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[thesis project brief]

Project Conspiracy ~

I believe we are headed towards an era of sameness – an era in which innovation by the human species alone is impossible because all humanly perceivable problems are solved. While, to some, the elimination of problems may seem to be a great success, I find it to be the most pressing dilemma of mankind. Entrepreneurship, the design of new stuff as a result of our innate empathy towards others, is what makes us human. To strip innovation and ingenuity out of the human equation is to strip the very thing that makes us unique as a species.

Three signals that point towards this predicament, the end of entrepreneurial practice, are identified: Knock-Off Products, Feature Companies, and Product-Enhancing Products. In the 20th Century we saw an abundance of innovation – the Personal Computer, the Pocket Calculator, the Xerox Machine. I argue that, made visible by these signals, the current landscape of innovation is driven by enhancing that which has already been innovated, as opposed to creating that which is new.

Project Brief ~

These signals are a visible cry for help, a sign that the practice of entrepreneurship is on it’s last leg. My thesis offers a speculative alternative to human innovation by inventing the “Dehumanized Entrepreneur” (DE), a machine that aims to heroically aid mankind in entrepreneurial practice in order to raise dialogue around this predicament. The project is split into three parts: Creation (Dehumanized Entrepreneurship), Dissemination (Business PLANting), and Discovery (Deployment Strategies).

Part 01: Creation (Dehumanized Entrepreneurship) ~

DE is brought to “life” through the development of a Business Model Generator (BMG). The BMG is trained to create computer-generated executive summaries, the basis of any and all business. Why is this possible now? The three signals that point towards the end of innovation (highlighted in the above project conspiracy) show that entrepreneurship is beginning the journey towards it’s demise. The ability for humans to perceive problems is not currently distinct, but it is on the cusp of distinction, making right now the perfect moment to write this software – before it, too, becomes unperceivable.

The algorithm works by first creating a templated structure for the summary. This template is created by comparing a series of publicly available business plans, in order to create an “average” executive summary. While the algorithm itself is not true artificial intelligence, it creates the illusion of a complex AI system through the development of content creation strategies for the database the algorithm is pulling from. By designing and leveraging systematic strategies, the generated content becomes more removed from subjective human authorship. Also, the development of these systems for data collection aims to add to the project’s story as a whole by authoring the approaches in a matter that speaks to the components of my thesis (more on that in future posts to come).

As for the DE’s outputs – they are neglected upon export, and are to be immediately inserted into X amount of time capsules. The capsules will remain unopened in an attempt to preserve the content of the executive summary until the era of sameness, the time in which we run out of perceivable problems.

Part 02: Dissemination (Business PLANting) ~

X amount of these business plans will be planted in Silicon Valley, a space that serves as a metaphor around the world for innovation and entrepreneurship. I propose to create an additional system / routine (as implemented with the process of discovering words in Part 01) to objectively inform the placement and burial of each of these plans – a kind of extension to the algorithm itself.

The burial, and planning leading up to, will be treated as a hyper-documented performance of sorts. Each burial site will be marked with a plaque that will be designed specifically to welcome those who discover it in the future scenario (during the era of sameness).

Part 03: Discovery (Deployment Strategies) ~

The project will cultivate in a diegetic business meeting to be held the night of the final exhibition, April 18th. The meeting will be comprised of 3-5 entrepreneurs, and will be set in the time of the era of sameness. Live, for the duration of the show, the entrepreneurs will discuss the plan that was discovered under the surface of the earth, and will spend the evening conceptualizing the strategic means of developing and deploying the concept in order to bring it to market.

Rules: The company purpose will be unknown to the “actors” until the night of the event. The performance will not be rehearsed.

What is left behind: Artifacts of the brainstorm, as well as a visualization(s) of the lifespan of the plan itself (conception to birth to burial to discovery), will remain in the gallery after the night of the public performance.

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship Part 05: Conclusion

The research and development of both the human-centered workshops, and the machine-centered prototypes, shed insight into my own personal strengths and interests to inform the ultimate direction and strategy for the The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship.

”The facilitator is usually someone who gets something done, the lubricant in a process to achieve a goal. But, I think it can be more like a dirty lubricant. It can fuck up a process a little bit, make it self-reflective, inefficient, awkward, etc.” – Sean Dockray in conversation with David Elliot

Dockray frames facilitation as an art form that flips the corporate strategy on its head to yield interesting results. As an entrepreneurial practice, The Public School is an interesting model that provides nothing more than a space, and a framework, relying on the audience to define the rest. Both the system and the user rely on each other’s participation and existence for something new to be created. Without the framework, mankind’s output can not exist. Without mankind, the system’s framework is useless. While the resulting image of generative art can be beautiful and provocative, the piece is not actually the artwork itself, but instead the by-product of the piece, which is the code or process that generated it.

In the Innovator’s Dilemma, Clayton Christensen argues that, to truly innovate, the entrepreneur has to partner with the consumer to create a space for collaborative discovery. This relatively modern theory (dating back to the late 80s / early 90s) recognizes success not as the result of one individual, but instead as a collaborative effort.

“Markets that do not exist cannot be analyzed: Suppliers and customers must discover them together. Not only are the market applications for disruptive technologies unknown at the time of their development, they are unknowable.”

This collaborative approach to innovation that takes place between the supplier and the customer allows for a voyage into unknown spaces, where communal exploration, dissemination, and discovery can emerge. If collaboration between the entrepreneur and the consumer, as Christensen explains, is the true seed of progress, perhaps automation and the complete dehumanization of entrepreneurial practice is not a strategy that matches the aspirations of this system. Instead of automation, then, the final system aspires to lay the groundwork for innovation by making visible our present condition, and inventing our past experience to give us (mankind) the tools to innovate on our own. The Dehumanized Entrepreneur, then, is not a system for autonomously generating business. It is an entrepreneurial seeing machine.

Fig 09. Compilation of on-going design research. These graphics aim to visualize the plan for a system that operates with two key functions – Function 01: Problem identification – the illustration of our existing condition. Function 02: Past Experience generation – the authorship of a knowledge that can inform mankind’s reaction to the discovered problem.

Works Cited:

  1. David Elliot, The Public School, http://spd.e-rat.org/writing/david-elliott-interview.html (May 2008).
  2. Clayton M. Christensen, The Innovator’s Dilemma (New York: Harper, 1997), 165.

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship Part 04: The System

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship is a design project that lays the groundwork for a system that aspires to heroically take the place of mankind in entrepreneurial practice. The system is a parallel being, a mimicry, and a representation, of the thoughts and values of an individual that starts things. It dehumanizes entrepreneurial spirit by leveraging it’s capability to create the bridge between our existing condition and our past experience. It creates these bridges by identifying a problem, and authoring the knowledge required to design a solution.

Of course this project, The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship, cannot simply begin with an abrupt abandonment of the practice’s current human-driven methodologies. Instead, to begin working towards systematizing the process of innovation, I created a series of games and workshops that are designed to strike a balance between mediated decision making, and free-will. These initial projects range from workshops on defiant innovation at the Occupy camp in Downtown Los Angeles to card games that generate business plans. The human-centered research component, as developed in these workshops, is brought to a formal conclusion through the development of a final workshop, the Serendipitous Business Plan Generator, which took place in the city of Merced, California on November 11, 2011.

Fig 04. Presenting the game mechanics, and introducing the workshop designed specifically for the community of Merced to take full advantage of.

The City of Merced, known as the “Gateway to Yosemite,” is home to a population of nearly 80,000 individuals, about 30% of which are currently living below the poverty line. Homes at the median level in Merced saw a dramatic loss in value, 62%, the biggest drop anywhere in the country, according to data from Forbes. According to Zillow, by the end of 2009, house prices in Merced had returned to the levels seen over a decade earlier. This crisis has established a strong community of individuals and organizations that are actively seeking rich new ways of thinking about commerce and innovation, in order to transform the community into a rich space for survival, ingenuity, and break through.

Several organizations within Merced decided to take action on these aspirations by developing a town-hall meeting of sorts to bring leading voices from around the nation to lead the community into new modes of thinking. I was fortunate enough to have been approached to develop a workshop for the community of Merced at this gathering. The attendees of the gathering were a richly diverse audience of about 100 individuals that collectively represented the community of Merced. From farmers to students, all cultures and professions within the community were accounted for, making it a rich space to design a workshop that was very specific to the context and histories of Merced. In this space, I piloted a version of my Serendipitous Business Plan Generator (SBPG) that was designed specifically for this gathering. The SBPG works by juxtaposing three components: Scenario, Opportunity, and Modify Element.

Scenario: The situation (i.e. Growth, Collapse, etc.) in which the participant is starting their business. This element is designed to give insight into the resources they will be able to leverage for their business plan.

Opportunity: The emerging opportunity (i.e. Augmented Reality, Cyborgs, etc.) that the participant can take advantage of and consider when conceptualizing their business plan.

Modify Element: The specific space, industry, product, or service (i.e. Coffee Shop, Lamp, etc.) your business plan is in conversation with, adapting, or transforming.

While the Scenario and Opportunity decks were only slightly developed from earlier iterations, the Modify Element deck was completely re-visited to speak to this specific community. For the Modify Element deck, students from UC Merced were prompted to explore the community, and take photographs of spaces that illustrated both an essence of the community, and prominent issues at hand in the county. By getting the students (residents of Merced) involved in this preliminary aspect of the experience, the system became specifically designed for the City of Merced as a way to tease out ideas and concerns unique to this community.

These images were placed on 10 different roundtables around the community center, and participants were prompted to select their seat based on the space depicted in the photograph, assuming that the participants would select based on some kind of prior experience or emotional connection with the imagery depicted in the photo. Shortly after, the additional two cards (opportunity and scenario) were administered to the participants along with a business plan template, and full instructions for the exercise.

Fig 05. Each table housed a diverse group of Merced community members, working together to strategize their business proposal for the community of Merced, using the Serendipitous Business Plan Generator (left). Throughout the the activity, I spent time at each table to work with the participants on their ideas, and clarify any issues or concerns centered around the system itself (right).

In 30 minutes, the participants were prompted to develop a concept for a business that would exist in Merced that considered all three of the generated components as restrictions in the making process. In order to foster a bit of friendly competition amongst the groups, the community was informed half way through the exercise that some tables were given the same opportunities to capitalize on, thus creating direct competition between the groups in order to push the ideas beyond the top-level, initial, concepts.

After 30 minutes of rapid business generation, each group delivered a pitch to the audience as a whole, presenting the details of their business plans while their ideas were noted on a series of posters. After each presentation, the posters were pinned to the walls of the community center, and the community was asked to vote on the venture that would best benefit the community at large.

Fig 06. A participant pitches their group’s idea to the community (left). The participants as a whole vote on the business they wish to see come to life in the community of Merced (right).

After the Merced Project, I realized that all of the experiences designed thus far could be categorized as a kind of performance art, in the sense that my own presence is required in the administration and facilitation of each activity. What would happen if I remove myself from the process entirely? This iteration of the Serendipitous Business Plan Generator steps closer towards an automated system in order to explore the kinds of business plans an entrepreneurial machine could be capable of writing. 1,000 Businesses is a compilation of 1,000 algorithmically generated executive summaries that are written by the Serendipitous Executive Summary Generator, a semi-autonomous web app I developed that pulls from a series of word lists and sentence structures in order to generate an Executive Summary, the basis of all business plans, and entrepreneurial endeavor.

Fig 07. The Serendipitous Executive Summary Generator in action. Each exported statement is placed in one of one thousand folders to be archived in preparation for the development of 350 Business Plans.

The prototype works like this:

  1. The algorithm begins with a sentence structure that has certain words differentiated from the rest of the sentence through the use of {brackets}.
  2. The words within the {brackets}, and the sentence structures themselves, are randomized by pulling from a list of options for words and sentence formations that I provided in a database.
  3. Every time the user clicks “GIVE ME ANOTHER BUSINESS MODEL,” the page is refreshed, and a new statement with randomized key words, and an alternative sentence structure, is generated.

Fig 08. Data input process. Opportunity: The Cloud. (left) Demographic: 18-30 year olds. (right)

After generating 1,000 of these summaries, a series of key-terms are extracted from each executive summary (i.e. opportunity, demographic, etc.), forming a database of words to pull from for each plan. These terms are then manually inputed into the designated space(s) within 350 business plans, as dictated by the business plan algorithm I wrote by averaging business plan templates found online. The system has produced a range of businesses that begin to go beyond the first-level “silly,” and more into the believable, yet strange, realm. The algorithm that produces each of the 350 plans revealed a critical dimension that questions the same-ness of business plans, the “templatization” of innovation, and the seemingly automated nature of the field of entrepreneurship.

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship Part 03: Signals

Three signals that point towards this predicament, the end of perceivable problems, are identified: Knock-Off Products, Feature Companies, and Product-Enhancing Products. In the 20th Century, as Alan Kay states, we saw an abundance of innovation – the Personal Computer, the Pocket Calculator, the Xerox Machine, for example, are devices that disrupted our daily actions and routines. “They weren’t contaminations of existing things. They weren’t finding a need and filling it. They created a need that only they could fill.” I argue that, made visible by these signals, the current landscape of innovation is driven by enhancing that which has already been innovated, as opposed to creating that which is new. These signals are identified through an analysis of the methodologies I have personally witnessed during my involvement in the entrepreneurial community in the United States as well as in my 5-year career as a designer and strategist that has allowed me to assist over 200 start-ups launch their products and services to the public. The process of building these relationships has provided an intimate lens into the intentions of modern entrepreneurs, as well as the aspirations of their technologies – for better, or worse.

Knock-Off Products: Knock-off products and services, perhaps the most publicly recognizable sign of the end of human-induced entrepreneurship, is an active strategy in the development of business within both the “as-seen-on-TV” and web application sectors. Take Groupon, for example. With more than 115 million subscribers, the company pioneered the “daily deal” online platform, but is far from existing as a one-of a-kind.

Shortly after their launch, as is the case with any new web service, the competitors began to pour in: LivingSocial, Yipit, Scoutmob, Fab, Savored, Google Offers… and the list goes on. The “elevator pitch” I hear from entrepreneurs with these kinds of desperate aspirations sound something like this: “You know, like [insert pioneering company’s name], but with [insert minor difference].” This regurgitative method of business design comes from a desperation amongst entrepreneurs to start something without the ability to identify a new, specific, need to intervene with their product or service.

Feature Companies: Feature companies, the archetypal “sell-out,” are enterprises designed for acquisition. The designer of a feature company studies the big hitters in the internet and technology industries (facebook, Microsoft, Google, etc.) with the intention of discovering a void in an existing product or service to design for. That void, or “feature” is transformed into a new product or service, and becomes the sole focus of the start-up. The intention, upon launch, is to offer it for sale to the mamma company upon launch. This method of business design is common amongst serial entrepreneurs, a breed of individuals with no interest in the longevity of their enterprise. I argue this signal, another proof to the conspiracy put forward in this thesis, is a kind of surrender to the mammoth corporations that run Silicon Valley. If you can’t beat ‘em, get bought by ‘em.

Product-Enhancing Products: Take a walk into any Apple store, and you will find hundreds of products that have been designed by third-party vendors to make Apple products better. These companies capitalize on an existing technology and essentially focus the design of their model on accessorizing the innovations of others. These products, while seemingly innovative in the sense that they change the dynamic of how we understand the potential use of specific devices, do not actually create anything new, but instead make other stuff a little more “awesome.” These kinds of products surprisingly are more common then we might think – apple store apps, websites, smart phones, computer software … all of these things simply enhance the experience of a true innovation (the internet, the personal computer).

These signals are a visible cry for help, a sign that the field of entrepreneurship is on it’s last leg. My project offers a speculative alternative to human innovation by designing for the disconnect between past experience & existing condition that arises from the end of humanly perceivable problems.

Works Cited: 

  1. Kay, Alan. “Predicting The Future.” Ecotopia, 20 May 2011. <http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/futures.htm>.
  2. Fromer, Dan. “10 Groupon Alternatives You Should Already Know About”. <http://www.businessinsider.com/groupon-alternatives-2011-9?op=1> (Sep 2011).

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship Part 02: Conspiracy

Brenda Laurel identifies a crisis in contemporary entrepreneurial practice: “We face a crisis in content – who will make it, how will it be paid for, and what will it be worth in a new media world?” Entrepreneurial practice, and innovation in general, is now driven by the acquisition of content. It is no longer a form of authorship, but instead of collage. This crisis, in part, can be attributed to society’s desire for a constant “newness,” but perhaps entrepreneurs have simply run out of ideas. I believe we are headed towards an era of sameness – an era in which innovation by the human species alone is impossible because all humanly perceivable problems are solved. While, to some, the elimination of problems may seem to be a great success, I find it to be the most pressing dilemma of mankind. As utopian socialist and business man, King Camp Gillette, states, the progress of humanity is dependent on the birth of ideas, and “if individual minds should cease to give birth to ideas of improvement or discovery, the progress of man would cease.” Entrepreneurship, the design of new stuff as a result of our innate empathy towards others, is what makes us human. To strip innovation and ingenuity out of the human equation is to strip the very thing that makes us unique as a species.

“Humans are governed by two clocks: the very slow-ticking clock of human evolution and the fast-accelerating clock of technological progress. The result of these two clocks not synching up is the human brain (and the public policy our brains generate) is unable to keep up with the complex environment around us.”  – Rebecca Costa

As Research Scientists in the field of Quantum Physics attempt discovery, breakthrough is revealed in that which is counterintuitive. For example, 0.999… is equal to 1. In this space, human intuition becomes irrelevant because the areas explored are not comparable to that of any past experience. The same can be said about the very distant future. Both are spaces in which common sense, alone, is considered shortsighted. In this space as well as other domains in which expertise is not possible, like stock picking or long-term political strategic forecasting, experts are “just not better than a dice-throwing monkey.” As we continue to rapidly move towards a future, and past experience exponentially divides from present conditions, as Rebecca Costa illustrates with the two clocks of human governance, an era in which innovation by human kind will come to a screeching halt and mankind will become an unnecessary component, marking the end of entrepreneurship.

Fig 01. Entrepreneurial Bridges: The Point of No Connectivity.

 

The above diagram portrays a map of the future, from the perspective of the present. The map is made up of a cone that has two axes (existing condition and past knowledge) that are exponentially dividing with a timeline in the middle. The diagram, specifically the ultimate break in the connectivity between the axes, illustrates the context that my project is designing for, and gives a broader framework to the speculation as a whole.

The first axis, existing condition, represents our current state – the pressing issues, conditions, or needs. The second axis is our knowledge and experience. This axis represents everything we have learned in the past that directly inform the way we approach the existing condition. The bridge between these two is entrepreneurship – the ability to see the problems that exist in our present moment, consult our past knowledge, and juxtapose the two in order to solve the problem by creating an enterprise.

As we move through this cone, and we enter this exponential divide between the two axes, it becomes harder and harder to innovate because the void between our existing condition and our past knowledge / experience grows to a point until one day, in which I speculate, this gap will not be possible to cross. The specific reason for not being able to cross this bridge is difficult to identify, but the reason this thesis focuses on is the speculation that we will run out of humanly perceivable problems.

We are entering a time in which every humanly comprehensible problem, discomfort, and inconvenience has been solved. This thesis is not claiming that all problems are indeed solved. Instead, I am arguing that the problems that do exist are not discoverable or identifiable by mankind. We need to begin designing an alternative for this situation, a machine – the Dehumanized Entrepreneur. This machine, and the algorithms that inform it, are designed to dehumanize entrepreneurship by making visible the connection between our past experience and existing condition in order to systematize innovation for a time in which humans become an irrelevant component of entrepreneurial practice.

Works Cited:

  1. Luscombe, Belinda. “10 Questions for Daniel Kahneman.” <http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,2099712,00.html>
  2. Laurel, Brenda. Utopian Entrepreneur. Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2001. page 93
  3. Gillette, King Camp. World Corporation. page 152-153
  4. Costa, Rebecca. The Watchman’s Rattle. Quoted by The Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. <http://ieet.org/index.php/IEET/more/costa20111119>.

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship Part 01: Context

 “Mainly they were worried about the future, and they would badger us about what’s going to happen to us. Finally, I said: ‘Look, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. This is the century in which you can be proactive about the future; you don’t have to be reactive. The whole idea of having scientists and technology is that those things you can envision and describe can actually be built.’ It was a surprise to them and it worried them.” – Alan Kay

In the 18th Century, just 3 decades prior to the birth of Leland Stanford, Adam Smith defined “entrepreneur” as a person who acts as an agent in transforming demand into supply. This specific definition, the concept of an entrepreneur as a supplier of what the customer wants, is in agreement to many definitions that preceded Smith. However, this was not a philosophy that remained a static definition of the practice. In his book, The Design of Business, Roger Martin speaks of entrepreneurship and innovation as a way of seeing the world “not as it is, but as it could be.” The book goes on to argue that true innovation stems from the exploration of problems that can not actually be found in history, or proven by data. Perhaps in a more extreme use of language, Erik Reis offers up another take on the practice defining entrepreneurship as the act of creating something new under “extreme uncertainty.” From juxtaposing the 21st Century definition of the field with the 18th and and early 19th century definitions, it might seem as though entrepreneurship has evolved from a practice that supplies a demand to a profession that creates demands – from a field of regurgitation to a practice of innovation. However, I argue, these theories are not honest representations of the true landscape of contemporary American innovation.

Numbers are a hindrance on history-making. Prescribed methodologies, or the templatization of innovation, yields expected results. Changing history through the production of cultural shifts, an ambition at the heart of entrepreneurship, is an act that is far too radical for a quantitative practice. Entrepreneurs often turn towards numbers to see how coordination or reallocation can be optimized to provide a great benefit to either corporate or social entities. A quantitative and theoretical stance like this is actually crippling to the radical thinking an entrepreneur is capable of, limiting their ability to innovate that which does not exist and change the way we, as consumers and human beings, perceive the world around us on both a macro and micro scale. Peter Lunenfeld, a pioneer in the digital humanities, states that we need to “move from P&L to V&F—profit and loss to vision and futurity—from ROI to ROV –the Return on Investment to a Return on Vision.” A shift in entrepreneurial intention from one that is quantitative to one that is qualitative enables innovators to lessen their concern around the production of profit, and instead focus efforts toward designing a future they would like to inhabit. I argue that these kind of values and aspirations were common amongst 20th century innovations, but has been lost in post-internet entrepreneurial endeavor, a practice that has suffered from a disability that has crippled the ability to discover new problems to design solutions for.

 “The husband and wife who open another delicatessen store or another Mexican restaurant in the American suburb surely take a risk. But are they entrepreneurs? All they do is what has been done many times before. They gamble on the increasing popularity of eating out in their area, but create neither a new satisfaction nor new consumer demand… […] Indeed, entrepreneurs are a minority among new businesses. They create something new, something different; they change or transmute values.” – Peter Drucker

Instead of changing or transmuting values, entrepreneurs are focusing energy towards making the old better, feeding off of that which preceded as opposed to laying ground work for that to come. This methodology results in a loss of disruptive tendency within the practice of entrepreneurship.

Works Cited:

  1. Kay, Alan. “Predicting The Future.” Ecotopia, 20 May 2011. <http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/futures.htm>.
  2. Eric Ries, The Lean Startup (New York: Crown Business, 2011), Cover Jacket
  3. Lunenfeld, Peter. “Bespoke Futures: Media Design and the Future of the Future,” Think Tank: Adobe Design Center, 2007. 20 May. 2011 <http://www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank/lunenfeld.html>
  4. Peter Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (New York: Harper, 1985), 21-22

The Dehumanization of Entrepreneurship (MFA thesis paper) on Scribd

I have uploaded the paper on my Scribd page to allow for easy downloading, sharing, and reading. I am currently working on creating a few other versions of the paper in the form of: a series of blog posts, a keynote presentation for an upcoming lecture at UCLA, and a “tweetable” version. More to come…