Where are the fish painters?

A view of Qatar’s place in the global movement of social design.


Fish painters

In recent years we have seen a dramatic shift in the sensibilities of designers and policy makers. Unlikely bedfellows to be sure, yet both are asking for a united effort to address some of our age’s most pressing social issues. And this trend is clearly visible in countries big and small, economies rich and poor, cities clean and dirty. In this brief piece, I wish to offer a view of Qatar’s place in the global movement of social design.

But first I want to take you on a brief, albeit autobiographical trip. Let us begin at the beginning. The car pictured here and your author both came into this word in the same year, 1965.

Little did I know then that some 30 years later I would go to work at General Motors. In the late 1990s I worked in GM’s famed Warren Tech Center, the company’s inner sanctum that designed and engineered this car and hundreds more over the years.  It was quite an honor to work within such a momentous legacy. But I have to say the GM of that decade was a far cry from the heady days of the mid 60s.

When this car, the Corvette Stingray, was produced GM’s US market share was over 50 percent. More than half of all cars and trucks sold in America in those days was a GM product.

But a decade later the Japanese invasion caught GM unprepared and unable to imagine the threat let alone deal with it. From there GM lost about 1 percent of its market share per year, and when I worked there the company held a mere 19 percent of the US market and that number was slipping fast.

Now you would think a company filled with engineers would notice this rather obvious linear trend?  At this rate it would only be a few more years before the company was on its knees. And of course we know now this is indeed what came to pass.  But what’s interesting about this near blindness to reality was how pervasive the mantra of success was.

From the loading dock, to the design studios, to the engineering departments and even to the board room the company reverberated with one, constant hum: that if we threw enough money at any problem we could engineer a solution.

By now you are probably wondering why I’m taking you on this little excursion? Well, in all candour I must confess that the Qatar of today looks an awfully lot like the GM of yesterday. For starters, both country and company are roughly the same size financially speaking, gross revenue and GDP run right around 200 billion US dollars per year.

Both have a few hundred thousand employees or citizens and of course both are totally reliant on petrochemicals. But that’s not the similarity that concerns me the most. Rather, it’s the pervasive drum beat that money and engineering will solve any problem. Will solve all our problems.

Please don’t get me wrong, I love engineering and I love engineers – in fact I’m married to one! And money is, as they say, what makes the world go round.  But when these are the only ingredients of innovation then I get worried.

I don’t begrudge this or any country a robust engineering infrastructure. Why there’s nothing like a good vaccine, and who honestly wishes to live in the fear our next plane will fall from the sky?  Where would we be without our brothers and sisters in engineering? No doubt a stone’s throw from the Stone Age.

In fact I think we can all agree that engineering and science fuel the industrial capacities of today’s modern economies. It is what makes nations great and powerful. And Qatar is well on its way to becoming a great nation. As I say, the unprecedented investment in science is also fueling Qatar’s greatness.

And it is certainly attracting great people. Why in just the few years I’ve lived here I’ve had the pleasure of meeting some of world’s great thinkers and achievers: noble laureates, astronauts, princes, presidents, ambassadors, and even the odd American senator now and again drifts through our halls.

General Motors

Good to Great

In his famous management book, ‘Good to Great’, Jim Collins provides a road map for how to transform any institution from being merely good to exceptionally great. But I think Collins has got the formula only half right. The question before us is once having achieved greatness how do we then achieve goodness?

Now, what do I mean by goodness. To answer let me draw upon, dare I say two great, Muslim philosophers Ibn Khaldun and Al Farabi who offer a rather simple definition that I feel fits us well in time, and in place.

According to them every community is established with the view to some good and thus building good communities is our highest calling.  This question is of particular importance to us as it’s one of Qatar’s so-called grand challenges: how to address the needs of a rapidly changing urban landscape.

By Ibn Khaldun’s account building good cities where each individual can achieve the greatness to which they are called is to strive for the greater good. Notice I didn’t say where each achieves greatness, but where the arts AND the sciences; where medicine AND poetry; where engineering AND philosophy all flourish is to strive for the greater good. For it is meant to benefit, to be good, for all.

One of the things that saved GM was it realized it had to stop thinking like an engineering company and start thinking like a problem solving community.

GM’s basic problem was it thought like an assembly line. When an engineer changed the styling, the basic shape of a car to accommodate a technical solution he would send the revision back to the design department. They did their best to accommodate the changes but then the marketing folks would say it wouldn’t sell.

And this is essentially why it took them five years to make a car when the Japanese could do it in only one. The assembly line thinking of design and engineering was not integrated and it didn’t stop to ask what is the problem we are solving? A simple change in the plan wreaked havoc to the whole process.

The solution was to scrap entirely this sort of linear hand off. In its place they set up round tables with representatives from the entire process, from marketing, design, engineering and manufacturing, all sitting together to solve those tough problems together.

And this is exactly why the United States’ National Institutes of Health, that USD 50 billion per year agency of health funding, made translational research a requirement of every grant. Like GM they realized waiting 20 years, or more, for a breakthrough to become a therapy was entirely too long.

Put the bench scientist next to the clinician’s bedside and we’ll see shorter development times, and more accurately targeted solutions. This, the NIH hopes, is the key to innovation.  And this same philosophy is what’s moving the US education priority from STEM – Science, Technology, Engineering and Math to STEAM – Science, Technology, Engineering the ARTS and Math. In the words of celebrated author Daniel Pink, it takes a Whole Mind – art and science – to create innovation.

I’m reminded of a story I once heard in the GM Research and Development division. In the 1960s the head of GM’s design studio went on a fishing trip to the Florida Keys. He caught a magnificent sail fish, a big beautiful thing that he had stuffed, mounted and hung on his office wall. That fish was the inspiration for the next Corvette Stingray.

He told the team he wanted a paint that had exactly the same sparkling iridescence as the fish. Well, those paint engineers worked round the clock, day and night, but try as they might they just couldn’t get it exactly right. They’d show their samples to Harley and he’d compare them to the fish and every time the fish outshone them all.

With the production deadline looming, and in a final fit of exasperation they hit upon a brilliant idea, a breakthrough that would save their skins. They painted the fish! They took the best solution they’d come up with and in the dark of night painted the fish to match.

I love this story because it reminds me that we need the artist every bit as much as the engineer. This is how innovation happens.

Sparks fly, and breakthroughs occur when we get these different experts together, around the table, focused on a problem, opening up new possibilities.

Qatar’s challenges

GM forgot about its fish painters. I’m terribly afraid Qatar is too. I think this is what keeps many of our policy makers, educators, entrepreneurs awake at night. Where are the fish painters? Where are the teams of innovators?

How are we to not let engineering or money be our only tools?  How do we connect disparate disciplines, unleash unexpected breakthrough, translate discoveries into real solutions that have meaningful and lasting impact. Real, tangible, measurable impact upon the lives of all our citizens, upon our communities.

I love to quote my friend Dr. Javid Shaikh, dean of Weill Cornell Medical College in Qatar.  He often says the reason we have so many medicines in the word is because the hardest thing of all is to change human behaviour. It’s much easier to take a pill, or put on a patch then to put down the cigarette. In Qatar we have some very tough behavioural issues.

Of course we need engineering and money to make better vaccines, smarter cities, and cleaner water. But is taking a pill the measure of health? Is the efficiency of moving through our cities what counts as civic? In the words of T.S. Eliot do we dream of systems so perfect that no one will need to be good?  Systems so perfect, so smart, so autonomous, so great, that no one will need to be good.

But we face real systemic problems epitomized in the country’s grand challenges: cyber security, energy security, food security. We all know of Qatar’s water vulnerability: three days. That’s all this country has, just three days of ‘strategic’ reserves. So, then, let us desalinate more sea water.

Find new technologies that can make more fresh water faster and cheaper. Fine. Good. Why not? More people, more crops. More effluent, more gas extraction, more depletion and degradation. Why I wonder do we so often look toward the answer for any problem as a question of more?  Why not look to having less? To conservation – to behavioural changes in consumption to complement productive capacity?

Because like smoking or exercise or wearing a seat belt, changing behaviour is the hardest thing to do.  As the great German architect Mies van der Rohe reminds us: less is – indeed – more!

I wish to suggest that the problems arising within our communities might best be addressed by the community. As the GM example illustrates, innovation can and will happen through the round table of community problem solvers dedicated to solving problems in the community.

A team of and for the community focused on behavioural change. And as the fish painters demonstrate, designers are uniquely trained to link up diverse experts, and who dare to ask: what is the problem worth solving? And only then set about delivering real, concrete, measurable solutions that have lasting impact.  We all must continue striving to uncover the greatness of this land; to develop a society who shows the world that Qatar’s contribution to history is not only great, but indeed, good.



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