The Future is Younger Than You Think

If you're working to create products for the 21st century, why not work alongside the people who live there already? Eye-opening lessons from Xerox, Autodesk, and Compaq on the power of the inexperience curve.

Sidebars: Brainstorming the Future, Cruise (Out of) Control, Little Hands Teach Big Hands, Who's Teaching Whom?, Workscapes of the Future

Consider three scenes from the front lines of innovation, set in the most innovative region on earth: In the hills above Stanford University, at a research center famous for its digital breakthroughs, a seven-member team is brainstorming about the future of work. Using sophisticated communications equipment and high-speed Internet hookups, the team is creating a series of multimedia presentations for an audience of scientists and engineers.

Nearby, at the world's fourth-largest PC software company, a different team is using computer-aided design tools to create an electronic model of a race car. The group is digitizing the parts of a disassembled Mustang GT and then reassembling it on a computer.

Finally, in a consumer-research laboratory owned by a fast-growing computer manufacturer, a beta-tester is pushing the limits of a cool new product. The product incorporates a clever hardware innovation (an alternative to the conventional keyboard-and-mouse) and an array of interactive games to create a different kind of entertainment experience.

Scenes like these unfold every day in Silicon Valley. With one big exception. The oldest researchers on these projects — at Xerox, Autodesk, and Compaq — are 18. The youngest is 7. What's going on here? These three companies are inviting kids into the business world to change how businesspeople see the world. They are part of a collection of experiments in which organizations eager to create products and strategies for the 21st century encourage their executives to rub shoulders with people who live there already.

"Kids are natives in a place where most adults are immigrants," says Douglas Rushkoff, author of Playing the Future: How Kids' Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos, and a consultant who translates youth culture for companies such as the Discovery Channel and Columbia Pictures. "The power positions have shifted. The cart's gotten in front of the horse. That's okay. In fact, it's good. The horse can be in back for a while. I try to get CEOs to give up the reins."

Giving up the reins. It's an unnatural act; but it squares perfectly with the new logic of competition. Forget the experience curve. The most powerful force in business is the inexperience curve. Young companies, born on the right side of the digital divide, are running circles around their older, richer, slower rivals. It's Microsoft vs. IBM, Netscape vs. Microsoft. "In the digital economy," says Chris Espinosa, manager of media tools at Apple Computer, "a certain degree of youthful irresponsibility — actually, a large degree of youthful irresponsibility — wins." Espinosa should know. This 20-year Apple veteran is 35 years old; he joined the company when he was 15.

What goes for companies goes for individuals. It's not just that young people see things differently; it's that they have a different way of looking. If you want your company to think outside the box, why not learn by working with people who don't know there is a box? "I want to completely redefine the word 'kid,'" says Internet visionary Dan Mapes. "It's an outgrowth of the industrial age. In that model, people grew up and then spent all their lives in a factory or an office. Kids weren't useful because they weren't 'trained' yet. That's obsolete. I have a kid in me and kids have adults in them. By interacting, we wake each other up."

Mapes's company, San Francisco-based SynergyLabs, works on high-profile Net projects with partners such as Intel and Starbucks. It employs a core group of professionals in their 30s and 40s — and a bunch of young people who work alongside them. Recently, the government of Hong Kong hired SynergyLabs to build a Web site that would chronicle developments there. Mapes dispatched two of his most qualified employees to Asia — the veteran was 24, his colleague 18. "The under-21 set is where the new visionaries are," Mapes says. "They have the fresh eyes."

Young people don't just think differently; they work differently too. John Seely Brown, chief scientist at Xerox, believes that success in an era of technological discontinuity requires "a fundamental shift in cognitive styles." He calls the new style bricolage — the capacity to build new things from whatever's available — and it's precisely what kids do. "There are lots of kids out there who are more used to experimenting with systems than reading manuals," Brown says. "It's a form of poaching, really. It's why 'surfing the Net' may be a whole new form of literacy. Most adults like to receive information in didactic chunks, to think in linear processes. Young people are mucking around, cobbling together useful tools, reaching out in novel ways."

What follows, then, are eyewitness accounts of how serious companies are conducting seriously radical experiments with young people in the workplace. You don't have to hire your own kiddie corps to learn from these experiments. But you do have to open your eyes — and your mind. Prepare to feel obsolete. It's the first step towards moving ahead.

Elizabeth Weil (lweil@interaccess.com) writes on youth and culture from Chicago. Her work has appeared in "Rolling Stone," "The New York Times Magazine," "Mademoiselle," and other publications.

Autodesk : "Who's Teaching Whom?"

Xerox Parc: "Brainstorming the Future"

Compaq: "Cruise (Out of) Control"

Digital: "Little Hands Teach Big Hands"

Xerox: "Workscapes of the Future"

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