When I was a kid they dropped people on the moon for the first time ever, and I witnessed it all live on b&w television. I also witnessed that they dropped bombs on people living in sheds, in countries far away and that students, because of that, were revolting and were throwing stones at the police. Disturbing pictures, but also strong visions of a better society, with technology that would solve all problems and that seem to imply a brighter future lying ahead. At the end of the ’60s, the future only could be better than the current present!
But now the future is not what it used to be! Where are we today: it didn’t really turn out as envisioned at the end of the sixties, or? We stopped flying to the moon, but still, drop bombs on people living in sheds. Technology did not solve all problems, it created new ones.
Today, many see the future being worst than the current present… how come? Well, some seemingly unsolvable problems, which spoil or vision of a bright future, have crept in: pollution, climate change, aids, sustainable energy creation, burnout…
The designer and researcher Horst Rittel once called these ‘wicked problems’. [see my earlier post.] They have, according to Rittel and other researchers, no stopping rule, they are often not understood until there is a solution formulated and those solutions are either better or worse, but never right or wrong… truly wicked!
In essence, these wicked problems scare the heck out of people and paralyze them. That’s why wicked problems are predominantly resulting in uncertainty, which again is a true show stopper when you want to design for a better future: you need certainty to design for the better!
Interestingly enough the response to uncertainty is dealt with quite differently around the globe: the Brits, for instance, do regard the uncertainty as something peculiar and rather interesting. They keep calm and just carry on. (That’s why they don’t need a constitution.)
For the Germans, it’s quite different. They tent to leave uncertainty outside the door, or rather grab it by the bones: they either pull up the bridge, so to say, or try to process everything, until there is nothing left to be unsure about. (They even have a constitution, in case the constitution is out of order… next to that they have the DIN, the GS and so on.) Just observe a group of German cyclists: they got all the gear – helmets, reflectors, protectors, signals… Next thing they wear helmets in bed – you never know!
And it stays like this, right up to the dutch border. Once you are down there, in the Netherlands, you can witness mothers on their bikes, crossing red traffic lights with utmost serenity – including kids on wobbly child seats (of course without helmets and gear), and the groceries for the whole week: ridiculous who would think that something could go wrong here!
If you spent most of your life below sea level, like the dutch, surrounded by water beyond fluffy dikes, you will develop strong opportunism, at least! You learn to set the sail with the wind: which is also no surprise if you are a decedent of sailors and traders, who, packed together on a small vessel, sailed to seven sees – and this already over 500 year ago! You get the picture.
These cultural differences (which were so clearly described by ‘another’ dutchman Geert Hofsteede) have a strong influence on how one deals with uncertainty, which again influences how one goes about innovation.
For instance, the Germans treat innovation as a serious issue: they approach it in a focussed, stringed and goal-oriented way. Therefore they struggle, increasingly in the post-industrial age, with flexibility, speed, and originality.
The Dutch on the other hand tackle innovation more openly: they are in for a consensus and open for the new. They therefore often struggle with bringing things to the point, being rigid and creating something robust.
You can experience the result of this cultural difference quite explicitly in the product world: in most cases, German products are technologically and qualitatively leading, reliable – but they are often strangely dull and very technology centred.
Dutch products are generally very creative, playful and people-centred – but they are often quite ‘wobbly’, not that thorough and not that reliable.
To combine the strengths of these cultures would be interesting: just imagine innovations that are technologically leading, creative and people-centred, at the highest qualitative level – that would be it; equal or beyond the level of Apple! With such a combination of strengths, one could tackle those dreadful wicked problems!
Smart people have discovered that there are ways to tackle wicked problems, but that there is only one proving to be most promising.
Nr. 1: an ‘über-guru’ does it all by himself – unfortunately, Steve Jobs died, and a new one still has to emerge…
Nr. 2: we let all compete against each other so that the best might win – with so many competitors, this will take too long for a solution to emerge…
Nr. 3: we collaborate in big style and deliberately use the strengths of those participating!
No surprise that the third option proved to be the best, but, so it says, also to be the least feasible…
And why is that, I wonder? Why are the Dutch and Germans not teaming up even more? What is so difficult about combining the strengths of different cultures? Because the advantages are in your face: a combined Dutch-German innovation funnel, for instance, would be superior to most others around! You would get the ultimate ‘push and pull structure’, an unmatched innovation machine!
Just imagine! Siemens, with the design competence of Philips! Philips, with the quality competence of Siemens!
Do I have to say more? What are we waiting for? The European championship is done, the world championship is still two years ahead!