Stanford scholar and design expert, Ade Mabogunje talks about the importance of design in business


Ade Mabogunje is an expert on Silicon Valley startups and a VC. He is also a senior research scientist in the School of Engineering at Stanford University and is part of Stanford’s Center for Design Research. He studies engineering design process to develop performance metrics for creative multi-disciplinary design teams in innovation ecosystem cultures. He has focused on the development and research of innovation ecosystems in regions such as India, Africa, and South America where the rate of economic growth is either unsustainable or misaligned with the needs of the population. met Mabogunje at Venture Studio, Ahmedabad his maiden venture in India.


Edited Excerpts:

YS: How do you define design?

AM: In the field of design research at Stanford, we're particular what we mean by design. Herbert Simon in his book ‘The Science of the Artificial’ said: Think about the sun, the moon, the sky, the trees. We humans did not make them. They are what you call ‘natural science’. However products, organisations, companies, family structures, religions, were all made by humans. We made them, hence he called them ‘artificial science’. There are different religions around the world and they were all formed as humankind tried to wrestle with their existence, and come up with ideas and solutions of that time. Doctors prescribe therapies; a therapy is a design. We use the word ‘lawmakers’, they're making rules to guide the society, it's a design. Our policy is being designed by policy makers. The finesse of businesses which is about organising things, like what entrepreneurs do, is design. So design is what human beings do to adapt to their environment. It goes beyond the product. We design what we wish for. That's the way we talk about design, we are interested in the intellectual, emotional, physical and the mental walks that go to make design possible. We saw this when we went to villages. We saw how they have adapted to their environment. So design gives us the belief that we can by being aware of our environment, change the situation.

YS: Tell us more about your research at Stanford.

AM: Our research is based on the concept of reverse engineering. Back in the 80s, the Japanese produced better cars than what was produced in US and Europe, and they were producing them in a much shorter time — roughly in two years, whereas in US and Europe it took five years. There was a panic in the US, we wanted to understand how they did that. So we started the field of design research, to understand how engineers and designers think when they do design. If we could know how they think, we could build artificial intelligence to replace it. But we couldn't figure out how they think, so we employed techniques from field of anthropology and used videos to observe them (Japanese workers), how they work. And we got a lot of insights. Humans are not the only ones who design, ants build ant hill, spider web is a design. It's just about instincts of creatures and how they adapt to the environment. We gained a lot of insights. We thought better computation would help make better design. But more than computation, communication was important to design. Then we thought to focus on the individual. But people work together, so it was better to focus on the theme than the individual. People find it difficult to move from analysis to synthesis, where they bring things together. When we started product design, we discovered that people need to work hands on. And that we must combine both, analytical and synthesis skills, and that will help human communication, how ideas are shared. These components are very difficult to design.

Later we began to look at Venture Design, and the same questions came up: what do entrepreneurs do when they design? What do engineers do? We recorded several entrepreneurs on camera and discovered that entrepreneurs are good storytellers. They tell you one story and you're like: "Wow, I want to buy that product", they’ll tell you another story and you would say: "I want to invest in your product". They'll go to another person and tell him a story and he would say: "I want to join your company". He may not have any company, but still designs a good story. So we thought what are the elements of a good story that allows an entrepreneur to mobilize resources. Initially it's one person, then two, then three — an entrepreneur can mobilise people through storytelling. So that's a business entrepreneur, similar techniques are employed by political entrepreneurs. He becomes a candidate, talks to people, they like him, vote for him. Similarly, you have religious entrepreneurs; they're telling stories. Hence, storytelling is a way of mobilising people. And when people are mobilized, they will produce whatever they wish for.

So when we studied all this we were able to understand product design, and we were able to understand venture design, but we still needed to understand investment design or finance design. Luckily at the beginning of this decade, they invented the field of financial engineering. So any time you hear engineering there must be a design principle. You hear people from the financial world talking about financial instruments. They design certain investment or financial vehicles in such a way that five years down the line they can make a profit. So these people from finance are using time as a way to create value.

YS: Confluence of people from various backgrounds; how is Venture Studio enabling this?

AM: Yes. We have students, graduates from different backgrounds. An example is Cruxbot. Cruxbot started with another product earlier called Engineering Buddy. In the initial phase the core team had a student from computer science and one from NID (National Institute of Design) and they did a lot of user study. This way they understood the user very well and built a great product around their needs. We also have a team here called iFact. It had a person who was quadriplegic and wanted to design better wheel chairs for quadriplegics. We have students from IIT-Gandhinagar and foreign students from Delft University who are working on the project. So, Venture Studio aims to bring people from different fields together to work on a project that each discipline couldn't complete on its own. It's a very critical component of our work.


YS: What keeps you motivated and running each day?

AM: That's an interesting question. I think today through design we can meet several challenges in the world that we're not met earlier. When I see people suffering I know it's needless suffering. Countries that go to war can execute their war-plans in a short time, but when it comes to poverty, they do not mobilize enough. Whereas the fact is, we can treat poverty like we treat war. If we can do destruction in a short time, we can do construction as well. We now understand that most of the construction has to be done via a change in mindset. It's a "software" issue, not a "hardware" issue. If we can change people's mindsets they could evolve to be productive. These days the latest engineering techniques has made cost of material very low. Techniques like injection molding reduce overall price of the product. The problems that we have with the world now have to deal with mindsets.

We know that different cultures have different mindsets, so how a culture evolves its mindset. We can help a culture change its mindset by understanding its constraints and limitations. It is social change that changed technology and technology that brought about the social change. A lot of technology based ventures are helping change mindset of people. It's like, the mindset and technology work together and co-evolve. Technology acts as a catalyst for mindset to move, and the mindset in turn helps technology advance.

YS: What are your views on the Indian startup ecosystem?

AM: The Indian startup ecosystem is still in its infancy. There have been companies like Infosys and Wipro in the outsourcing space. But we need several other large sized companies to come up. It is critical to attend to the problem of scaling. Flipkart is doing good, but we need many more such startups. There's also need for more collaborations among startups and investors and a need to invest in a wider variety of startups.

YS: If you were to give three design mantras to startups, what would those be?

AM: 1. Collaboration: Means collaboration across a diverse group, like what happens in creative collaboration.

2. Humility: Having a proper mindset is helpful to pick up oneself after failing. People must be ready to take risks and let go of their ego. People must be ready to do things hands on, because that's how we build things. Also, seasoned managers in large companies must be willing to help startups and help them grow. Most people have egos the size of their companies, but it is necessary to be humble.

3. Adequate funding: The government and investors should work together to provide funds for startups, because startups in return bring jobs and growth to the economy, which in turn improves finances of the government.


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