Leveraging consumer creativity for productive, predictive, innovative architecture

“Consumers no longer simply consume. They’re active, skeptical, creative, entrepreneurial. This used to be a minority pursuit. Now technology has made it mainstream.”1

Networked information technology has provided a platform upon which commercial consumers are taking center stage (and none of them are reading from the script). The implicit rules that dictated how commercial value should be created and how conventional organizations should operate are rapidly being re-written in the 21st century, with significant implications for contemporary and future design firms. Increasingly end-users are no longer passive in their consumption of commercial artifacts, instead acting as essential agents in the process of competitive production.

The internet is driving much of this change with many of today’s most successful websites built almost entirely around consumer generated and curated content. The formal organizations of YouTube, Flickr, Facebook and Twitter inevitably relinquish significant control over their service and associative brand, which falls squarely in the hands of their consumers. These consumers collectively generate the core value of such web-services through the nature of their own social content and activity (producing and curating for others to consume) and this decentralization goes hand in hand with at least one profound advantage. According to Youtube’s statistics their sharing platform receives roughly one-hundred hours of video every single minute; allowing 6 billion hours to be watched every month; with millions of subscriptions happening every single day.

Beyond productivity of simple social content, however, this technology-driven revolution is even permeating the process of competitive commercial design with somewhat predictable success. Quirky, for example (founded in 2009), is a rapidly growing company whose consumer design process facilitates ‘predictive’ manufacturing, in the sense that customer interest is harnessed and clearly measurable before any significant product investment takes place. The company develops its entire line through a web-based social platform. Here, their online community of hundreds of thousands of potential consumers submit initial design concepts, vote for their favorites, share and collaborate with each other along with the Quirky design staff by submitting developmental ideas. As the founder and CEO Ben Kaufman puts it, “We have the most data of any product development company in the world. We can be the most predictive product development company in the world.”2

Unlike the strategy for minimum viable products (launched with minimal features, after which consumer feedback guides intelligent and targeted development) Quirky engages and harnesses consumers, rigorously and cost effectively, evolving products via their online platform before manufacturing even a single iteration for consumption. As opposed to the minimum viable product, the emerging concept of the ‘minimum viable brand’ certainly applies more readily here. This term was used in the 2013 ‘Game Changers’ report, published by the international brand consultancies Wolff Olins and Flamingo. The authors described the minimum viable brand as one that customers are invited to “adopt, adapt and improve,” provided with basic ‘ingredients’ rather than a finished article. Essentially the consumers are empowered to build on the brand themselves. This report highlights that business leaders are expressing “uneasiness about ‘giving up control to consumers’ in the age of social media.” However, economic theorists suggest that, far from being a simple democratic gesture, this business model represents a crucial competitive necessity in the emerging economy.

Quirky’s active community of consumer/producers has already attracted millions of dollars in investment and the company has shocked retailers through the pace of their rapid innovation. The company has also developed a partnership with the Fortune 100 giant General Electric. Quirky is now even considering the development of their own branded retail outlets, which raises some interesting questions. How might a conventional architectural practice define a brand which is significantly shaped en masse by consumer-generated design? How, in effect, might the productive and predictive model previously discussed be employed effectively at an architectural scale?

This process will aid developers and architects in planning and design, tapping into end-user insight, creativity, as well as productivity.

Betaville is one initiative that attempts to tackle this challenge, allowing architecture to be seen as something comparable to a minimum viable ‘brand-scape’ that evolves according to mass consumer input before construction takes place. The online platform hosts three-dimensional open-source replicas of real world cities. Anyone can log into these to create altered versions of spaces using simple modelling programs like SketchUp. Other users can then comment on and discuss the changes and even develop them further. The idea is that this process will aid developers and architects in planning and design, tapping into end-user insight, creativity, as well as productivity.

The initiative director Carl Skelton explains in a January 2014 interview that Betaville is currently being employed in its first ‘in the wild’ deployment in the city of Los Angeles, as opposed to the previously controlled trials in academic contexts. Skelton also describes some of the inspiration behind the Betaville initiative. “We know that millions and millions of human lives worth of hours have gone into SimCity which amounts to impersonating a municipal bureaucrat, so clearly there is an opportunity here.”3 In fact SimCity is one of many relevant cases. The gaming industry is increasingly developing social environments that double up as powerful architectural tools, the intuitive nature of which effectively facilitates consumer collaboration and creativity.

Thousands of consumer/producer man hours go into these projects for no extrinsic reward, and the value that this could present for real world architecture is only just being explored.

For example the massively social and successful Minecraft game (released in 2009) has resulted in users banding together in their thousands to design and build awe inspiring virtual worlds, some of which are based on science fiction novels. These fantasy environments of course require a significant degree of improvisation, creativity and collaborative decision making. The simple mechanism behind the game, whereby large blocks can either be added to an environment or removed, allows anybody to get involved regardless of experience. Thousands of consumer/producer man hours go into these projects for no extrinsic reward, and the value that this could present for real world architecture is only just being explored. The developers of Minecraft have now paired up with UN-habitat in an initiative called Block by Block. The aim is to allow end-users to feed creative input into the process of urban planning, with a goal to transform 300 public spaces worldwide by 2016.

Mass multi-player games and other forms of social media are progressively blurring the boundaries between production and consumption, empowering consumers to refine products and environments according to their collective preferences. At the same time the internet has increased commercial competition with networked consumers capable of conducting price and venue comparisons at the click of a button, while also influencing droves of others via social platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Consumer engagement in design has therefore never been more important.

In the last ten years even the most insular of design and development companies have had to open up to external input, including the Fortune 100 company Procter & Gamble. In 2000 the company’s stock value fell by 50 percent within 6 months, with the company realizing that they needed to decentralize innovation and development in order to recover. The ‘P&G Co-Creation Channel’ at www.cocreate-pg.com was created as part of this decentralization and is still available for anyone to submit their own creative ideas, “from inventors to scientists, and creative consumers, to drive innovation.” By 2007, with 50 percent of the company’s new products and innovations now originating from outside of the company, their stock price had recovered and even surpassed its previous heights.

Examples like this, along with emerging companies like Quirky and Threadless, demonstrate the competitive advantages of mass collaboration and consumer driven design: profound productivity, rich consumer data allowing a predictive design approach, and powerful innovation through connecting thousands of creative minds. In a January 2014 post on Quirky’s open discussion forum the user, ‘A.Lorimer’, asked the rest of the community a question; whether or not Quirky could find value in “challenging the online community to help design and develop the retail architecture of their future stores.” Discussion began, and within 24 hours Sketchup scenes had even been uploaded depicting one user’s initial contribution for how the store could look. Evidently many consumers are willing to share and connect as an architectural design collective, and so it is likely that platforms like Minecraft and Betaville will continue to emerge and develop. It may therefore be worth anticipating this transformation before it significantly encroaches on the profession, as it is continuing to do in other areas of commercial design. Crucially, those that resist such change may find themselves at a competitive disadvantage to those that are aware and embrace it, learning to reposition themselves as conductors of a complex orchestra rather than ignoring what may be an inevitable tide.

Sources:

1 Wolff Olins & Flamingo, ‘Game-Changers’, 2013, [Online] http://gamechangers.wolffolins.com/ [20/02/2014]

2 Kaufman, B. interview by Dean, J. ‘Is This the World’s Most Creative Manufacturer’, Inc Magazine [online] http://www.inc.com/magazine/201310/josh-dean/is-quirky-the-worlds-most-creative-manufacturer.html [29/12/13]

3 Skelton, C. (Skype interview, 27th January, 2014)

Alexander O.D. Lorimer is an architectural theorist and computer programmer. His research focuses on the use of emergent properties within self-organising systems in order to solve complex design problems, as well as facilitating mass collaboration in the process of design.