The power of change

Amsterdam's canals should remind everyone who lives and works in the city of the power of innovative design and transformative ideas

No matter how many times you look at Amsterdam, you notice something ingenious, adaptive or innovative: six toddlers being pedalled along in a bakfiets; phalanxes of asymmetrical umbrellas in rush hour; the Amsterdam Dance Event; removable windows; coffee shops.

In an era when our daily survival seems predicated on our ability to pursue such innovation, how does Amsterdam as a city help inform and frame our perspective on seeking, harnessing, designing and, ultimately, wielding innovation in its myriad forms to deliver commercial creativity (otherwise known as "the day job")?

As denizens of Sid Lee Amsterdam, such a perspective is fortunately omnipresent, as our city is home to one of the most ingenious and inspiring, future-proofed, innovate-or-die designs in the world: our canal system, the Grachtengordel.

The Grachtengordel was created in the 17th century to open up the city for global business, ushering in the Dutch Golden Age. But what if we received that brief today? Would we leap to design for such monumental change? Would we set about the Herculean task of fashioning an infrastructure that would enable Amsterdam to trade more, trade better, trade up and trade on? Would we leave behind all that had gone before and choose to create the next iteration of Amsterdam, catapulting it into its next stage of growth – emerging as a hub for world trade?

Invariably, we would not, truth be told. Instead, our industry-conditioned synapses would jump to the established tactics designed to say just how great a place Amsterdam is to do business. That is because change is scary. No-one actually wants it. And, no matter how well we are reminded of the power, value and inevitability of change every day, it is way less palatable than most of us care to admit.

Of course, our brains are chemically wired to resist such change. Moreover, our industry is (commercially) designed to avoid change, vested as it is in maintaining the status quo – even though we know that this myopia will ultimately do nothing to protect our margins.

John Kenneth Galbraith perhaps said it best: "Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof." (Which, all too often in our industry, tends to equal faster horses and brighter candles.)

So we have turned to data (big, small or otherwise) in the hope that it will reveal an existing behaviour we can innovate against, slightly and safely. What a curious notion, our industry – so cavalier, instinctive and visionary – placing so much faith in data that tells you what has already happened in order to design for change.

All too often, this path to innovation is devoid of the necessary creative spark, instinct, judgment and, indeed, human experience to actually extract value from the equation (something we have all worked hard to gain expertise in and be paid for).

Sir John Hegarty had it right when he opined on brands embracing data-dictated change: "To those brands that say ‘I understand you’, I say: ‘You don’t understand me… I don’t understand myself sometimes… and that can be fun.’"

To return to our lovely canals, if the 17th-century council had used citizen data to determine how it might make Amsterdam a centre of global commerce, it would have lowered taxes, created more seductive trade deals or turned an even blinder eye to the city’s vice industry – in other words, encouraged slightly better versions of what they already had.

Data-driven direction without the appropriate creative companionship does not, will not, cannot tell you, ever, that you should set forth and go build the Grachtengordel. Only fierce creative vision, applied to an understanding of the underlying needs and behaviours inferred from that data, can inspire that kind of truly transformational change.

So we can choose to resist change ("don’t", is our advice), we can adapt to change (better, but we are still playing catch-up) or we can drive change (actually, this is the least risky approach and what our industry should do best).

At Sid Lee, we believe our job is to encourage the adoption of this perspective to yield broader forms of commercial creativity. We combine a knack for telling stories with a knowledge of systematic experience design to lead consumers to new, exciting ideas, solid and shocking ideas for the likes of Absolut Vodka, Cirque du Soleil, Facebook, Microsoft, Red Bull and Ubisoft. Some disciplines we learned, some we acquired but, from Sid Lee Architecture to Sid Lee Entertainment, we work together to harness innovation in driving transformative change for our businesses and our brands.

And we are reminded every day of the value and magnitude that can come from embracing and harnessing the power of transformative change – and how to design for it – by the Grachtengordel, Amsterdam’s own special living monument to the power of change.

Emily Creek is the global business director at Sid Lee Amsterdam

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