What I've Been Watching and Reading

As 2012 draws to a close, I thought I'd take the opportunity to share a handful of the articles, books, shows, conversations and documentaries that informed, inspired and entertained me throughout the year. I hope that a few are also informative, inspiring and entertaining for you.

Elon Musk in Coversation

2012 was a standout year for entrepreneur Elon Musk. After rocky, touch-and-go starts, his three California-based companies--Space X, Tesla, and Solar City--all hit major milestones. If, like I, you are fascinated by him, then this July conversation with Pando Daily founder Sarah Lacy is worthwhile viewing. He's shockingly accomplished--and incredibly understated. A nice combination.

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Five Go-To Reads on the Creative Process

Elizabeth Streb is an extreme choreographer, MacArthur Foundation Fellow and the visionary behind the Streb Lab for Action Mechanics. Behance's 99% recently published a brief, but terrific, interview with her entitled On Taking Big Risks and the Power of ActionHer thinking brought to mind the article that I am republishing here, one of the very first that I wrote, on the lessons that artists' creative processes hold for business innovators.

Innovation--the creation of a product or process that is radically new, unique and different--is the holy grail in today's business world. What many of those who beat its drum rarely mention is that the path to true innovation is rooted in pure creativity. To innovate brilliantly requires facing down the deepest challenges of the creative process: high anxiety, ambiguity, seemingly impassable roadblocks, even failure.

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A Neophyte's Guide to the Singularity

I have capitulated. I have stopped avoiding the Singularity.

For the past couple of years--at least--I have been catching threads of chatter about the concept of the Singularity--loosely, the point in time when, through Artificial Intelligence, genetic engineering or other technological manipulation, a superhuman intellect is born. I have heard just enough to be weirded out. So I've avoided the topic all together.

Of course, I have also been curious. So this past weekend I decided to commit a few hours, dig in, learn more. And I proved Lev Grossman right. In Time he wrote, “People are attracted to the Singularity for the shock value, like an intellectual freak show, but they stay because there's more to it than they expected.”

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Innovations in Finance: Minibonds

A small group of UK consumer companies has taken matters into their own hands. Growing, privately held, faced with a difficult credit environment, armed with a base of loyal customers and led mostly by passionate founder-CEOs, these companies have gone straight to the public to raise capital. They've done it in the form of debt, issuing what they are calling minibonds or--in the case of green power company ecotricity--ecobonds.

The pioneer, in 2009, was King of Shaves. Since then ecotricity, chocolate purveyor Hotel Chocolat, retail partnership John Lewis and, this week, foreign exchange specialist Caxton FX have followed. Amounts raised have ranged from £600,000 in the case of King of Shaves, to £50 million in the case of John Lewis. Caxton FX is targeting £4 million.

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A Little Bit Obsessed

I am a little bit obsessed. Which is exactly what Elizabeth Cutler, Julie Rice, Denise Mari and Holly Thaggard want me to be.

These four women are founders of three great companies whose terrific products make my life a little bit better, easier, happier and healthier. And they do it with flare, smarts and style--which, naturally, I love. It keeps me--and many others--coming back for more. Cutler and Rice co-founded New York-based spinning studios, SoulCycle, Mari founded raw, organic, vegan food purveyor, Organic Avenue, and Thaggard created sensitive skin-, workout-friendly sunscreen Supergoop!.

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London is Calling

Last week, London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester burned. This week, as the UK cleans up and takes stock, a list of companies, organizations and individuals who should or could be tapped as partners to address the underlying issues and discontent that sparked the flames.

This is a mix-and-match set of resources. In the spirit of BMW Guggenheim Lab and Intel and Vice Magazine's Creators Project, companies at the top of the list can team with individuals and organizations further down to create innovative, community-building, problem-solving events and venues in affected areas. Other models to leverage: pop-up stores and Panera Cares. Importantly: for big thinkers, there's the potential to create programs that travel, using London as a launch pad, moving on from there to work with youth in cities around the globe.

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Taking it to the Streets

Today the Guggenheim Museum kicks off a six year commitment to catalyzing conversations on 21st century urban environments: BMW Guggenheim Lab.

Over the course of the Lab's life, three commissioned structures will travel to nine cities around the globe. Teams of programmatic curators in each will draw together artists, scientists, economists, architects, political leaders, environmentalists, musicians, educators and others to lead discussions on local development and growth issues.

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Hacking the City

Michael Bloomberg gets hacking. In a 1995 profile of Bloomberg, the company, Fast Company wrote:

His theory is simple: shove lots of well-paid young upstarts (2,200 employees, average age 31) together in a small space for long hours, give them the best equipment possible, and you'll get magic.

It's fitting, then, that in his role as Mayor of New York he pushed early to engage developers to address the city's, its citizens' and its visitors' needs. Under his leadership, over the last two years New York has opened up its databases and run two contests--Big Apps--challenging developers to use the data to create apps--desktop or mobile--to make the city more usable, livable, lively.

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DIY with Kaiser Chiefs

Clever, smart, attention-grabbing. So goes last Friday's unexpected release of the new album from Brit indie pop group Kaiser Chiefs.

Taking a page from the likes of NikeiD, Converse and Timbuk2, The Future is Medieval was issued on the Kaiser Chiefs' own web site, and it's customizable--there are 20 songs to choose from, select your 10 favorites in an order of your making, create your own cover art, download for £7.50. After you download, a page is created for your album, and you can share it. If others buy it, you get to keep £1.00. They're calling it a bespoke album.

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Meet Mobius One

Meet Mobius One. I'm a little bit in love with this sassy little car. Never mind the fact that it happens to be the prototype for a feel-good durable, functional, affordable car for the African middle class consumer. It's just feisty.

Mobius One may be tiny, but manufacturer Mobius Motors' ambitions are anything but. It estimates that the African transport market is $60 billion. It wants to play a role in transforming and refining that market--and, in the process of doing so to generate $2 billion in revenues by 2020.

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IPO Innovation

I’ve spent many of my spare moments over the last few weeks absorbed by speculation about the current state of the environment for and future of IPOs in the United States, especially IPOs of small, high-growth companies, broadly, and, more narrowly, companies for whom business is about more than just profits.

I’ve taken the opportunity to speak with a number of thought leaders in the space, as well with public market investors who day-in, day-out are active, trading in the market, seeing what’s working and what’s not for these companies in the markets today. And as I’ve researched, talked and considered, the US IPO market has continued its march back—in April more companies filed to go public than in any month since August 2007.

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Diplomatic Upstart

Independent Diplomat (ID) is an upstart in a world governed by tradition, long-standing, often opaque codes of conduct and large bi-lateral and multi-lateral bureaucracies--the world of international diplomacy. ID was founded in 2004 by former British Foreign Service officer Carne Ross (pronounced Cahrn) to respond to the needs of a new set of players entering this arena, looking for a seat at the table--young states, political groups and NGO's.

Since launching, ID has worked with the representatives of Burma, Croatia, Kosovo, Somalila, Southern Sudan and The Elders, Human Rights First and The World Wildlife Fund among others, counseling them on effective access to or navigation within the international community. One part humanitarian watchdog, one part Emily Post, one part high powered PR firm, Independent Diplomat's visibility has grown as the number of actors seated at the table continues to increase, magnifying the complexity and fragmentation of the global playing field.

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Clean Start

Last week, as I was writing about the Zayed Future Energy Prize, I came across an article about Martha Wyrsch. Martha is President of the Americas for Danish wind turbine manufacturer Vestas, this year's winner of the Zayed prize. I made a note of her background and her career path--it followed the same pattern as two others I'd heard of in the last few months: that of Cynthia Warner, President and Chairman of renewable fuel company Sapphire Energy, and Phil Murtaugh, newly appointed CEO of electric vehicle manufacturer CODA Automotive.

What Martha, Cynthia and Phil share is an appetite for very specific take on career risk that wasn't available to executives with their resumés even ten years ago. All three of them come from old school--dirty--industries--Martha from Duke and then Spectra Energy, Cynthia from BP and Phil from GM and Chrysler.

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Tidying Up

This past weekend Monocle magazine's much-anticipated television show for Bloomberg premiered with the airing of the first two of six episodes on Saturday and Sunday.

If you are not yet familiar with Monocle, since its 2007 launch much has been written about it and its globetrotting founder, Tyler Brûlé, including two love letters last year from Business Week and New York Magazine.

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Future Perfect

What will the world look like in 2050? This is the question at the heart of Drivers of Change, a terrific planning and brainstorming device created by the Foresight and Innovation team of the London-based engineering firm Arup.

Packaged in a sturdy, bright box, Drivers of Change is 175 cards posing pointed, forward-looking questions and delivering quick hits of data on energy, waste, climate change, water, demographics, urbanization and poverty. Each topic is broken down into five areas of inquiry, with five cards each exploring social, technological, economic, environmental and political issues specific to the subject at hand. If this sounds like it has the potential to be overwhelming or depressing--or simplistic, it's anything but.

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Catalyzing Creativity

Innovation--the creation of a product or process that is radically new, unique and different--is the holy grail in today's business world. What many of those who beat its drum rarely mention is that the path to true innovation is rooted in pure creativity. To innovate brilliantly requires facing down the deepest challenges of the creative process: high anxiety, ambiguity, seemingly impassable roadblocks, even failure.

Although the business world has tried to translate creative processes into business-speak, I still find artists the best guides on navigating and channeling creativity effectively. Their processes are rooted in tolerating, working with and even valuing uncertainty and failure. Their lessons carry great weight for those seeking to understand and catalyze creativity in the business world--to innovate brilliantly.

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Innovation Lab

On January 28th nominations for the Aspen Institute's 2011 First Movers Fellowship are due.

If you are a CEO or Senior Manager focused on integrating the fundamentals of what is variously called Shared Value (discussed by Michael Porter and Mark Kramer in this month's issue of the Harvard Business Review), New Capitalism (described by Raj Sisodia, Jag Sheth and David Wolfe in their book Firms of Endearment) or Conscious Capitalism (a term popularized by Whole Foods CEO John Mackey and now promoted by the Conscious Capitalism Institute) into your corporate strategy and business practices, consider sponsoring one of your team members for this terrific program.

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Fierce Smarts

Fierce smarts turn me on. They crackle.

In October I caught wind of a marketing campaign fired by fierce smarts: the promotional effort for Jay-Z’s forthcoming book, Decoded. An interactive scavenger hunt, pages from the book appeared imprinted on billboards, Gucci jackets, parked cars, pool bottoms and roof tops in New York and London, Miami, Las Vegas and New Orleans (see photos of a few of them here).

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