extensive. Chacon points to an experiment called GitHub Destination where the company rents an Airbnb apartment in a location to which people have always wanted to go, say, Tuscany or Montevideo. “They choose to live there for a month and have serendipitous interactions because you can get just as much done there as you could anywhere else,” Chacon said. GitHub’s structure acknowledges that delight at work is a social event and largely about small moments of attachment.

It also illustrates that the concept of having to be a different person during work hours seems to lose relevance for today’s purpose-driven work force. As digital economy observer Stowe Boyd points out: “In the new way of working, work isn’t a place you go, it’s a thing you do. It is you.” And today’s knowledge work can happen anywhere — or Somewhere, which is the name of a start-up poised to replace the traditional CV with a different way of representing yourself in a business context. Justin McMurray, the co-founder and CEO of Somewhere, observes that the main job application still shows what you did, not what you do or who you are. Referring to LinkedIn, the world’s largest online social network for professionals, he remarks: “We’ve got to the stage where people you don’t know endorse you for skills you don’t have.” McMurray co-founded Somewhere in 2012 to “put people back at the heart of and in control of telling the stories of their work,” as he told me. He believes that “work should not deny our humanity, it should welcome it. Work, more than ever before, is personal.” 

Somewhere is a little bit like Pinterest for professionals, a visual discovery platform for the enterprise. Individuals or teams can post images and captions to tell the stories of their work, and by doing so they can share what they love doing and how they do it. The site (which is still in beta) allows users to present themselves as human beings, with passions, emotions, and aesthetic preferences, and connect with other, like-minded professionals along the way. It’s as close to sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of “cultural capital” as you can get.

Somewhere is emblematic of the changing nature of the workplace. Our conceptions of work have shifted from time card and job title to mindset and narrative, and millennials, in particular, view work as a powerful vehicle for finding meaning in their lives. McMurray is well aware of this generational shift and refers to the rapidly emerging segment of “independent workers” who prefer independence over permanent, full-time employment. “They definitely present a challenge for large corporations that, if unable to offer extremely flexible, autonomous and creative work environments, simply won’t be able to attract the best people,” he told me.

While business-as-usual used to involve linear narratives of the CV and a more formal notion of transactional business relationships, Somewhere illustrates that we are moving further into more contextual and nonlinear portraits of our “selves” at work. The site redefines work as something beautiful, careers as ambiguous and ever-evolving, and a professional’s identity as a fluid persona. McMurray says: “People lead such fascinating work lives, and our hope is that we can help open up the world of work, help people see behind the scenes, find inspiration, and find the people they should be working with.”

Not everyone will relish this new work-life. Some may find it outright frightening that companies not only appreciate but demand our full selves at work. The knowledge economy has automated many objective tasks and left us with only the fuzzy space of subjective tasks: building and cultivating relationships, managing our reputation and perception, curating and sharing tacit knowledge, earning respect, popularity, authority, and influence. As Matthew B. Crawford claims in his book Shopclass As Soulcraft, we have become “symbolic knowledge workers,” and start-ups like Somewhere further fuel this trend.

One could say we are not only no longer what we did, but also no longer what we do — we are now whom others think we are. We are how much we are liked. As we do away with the linear, cause-and-effect “to-do” list, the only thing left for us is “to be,” to build and live up to the promise of our personal brand, to be the symbols of our work, and tell the world about it.

This post originally appeared on Fast Company.

Image courtesy of Flickr.

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A Tale of Two “Third Places”

When We’re Alone Together, Are We Leaving Community Out in the Cold?

January 29, 2014

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


When you stroll through San Francisco’s Mission District these days, throngs of young knowledge workers laboring in coffee shops are a common sight. Some of these digital nomads are working on their first start-up, some on their latest; others are freelancers or employees working remotely (unless they’re with Yahoo!, that is). In ergonomically dubious postures, bent over their laptops, they spend several hours or entire days in these cafes, purchasing a cup of coffee or two and maybe a sandwich for lunch as the modest entry fee.

Just over a mile to the east, in the Potrero Hill district, another rapidly gentrifying neighborhood, Coffee Bar serves as the epitome of this new workplace culture and the social etiquette that comes with it: young techies, heads down, ear plugs in, sit on stools lined up like birds on a wire, fully immersed in going after their business. Only occasionally they lift their heads if a new guest arrives on the scene. There are a few meetings going on, but mostly, no one speaks, as if to underscore the notion that today’s start-up entrepreneurs are indeed solopreneurs, together alone and alone together, to borrow Sherry Turkle’s phrase. Succeeding the knowledge worker’s open offices of the past decade, places like Coffee Bar are the factories of the purpose economy, fueled by personal passion projects, a strong quest for autonomy over one’s work, and imbued with a global sense of community that transcends the locale.

Contrast that to Flushing in Queens, New York, where a recent dispute between the manager of a McDonald’s restaurant and a group a group of elderly Korean patrons made headlines. The store manager became wary of the elders spending too many hours in the store seated at tables and only drinking coffee. The tensions escalated when the store manager bumped the group from the site, claiming that he was losing money because they were occupying seats he would rather give to better-paying customers. The Koreans claimed they had nowhere else to go. Without family to serve as a social nucleus, the nearby McDonald’s was the most convenient location for fostering connections. After a few weeks of heated emotions in the community, the conflict was finally settled, with the store manager agreeing that the elders could sit at the restaurant for as long as they wanted, except during high customer-traffic hours from 11 am to 3 pm.


But the episode had struck a nerve. When it was discussed in The New York Times and on local blogs, some online commentators suggested “solutions” such as installing uncomfortable seats that would deter the elderly, or other nudges from the playbook of behavioral economics. In a way the ensuing debate mirrored, at a smaller scale, the current tensions between technological “solutionism” (as Evgeny Morozov calls it) and the civic fabric in the Bay Area, where the lines between public and private space are being renegotiated in the face of an influx of high-earning tech workers and skyrocketing costs of living.

Comparing the two venues, a coffee shop has a lower entry price than a fast-food restaurant, which is not first and foremost conceived of as a space for community but rather for convenient purchases and short stays, as an efficient, transactional environment. What is considered “hanging out” at Coffee Bar is stigmatized as “loitering” at McDonald’s. As far as clientele is concerned, Coffee Bar is a place for optimizers, McDonald’s is one for maximizers.

Intentionally or not, however, both places serve as what the urban sociologist Ray Oldenburg called the “third place” — an alternative location for the grey zone between home and work, a semi-public and semi-private space that serves us as both consumers and citizens. Oldenburg envisioned it as a home away from home, where the main activity is conversation.

The elderly, blessed with too much unproductive (by conventional measures) time on their hands, are neither maximizers nor optimizers. They need a third place like no one else. Would the Coffee Bar accept their hanging out there every day? In fact, what would happen if anyone just sat there for hours staring out of the window or reading the newspaper, with no devices or other totems of connectivity, no signs of productivity at display? Would you be quietly judged as a slacker or even banned from the site because of breaking a secret code?

In any case, the San Francisco Coffee Bar and the Queens McDonald’s, these two very different “third places,” point to a stark irony of our time: we seem to create an abundance of hang-outs for those who are thinly everywhere, but fail to create them for those who have an abundance of time and no other choice but to be thickly in just one place. What we need are “third” third places — spaces that tolerate a thick presence outside of the social and economic codes imposed by connectivity and efficiency, and that nurture the diversity that is so vital to our urban fabric. In addition to the business and its patrons, we need a place for this third party — the non-transactional guest, the visitor, the community at large.  We need more third places where third parties are welcome.

Coffee Bar photo courtesy of Architizer.

McDonald’s photo courtesy of The New York Times.

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Still Human After All?

Notes from the World Economic Forum Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi

November 25, 2013

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ



Sultan Saeed Nasser Al Mansouri, Minister of Economy of the United Arab Emirates at the World Economic Forum, Summit on the Global Agenda in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates 2013.
© World Economic Forum / Benedikt von Loebel

I arrived in Abu Dhabi late at night, as most international flights land after dark, and immediately lost my footing. That’s what cities built on desert sand do to you — they take your jet lag and play mind games with it. They empty your brain, challenge your assumptions, and trick you into believing that you came here without an agenda, like an empty vessel. The next day I spent by the pool, working away on my laptop, and only after taking a quick break did I notice the sand that had slowly covered my screen, like a veil on my tired soul. Everything is a blur in Abu Dhabi, and while your beliefs feel very strong, you are not so sure what to believe in anymore. I had the exact same experience the first time I visited, two years ago. Now I had come back in my capacity as a member of the World Economic Forum (WEF) Global Agenda Council on Values, and it dawned on me that my mood upon arrival — a profound sense of disorientation — would become the overarching theme of the whole week.

The World Economic Forum, arguably the world’s most influential multi-stakeholder platform to tackle the world’s most pressing issues, runs a Network of Global Agenda Councils, comprising more than 1,500 experts and leaders in business, government, academia and civil society, grouped in more than 80 so-called Global Agenda Councils, to jointly shape the global, regional and industry agenda. Councils are devoted to issues from Youth Unemployment, to Water Security, to New Economic Thinking, to Design and Innovation, to the Future of Health and the Future of Media. Every year the Forum convenes more than 800 council members in the United Arab Emirates to discuss key trends in their fields and devise a list of priorities and recommendations that then inform the program of the Annual Meeting in Davos, a series of regional summits throughout the year, and the public discourse beyond. Ahead of the summit in Abu Dhabi, the Forum also presented its annual flagship publication, the Outlook on the Global Agenda, a comprehensive report based on input from the councils that outlines key drivers of change for the year ahead, broken down into several tracks: globalization, economics, geopolitics, science and technology, international development and leadership values.

Many of the topics discussed in Abu Dhabi had been on the global agenda for a while, and there weren’t any surprise additions. The priorities, however, change slightly from year to year, and issues such as youth unemployment, hyper-connectivity and women’s empowerment rose to a higher level of prominence this time than in previous years. The Forum’s Outlook report identified growing societal tensions in the Middle East and North Africa as the biggest global trend for 2014, closely followed by widening income disparities, persistent structural unemployment, intensifying cyber-threats, lack of action on climate change, and diminishing confidence in economic policies, as well as a lack of values in leadership.

By design, these lists are seldom statements of optimism, but against the backdrop of the ongoing crisis in the Middle East and continued NSA spying revelations, the mood at the summit in Abu Dhabi was noticeably grimmer than in previous years. As part of several cross-council meetings, I had the privilege of speaking with members of the Arab World Council and the Council on Nuclear, Chemical, and Biological Weapons, and it was hard not to observe that a hitherto hopeful pragmatism had made way for a more bitter one. As someone pointed out in a workshop session, “We may be more connected and unified, but we are also more isolated and divided than ever.” Indeed, we increasingly face strong dichotomies, divisions and widening chasms that seem unbridgeable because the underlying value systems are so disparate. If “the other” does not respect the most fundamental value, the sanctity of life, is it naïve to believe this chasm can ever be bridged? And in the case of weapons of mass destruction, how can we minimize the degree of abstraction that widens the distance between decision-making and impact? Or should we maintain this distance so as to make sure we keep the unimaginable unimaginable and the cognitive threshold high for pulling the trigger? These are, in essence, social psychology, neuro-scientific and, not the least, communication questions, and like so many big challenges of our time, it is worth bringing them down to the individual human level. We are human after all.

But are we? Attending a session on “New Frontiers of Tech” made me question this basic assumption. First, I learned that there is no international (and not even a national) regulatory framework for the non-military use of drones, so it’s a free-for-all at this point (except for a preliminary attempt by the American FAA to formalize air space for civil drones). This is a frightening scenario and becomes even more frightening when you combine it with the rise of 3D printing, the latest manifestation of the “democratization of economies” mega-trend. Dario Floreano, a leading drone expert from the École Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne, was adamant that it would take no longer than a year before anybody could 3D-print basic drones at low cost. Of course drones can be extremely helpful tools for civic purposes, such as the erection of ad-hoc communication networks or the distribution of goods in humanitarian crises, as the Drones for Good and other Friendly Drones initiatives are keen to prove. On the scarier side, however, the big fear remains the scenario of “killer-apps” going awry — what if we outsourced our decision to kill another human being to algorithmically programmed drones, robots and other smart devices? Algorithms are already capable of predictive policing, forecasting the time and location of likely criminal activities; what does it do to our integrity as human beings if we empowered them to make pro-active, intelligence-based decisions on life and death?

Coincidentally, on the flight to Abu Dhabi, I had watched Stanley Kubrick’s “2001,” and two things struck me after seeing the seminal movie again: how much its predictions had become part of our shared cultural vernacular, but also how long it took for that to happen (the movie debuted in 1969). Without a doubt, the time between science-fiction and reality will soon shrink dramatically. Many of the advanced technologies that are now part of public debate impact our lives long before we have the chance to even consider the ethical implications, let alone to deliberate over ethical frameworks. The sheer pace of technology-driven change has accelerated in an almost grotesque fashion. As Rod A. Beckstrom, a member of the Council on the Future of the Internet, put it, “When we recognize change, it has already begun to profoundly transform our societies.” All we’re left to do is play catch-up and orchestrate our responses.

The tech session concluded with Nayef Al-Rodhan, who calls himself a “neuro-philosopher,” and he added a somber perspective on the potential of “transhumanism,” the ability to turn human beings into hybrids of biological and technological creatures, enabled by biogenetics and wearable (and soon, body-embedded) computing. At the very moment we transcend the original concept of human life and trespass the uncanny valley to body and cognitive enhancement, some discomforting questions become inevitable: Who gets enhanced? On what merits? And who decides? Will it be citizens of select states? Will it be those who need it most or those who deserve it most based on prior performance? Another digital divide is looming, one that is potentially far more existential than the one over access to information. Al-Rodhan believes that technological advances trump every other driver of change. And indeed, we may be able to deal with economic, social, and political challenges, we may find solutions to health issues and even contain nuclear proliferation; however, the implications of new technologies are harder to manage, and they change the playing field forever. Surveillance, Big Data, smart devices and ultimately transhumanism make it at least doubtful whether we will remain human after all.

It is not only scientific breakthroughs that are challenging our moral capabilities; it is also the growing complexity of our networks that makes them more and more ungovernable. The hyper-connected world, a popular topic at WEF gatherings over the past few years, and according to Thomas Friedman the “world’s single most important trend,” has shown its darker, dystopian side this year, thanks to the disclosures of Edward Snowden. Bruce Schneier, a security technologist who works for The Guardian and one of the few people with complete access to the Snowden files, was one of the most sought-after attendees at the Abu Dhabi summit, and his off-the-record insights did not do much to alleviate a great sense of concern for the security of the Internet. “We need to understand that only an Internet that is secure for anybody will be an Internet secure for everybody,” Rod A. Beckstrom asserted fervently and demanded this become a truly multilateral matter. Yet the surveillance society has already become the new norm, and while some are rightly pushing for new public policies (and the Internet Engineering Task Force is apparently working on a fully encrypted Internet), it seems paramount that we quietly and privately carve out and design for more “safe spaces.” If all of our words and actions are observed and stored anywhere, at any time and in perpetuity, only these safe spaces will remain as havens for those seeking asylum from the claws of ubiquitous productivity, radical transparency, permanent memory and forced intimacy. These are offline and online forums where we can opine without consequences, act without action, have private conversations without public record and exchange ideas without hidden or overt transactional interests. These spaces grant us both distance and intimacy, as well an opportunity to show our true selves and ask the smallest and the biggest possible questions. We can use them to get to know each other and to fundamentally rethink our lives, organizations and economies.

In Abu Dhabi, we created such a “safe space” on the eve of the conference, in the form of a private dinner that I co-hosted on behalf of NBBJ with my friend Priya Parker, a visioner and advisor who serves on the WEF Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. We had invited 15 attendees from various councils and asked them to talk about the meaning of “a good life,” the quintessential question underlying our philosophies, ethics and economics. Every guest was asked to give a toast at some point during the evening, and as special twist — providing a strong incentive for getting into a good flow — the last one had to sing his. Stripped of the need to display status and credentials, we gave our guests permission to be vulnerable, and the result was a genuinely sincere and delightful conversation. No one knew what to expect, and when we closed the dinner, no one knew either what exactly had happened. But hearts and minds were full as people returned to their hotel rooms. Everyone had seen and was seen. The evening reminded me of what the photographer Platon (famous for his portraits of world leaders) told me in Abu Dhabi about his work: “I try to be to as intuitive as possible when I approach my subject. It’s like I see them for the first time, and my empty mind allows me to truly recognize them as who they are.”

After three years on the Forum’s Values Council, the week in Abu Dhabi helped me appreciate this notion of emptiness, and I suddenly realized what I had suspected all along: the greatest value we could bring to this community as a Values Council was not to develop an elaborate moral framework, a new social contract or the definitive guide to ethical decision-making; it was something more humble: we could help the other councils as well as leaders worldwide to look at themselves in the mirror, we could support them in recognizing the values driving their decisions, and we could serve as an unprejudiced empty vessel for articulating and addressing their moral dilemmas. We could create the safe spaces they needed to have an honest dialogue on values, to reach across the aisle and reconcile seemingly opposing truths. We drafted a “New Social Covenant” as a first step—a deliberately loose, informal container. Its content will come from many future gatherings like the one in Abu Dhabi, or perhaps even more importantly, from many future dinners and private conversations.

This epiphany gave me some optimism amidst the doom and gloom. And so did the younger generation, represented in Abu Dhabi through the Forum’s Global Shapers, a network of individuals under 30 who have demonstrated exceptional drive to transform their communities. I had the great pleasure of facilitating a session titled “Intergenerational Dialogue for Action,” in which some of these Shapers presented their projects, creative micro-enterprises tackling big global issues such as youth unemployment; women’s empowerment, skills and education; and entrepreneurship on the local level. There was Khalid Alkhudair, who gave up his regional CMO post with KMPG to co-found Glowork, a company that created the first job marketplace for women in Saudi Arabia. Glowork matches women with jobs by creating opportunities in sectors previously inaccessible to them. So far it has put more than 3,000 women in the workplace and found work-from-home jobs for 500 women. Khalid is now planning a fitness studio chain for women in Saudi Arabia. Michelle Arevalo-Carpenter from TECHO in Venezuela provides millennials with “citizenship education” by enlisting them as volunteers in the fight against extreme poverty and involving them in transitional housing and other social inclusion programs. Or take May Habib, the founder and CEO of Qordoba, a Dubai-based start-up that has built a network of more than 1000 linguists for Arabic-English translation services and digital content. Awarded “Young CEO of the Year, Arabian Business,” May acts as a vocal champion of young female business leaders in the Arab world and its increasingly vibrant start-up scene.

WEF Abu Dhabi Shapers Session

The WEF Global Shapers participating in an “Intergenerational Dialogue for Action” — © World Economic Forum

It is not only the pace of the technological change that is dizzying. Social norms, too, are evolving much faster than popular belief would assume. And therein lies the biggest reason for hope. Joseph Nye, the godfather of “soft power” and a member of the Council on the Future of Government, made it clear that we have the means to shape our cultures and governance models the way we want them to be. Whether we will be led by an informal parliament of mega-cities, ruled by central government, or live in gated private communities; whether we will delegate parts of our humanity to artificial intelligence or to the “rational” calculus of markets, our future could be entirely dystopian or mark the beginning of a new era of human flourishing. We still have a choice.

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Be Yourself — Wear a Mask!

The Unhidden Peril of Radical Transparency

October 31, 2013

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


From Grimm’s fairy tales, to the carnival in Venice, to Mardi Gras, Halloween, The Mask, the masked ball in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut, Greek drama, super-heroes, bank robbers, assassins, executioners at the guillotine, the Ku Klux Klan and the hacker organization Anonymous — masks create a dimension outside the everyday. Religions and cults have long understood their power as symbols of beauty and honesty, and in many cultures masks are used in rituals of initiation, reverence, mourning and inclusion, but in others to express shame, guilt and exclusion, as the totems of secret societies. They are worn for physical protection (think of fencing, oxygen masks or anti-pollution masks) and at the same time allow us to be “characters” in performances, on and offstage.

We perform in business of course as well, not just in the sense of delivering on tasks and accomplishing goals set by others or ourselves, but also in the sense of developing our own narrative, choreographing our interactions, and playing a role — in fact, many different roles. This type of performance has become ever more essential to our “performance review” since the knowledge economy has automated many “objective” tasks and left us only with the fuzzy space of “subjective” ones: building and cultivating relationships; managing our reputation and perception; curating and sharing tacit knowledge; and earning respect, popularity, authority and influence. As Matthew B. Crawford claims in his book Shopclass As Soulcraft, we have become “symbolic knowledge workers”:

A manager has to make many decisions for which he is accountable. Unlike an entrepreneur with his own business, however, his decisions can be reversed at any time by someone higher up the food chain (and there is always someone higher up the food chain). It’s important for your career that these reversals not look like defeats, and more generally you have to spend a lot of time managing what others think of you.

If one were to grossly exaggerate, one could say we are no longer what we make or do — we are who others think we are. We are how liked or feared we are. We are what we are not told. This has far-reaching implications. When every somewhat mechanical task representing a linear cause-effect correlation is eradicated from our “to-do”, all that’s left for us is “to be,” to build and live up to the promise of our personal brand, to show up and show off. That’s highly volatile and vulnerable terrain, and many of us need more than just one persona to navigate it. Thus, we are all wearing masks while we are at work — alternate identities that enable us to navigate alternate realities. The same is true for us as consumers. We put on masks and try on different identities as we enter the showrooms, as we buy and buy into the products, services, cultures and values of the brands we revere. Masks represent the allure of another life, with all its promises and risks.

“Our lived lives might become a protracted mourning for, or an endless trauma about, the lives we were unable to live,” Adam Phillips writes in his book Missing Out: In Praise of the Unlived Life. Curiously, we tend to mostly deny the possibility of “other lives” in business, and perhaps more than ever before in the history of business, we stubbornly refuse to accept organizations and business leaders who, in the most extreme form, betray us or lie to us, or, in a milder form, switch between multiple facets of their character, between different identities. In the name of authenticity, we are growing increasingly skeptical of organizations and leaders who wear a mask.

This tendency has been exacerbated by the paradigm of “radical transparency” that characterizes the new era of social business in a digital world. “Un-masking” has become the cri de coeur, the main order of business in an age that heralds authenticity as the Holy Grail and ultimate means of business success. Peter Fulda, in a blog post for the Harvard Business Review, demands “Leaders, Drop Your Masks,” and he postulates the most frightening of all imperatives: “Just be yourself.” Authenticity! Who would not embrace it? Many business thinkers want us to believe that being yourself — or better, appearing to be yourself, being perceived as yourself — is the path to true and lasting respect and recognition.

So it may seem counterintuitive, yes, almost illegitimate, to hold up the merits of disguise, of quite literally wearing a mask. But I insist there are plenty: Masks are transformative devices. They allow individuals, groups, or entire organizations to “try on” a different identity. They allow us to “fake it until we become it,” to explore our alter egos, our other, unlived lives. To be somebody else is the first step to becoming somebody else. Only by pretending to be somebody else or something else can we transform ourselves.

Whether they are noble and good, hedonist and frivolous, or dangerous and even criminal, masks gives us the space that does not conform to our social norms or protocols. They indicate that what we see is not what we get, and that things are not what they seem to be. Masks play tricks with our mind and challenge our “auto-pilot,” distorting our perception and judgment, and introducing new parameters that empower us to deviate from preconceived notions and pre-assigned courses.

Putting on masks allows us to reveal and speak the truth, as the fools did at medieval courts. Masks do not show what is right, but they make us believe in the existence of something that is true — they literally mean more, and suggest we look and think twice, because there is always another reality, another life that is possible. This revelation, of one’s relative position in the world, is a humbling one, and it is this very humility that is more authentic than anything else.

We habitually doubt the feelings of others, and our own. Is it a mask or is it real? This is the driving question of all flirtatious interactions, of any hint of romance. It is the doorway to hidden meaning. Likewise, a brand manifests the implicit. It serves as a mask for its leaders, employees and customers. Brands as masks allow us to be strangers, just for one moment.

In a time in which Google, the world’s most valuable brand, boasts it knows more about us than we know ourselves, putting on a mask is one of the last remaining ways to keep that knowledge for ourselves, to keep our selves for ourselves. It is the very public act of demarcating our privacy. By masking us, by pretending to be somebody else, we protect ourselves from the regime of complete comprehensibility — let alone the imminent pervasiveness of facial recognition, in light of which possessing more than just one facial identity may need to become a human right.

I am not sure about you, but I don’t want to live in a world of full and permanent recognition, of absolute taxonomies. I don’t want to live in a world of radical transparency. I don’t want to have only the naked truth. I don’t want to live in a world without masks.

Inspired by an nbbX talk by Joan Saba, Norman Ai, Andrew Heumann and Alan Mountjoy

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Big Data Will Never Defeat Big Intuition

In the Rush to Collect Information, We Can’t Neglect What Makes Us Human

August 20, 2013

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Big Data is big business. Sensors, GPS tracking, math modeling, and artificial intelligence offer companies real-time market insights at massive scale and open the door to unprecedented ways of monitoring, targeting, and measuring employees and customers. Analyst firm Gartner predicts that enterprises adopting Big Data technologies will “outperform competitors by 20 percent in every available financial metric.”

Big Data might well be “the new oil,” but I would caution us not to worship it as the new religion. I’m afraid that amidst all the data frenzy we are not only losing a more holistic view of business but also an important part of our humanity. How do we appreciate quality if we capture it only in quants? How much (or little) space do we leave for creativity and human expression if we equate better living with better algorithms?

I am not a dataphobe, but I am concerned about relying only on data. I am not against quantitative metrics, but I question their authority as the main indicators of business performance, prosperous societies, and meaningful lives.

Big Data comes with many benefits, but let’s complement it with Big Intuition. Here are six reasons why:

  1. Big Data = Big Brother? The New York Times’ Steve Lohr describes Big Data as a descendant of Taylor’s “scientific management.” Instead of performance in the workplace, which was the focus of Taylorism, we are now measuring happiness and well-being, our consumption preferences, social interactions, physical activities, our attitudes, moods, emotions, behaviors, and bodily functions — in other words, we are measuring our lives.Sure, to some degree, “quantified self” apps may empower the individual to exert more control over their lives. However, by doing so, we are expanding the dictate of business to once-private terrain, commodifying and colonializing it under the mandate of self-improvement. For many of us, the refusal to measure and quantify these few remaining “sacred spaces” of our lives is the last bastion against the pervasiveness of the commercial.
  2. Big Data is not social. We humans are social animals. Research shows that relationships, especially friendship and marriage, are key factors of happiness and fulfillment. Our brains are wired to care, and our hearts and minds have developed an astounding capacity to empathize and sympathize with fellow humans. We can show compassion, sense mood swings, detect subtle non-verbal cues, tolerate or embrace, accept and reject, love and hurt, experience with all of our senses, act irrationally, and even lose our self-control. These key traits of our humanity are threatened by the “mathematization of subjectivity,” as Leon Wieseltier calls it.Recent social genomics studies suggest that not only our productivity, but also our evolutionary capacity to connect with others is diminished by digital overload.
  3. Big Data creates small worlds. Morality is gained by way of empathy. Yet, in our age of hyper-connectivity we are increasingly facing the challenge of connecting with the other whose opinions, values, beliefs, faith, and culture may be unlike ours.As digital technology has become more sophisticated in personalizing and customizing our social experiences, online and offline, based on our preferences, our “Likes,” and online paths, we are increasingly stuck in our own world — the “Filter Bubble,” as Eli Pariser called it, designed by smart algorithms to serve us with content, culture, and company that we are already familiar with and that fall squarely within our comfort zones. We don’t “like” the people and things that are unlike us, and thus feed a vicious cycle of social and cultural narrow-mindedness.
  4. Big Data makes us smarter, not wiser. Our data-driven worlds are not only becoming smaller, they are becoming faster. The real-time flow of information persuades us to react to feedback constantly and instantly. Playing on the title of Alvin Toffler’s 1970 book Future Shock, Douglas Rushkoff calls our current state-of-mind Present Shock, lamenting “a diminishment of everything that isn’t happening right now — and the onslaught of everything that supposedly is.” Real-time feedback loops make it harder for us to step outside the tyranny of the now and see the future — to envision what could be.Vision is what Big Data can’t deliver. Data might give us information fast, but for quick but profound decisions, intuition is much better suited. Prasad Kaipa and Navi Radjou, in a recent book, urge business leaders to move “from smart to wise.” They have a point. Smart organizations and leaders thrive on constant feedback. Smart is fast. Wise, however, is slow. Wise organizations and leaders need time and take it. Time for pause. Time for reflection. Time for not doing anything. Time to find the signal amid all the noise.
  5. Big Data is (too) obvious. “You can only manage what you measure” — really? The financial crisis has shown that we manage poorly what we measure, and failed mergers, failed product launches, reputational crises, and social media PR disasters, in short, the cultural disconnects within organizations and between brands and their audiences, indicate that we need to get better at managing what we cannot measure.Leaders now need to have “opposable minds,” as design thinker Roger Martin puts it. Data doesn’t parse ambiguity. The business leader of the 21st century will no longer be measured by how much uncertainty he or she can eliminate but how much uncertainty he or she can tolerate.
  6. Big Data doesn’t give (or forgive). Data might be able to predict new problems or find new solutions to existing problems, but only human intuition and ingenuity can come up with groundbreaking new ideas. That is a uniquely human gifts — one that creates a “meaning excess,” a sense of wonder and significance that goes beyond reciprocity, beyond merely fixing a problem or meeting a functional need.By the same token, if we quantify all of our relationships, we will not leave any wiggle room for human discretion and our unique ability to forget, and even if we can’t forget, to forgive. Because we often have mixed feelings about people and their behavior, our judgment can be more than just binary. This means we can assess and respond to ambivalent behaviors with more nuance — we can appreciate the intention over the outcome, if we want, and we can choose to accept failure as a prerequisite of innovation. It is hard to see how we can collaborate with one another, how we can make progress towards any goal, without the ability to forgive.

So how can we become data-savvy, but not data-obsessed? As innovators, marketers, and business leaders, we must constantly defend and push for spaces for Big Intuition. Let’s resist the rush to data and take the time to lean back so we can be fast when it matters. Let’s grant ourselves a data moratorium from time to time that we can use to reflect on what really is important to us and our organizations. Let’s “hack” Big Data with small acts of friction. Let’s de-stigmatize “gut feel” — it is a better lodestar than we might think. And let’s use data to tell our stories, but let’s not allow data be our only story.

We must be giving and listening instead of filtering and targeting and analyzing. We must not reduce people to profiles and graphs, and aim for short-term victories on what Rushkoff terms the “algorithmic battleground,” whilst losing the hearts and souls of the people we serve in the long-term.

Data can give us the illusion of objective truth, yes, but at the end of the day, our employees and customers are not interested in the truth, they seek experiences that feel true. In other words, they seek authenticity. It is this small, but critical, gap between truth and authenticity that gives our brands, our organizations, and our lives meaning. No data can fill it. Only human beings.

This post originally appeared on Gary Hamel’s management blog, The Mix.

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The Office Is Everywhere

When Work Becomes Nomadic, What Is the Office For?

September 2, 2013

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


We caught up with Scott Chacon, co-founder and CIO of GitHub, at NBBJ’s recent salon on the evolving role of the office, “Data vs. Delight,” in San Francisco. We asked him about the role of physical space in the digital age, where people are most productive, and whether people should come to the office anymore.

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Autonomy Is Essential for Innovation

How Collaborative Maker Shops Allow Anyone — Yes, You! — to Bring New Products to Market

October 3, 2013

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Even though technology allows us to work virtually anywhere, physical workshops are still essential for many inventors and entrepreneurs — that’s what TechShop founder Jim Newton told us when we caught up with him in San Francisco. His collaborative workshops are helping drive innovation not only with small entrepreneurs, but also with giant corporations like Ford Motor Company.

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Technology and Common Sense

Do You Own Your Data? Or Does It Own You?

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future, sat down with us after our Data vs. Delight salon to discuss the importance of meeting technology with common sense. Human judgment is an essential counterweight to smart devices and the perils of privacy in a networked age, she said.

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What’s Next for Work

The War for Talent is Over. Talent Won.

August 17, 2013

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


When we sat down with Lucian Tarnowski, the founder of BraveNewTalent, after our Data vs. Delight event in San Francisco, he had some provocative thoughts about the importance of creative, human capital. You thought cash was king? Think again.

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Why Retro-Innovation Is The Next Big Thing

How Do You Make the Customer Experience Full of Longing? Create Exclusivity and Make Your Product Feel Ephemeral

September 25, 2013

Chief Marketing Officer, NBBJ


Against an accelerating backdrop of datafication, a “retro-innovation” trend is emerging. New products and services are designed to connect us with the past in ways that are both nostalgic and interactive.

Retro-innovations roughly fall into three categories:

  1. Innovations that authentically mimic a product or experience of the past to transport the user back into a gone era.
  2. Innovations that use a nostalgic format to meet a new need.
  3. Innovations that use a new format to meet an old need.

The Italian paper notebook maker Moleskine, whose recent IPO was valued at more than $600 million, is a stunning anachronism in a business environment that glorifies tech startups and digital business models. Cleverly marketed as a tangible (analogue) reservoir of the artful and playful, the company describes its notebooks as “analogue clouds.” Last year, in an effort to replicate their sensibility online, they formed a partnership with digital note-taking and archiving software Evernote.

Crowdsourcing Performances of Songs, Then Throwing One Live Concert

Beck’s album, Song Reader, is a retro-innovation that used a traditional format (sheets of music) for a contemporary need (co-creation).

In December 2012, Beck masterfully combined the physical and digital experience by releasing his album exclusively as “sheets of music”–as a physical product, beautifully packaged–without ever performing and recording any of the new songs. Instead, Beck crowdsourced the performance of his new songs; he invited his fans to record and share his songs online. The brilliant part: Beck’s own interpretations of his songs would remain exclusive to concertgoers (which increased the value of his live performances), and the lack of a digital product that could be shared online (legally or illegally) created a new and obscure market for cover versions. Yet the original never existed. It made the release participatory and let fans and musicians all over the world co-create Beck’s “album.”

It fits, then, that Beck performed “Song Reader” as a one-night-only show in San Francisco on May 24, as an “issue” of Pop-Up Magazine, the “world’s first live magazine.” The issue “exists” as a live performance and nothing was filmed or recorded. This kind of ‘temporal exclusivity’ pushes the nostalgia factor because it’s all about remembering. These days, we have digital archives to serve that purpose. But Beck’s one performance exists to be remembered even as his fans make their own albums of his work.


Searching for Old-Fashioned Experiences That Happen Only Once

Nostalgia is also the hallmark of the Millennial Trains Project, an upcoming event that invites millennial thinkers and doers to spend 10 days together on a train traveling across the U.S. from coast to coast and to stop at 10 cities on the way. The goal is to learn about regional challenges and advance their respective projects in an eclectic, interdisciplinary environment. Founder Patrick Dowd, who quit a job at JP Morgan to launch the initiative, says that the experience will be meaningful because “it is ephemeral: it only happens once, and will never happen like that again.” Things that don’t last, last longer.

Bringing some of the “aura” back to experiences that have become readily accessible through digital reproduction is a theme that all retro-innovations have in common. The Secret Cinema series in the U.K. is a gathering that, compellingly, adds an element of mystery that seems to be lacking from our radically transparent social media world. People come together for “mystery screenings” of seminal movies, from Casablanca to Alien to Blade Runner, in undisclosed locations. It tries to make the traditional movie experience social, immersive, and interactive. Participants are given cues, such as dress code instructions, before the event. On-site, a live performance tries to extend the movie into real life. (For Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire, a trapeze act overlapped with the scene in the film.)

In Search of Lost Time

Then there is the much buzzed-about Outbox, a startup that aims to revolutionize postal mail. The service converts the contents of subscribers’ physical mailboxes into digital files and sends them to their digital devices (iPadiPhone), combining digital efficiency (filtering out junk mail; having all mail readily available and searchable at your fingertips) with the nostalgic delight of receiving physical mail. Again, a traditional experience is reframed through the means of the connected world. Similarly, the website The Rumpus charges $5 monthly for people who want to receive old-fashioned letters in the mail from their favorite authors. They call it a print subscription.

Another Internet phenomenon is a retro-innovation: Snapchat, the app that enables the exchange of self-destructing images. It reminds us of a pre-digital age when forgetting was still possible. Images that disappear after a few moments for good are a nostalgic feature in a time when everything we say and do is remembered permanently online.

As much as forgetting is becoming a luxury, we like to remember the analog. The Recalling 1993 project in New York City turns every pay phone in the city into a “time machine” online, allowing citizens to “recall” what had happened on that block twenty years earlier. Similarly, the Historypin app asks users to “pin” historical photos, videos, and audio content to Google maps to create an historical archive that others can sort through.

Less ironic but broader trends that encapsulate a nostalgic sentiment are the do-it-yourself (DIY) maker movement, the renaissance of hardware (a key trend at this year’s South by Southwest conference), and the rise of micro-entrepreneurs and their contribution to the DIY economy. It’s all driven by the desire for a hands-on experience of work that overcomes the alienation between maker and product.

Retro-innovations express a desire to reconnect with something essential that appears to be missing from our modern lives–an appreciation of opacity, an authenticity that looks and feels real, a more romantic relationship with business that transcends a merely transactional mechanism. Which traditional human experience can you update and bring to life with technologies of the digital age? How can you make your customer experience full of longing? These are questions that retro-innovators are primed to answer.

This post originally appeared on Fast Company.

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