User-Centered Doneness

Spring break* is over, we're halfway done with the semester, and my time in SDM is already 1/8 completed. If I'm 8x more knowledgeable next May, I'll be unstoppable. (Sadly, diminishing returns means that this is unlikely.)

I'm already done with one class, "User-Centered Design in the Internet Age" taught by Eric von Hippel. It consists mostly of ideas you could get by reading Slashdot for a few years, but backed by academic rigor instead of uninformed speculation. It's good to see that open platforms, user-driven innovation, and free sharing do have a place in a world of hard-headed analysis, ROI, and NPV. Open source: it's not just for ideologs anymore. (I liked that von hippel believes his own talk: he released his book creative commons!)

It was good to see corporate/military types who thought that open source is for unwashed hippie hackers realize that the spirit of open innovation could work for them. But if I had to improve the content of the class, I would suggest that we look more at where the user-centered approach fails and why. These techniques are great in some places, disastrous in others, and hard to quantify elsewhere. How deep should an organization go?


MIT Energy Conference 2010

This weekend is the MIT Energy Conference. There are more interesting lectures than I can possibly attend, and that's even including skipping one of my favorite classes. (Sorry, professor von hippel.) I won't summarize every talk, but a few deserve mention:

The provocatively titled "Is green energy the next bubble?" panel talk provided some good fodder for thought. The consensus was that since the market for green energy is mostly provided by government policy, it is unlikely to overheat and bubble. But there was some good criticism of ethanol, which one panelist artfully described as a "bridge to nowhere." If incentives create powerful constituencies for other uneconomic policies, could we get into a similar bizzaroland? Another panelist, though, mounted an interesting defense of ethanol. Her argument was that the first generation food-based feedstocks created a market into which more-reasonable second-generation feedstocks (like cellulosic) could enter. I'm still not holding my breath.

The panel on electric vehicles asked a particularly incisive question: "If EVs are the solution, what is the problem?" Tellingly, the justifications were all over the place. One speaker mentioned "carbon", which is great (assuming you're not powered from a coal plant) but I don't see the incentive mechanism which will make drivers WANT an electric car. Another mentioned "energy security", which at least has a price mechanism (oil futures internalize uncertainty). The CEO of Fisker hit closer to the truth - driving enjoyment and ability to travel in emission-free european city hubs. Like all new technologies, EVs will continue to disappoint when compared to to internal combustion in the traditional metrics of range, weight, and cost. Without a price on carbon, the drivers which will bring us EVs will be noise, avoiding gas stations, acceleration, and other new metrics.

A few annoyances:
  • There were a disturbing number of speakers whose presentation consisted of reading numbers verbatim from a paper statement. Boring.
  • The panel discussion on solar had a strange format, with each speaker beginning with a long statement addressing the same 3 issues. I would have preferred that each speaker address a single question in series so as to promote more interplay of ideas.
This was a good conference, very well-run. Perhaps I'll help organize it next year.