News from the front desk: Issue No 339 – On learning from Steve Jobs

Apple founder Steve Jobs is central to a lesson that came out this week through a look at two amazing legacies he has left behind – the iPhone and his new Apple building at Cupertino in California that is nearing completion at a cost of US$5 billion.

Whether those legacies are a good thing, or rather a good thing for very long, is a question we should ask.

If we acknowledge our organic nature and that everything we do is part and parcel of that nature – no matter how hard we try to transcend it by creating permanence in mind or matter – then we should be open to question everything, constantly.

We should reassess, remeasure, reboot in response to the inevitably changing circumstances around us. Just as nature is never still.

Jobs understood the power of nature to refresh the body and rekindle imagination and depth of feeling. He invented the walking meeting, or at least borrowed from the habits our best writers, scientists and philosophers in history who knew that to walk a lot was a brilliant lubricant for the mind.

Jobs said his best ideas came from walking in the forest and feeling his mind or his spirit become part of the organic world that he knew he was part of.

It’s a finely balanced thing, this connection between mind and matter, hard to capture and replicate with a software code – although no doubt someone’s working on it – and it’s hard to measure and prove.

We’re working on our ebook right now that will focus on wellness in the office and how to benefit by better understanding and enabling connection between these two forces. It’s the new “thing” sweeping the office world.

But Jobs was years ahead of his time and it’s interesting that for such a great scientific brain he didn’t seek evidence or measurements of any kind for his belief in connection to nature. He simply did.

At Apple Park there will be 9000 trees planted. There will be no airconditioning, which Jobs hated, along with fans. So, instead there’s an interesting ventilation system with underground pipes to keep temperatures steady but not perfect.

A fabulous long form article in Wired this week tells us the system will allow temperatures to vary because he felt his 12,000 staff needed to feel the wind when it was blowing, feel the air when it was hot and when it was cold. There will be some temperature control but only by a few degrees.

To fulfill Jobs’ wish for a building that breathes, the engineering team consulted with experts who optimise airflow in Formula One race cars. The Ring inhales air through soffits (the undersides of the canopies) along its perimeter. Elsewhere, shafts that act like chimneys exhale warm air back outside.

Jobs didn’t want staff to feel like they were “inside a casino” where you can’t tell if it’s day or night.

Modern thinking in office wellness is only just getting aboard this “inside-outside” idea.

Jobs also specified certain recycled timbers and other environmental features, not the least that the building be entirely powered by renewable energy.

One of the things that’s touching about the Jobs story is his frailty. He died way too young. Maybe it was a presentiment of this that so powerfully drove him to create amazing and beautiful things that would last beyond him, in mind matter.

One of the biggest legacies he left is the iPhone. It’s interesting that this device, so successful, so viral through humanity is now pretty much a monopoly. What does that mean? One defining characteristic is that it has not changed in 10 years.

According to some lines of thinking, that’s what happens when something is too successful. It becomes a kind of monopoly that stifles innovation.

As Morphic Asset Management said in a newsletter this week, the thinking among economic leaders is that the giant corporations that have risen from the motherlode of IT in Silicon Valley have destroyed productivity.

A quote in the article from IMF boss Christine Lagarde in April says:

Technological innovation seems to be moving faster than ever, from driverless cars to robot lawyers to 3D-printed human organs. The not-so-good news is that we can see technological breakthroughs everywhere except in the productivity statistics.”

It points to a recent piece from Matt Stoller, who says that key players are now so large, they have become monopolies and that this means they stop innovating.

The article goes on to quote business historian Alfred Chandler, who in his book on the electronic century, called antitrust regulators the “Gods” of creation.

Antitrust was originally understood as a uniquely American “charter of economic liberty”.

But there hasn’t been a Sherman Act Section 2 anti-monopolisation case for 15 years. And the anti-merger Clayton Act is not being enforced.

For large firms, tweaking what they have is much more profitable than ripping up their business model.

Hence why the iPhone is largely unchanged in 10 years.

One of the paradoxes of capitalism is that it works best with strong regulation. Not over-regulation, but no regulation isn’t great either it turns out.

That’s the interesting angle on innovation and success that points to our amazing power as humans and underlying frailty. Two sides of the same coin, born of the exquisite irony that if we are too successful, we stagnate, then die. Easter Island is a case in point.

Or, maybe worse, we become boring and stifle other life elements around us.

We know that the harder things are the harder we must try to overcome them: the old adage that necessity is the mother of invention.

Steve Jobs knew he was soon to leave this earth but he wanted to leave another legacy that he knew would remain beyond him and no doubt beyond the iPhone. It was his massive building.

It’s beautiful and the architect Norman Foster and a team of 250 other architects have faithfully followed the aesthetic and design intent that blew them all away when Jobs revealed the scale of his ideas.

But already, even before completion, it’s being criticised. The idea of how people should work has changed. Jobs has the building open to nature but not to the community, people with childcare needs and other companies.

Not so, his peers in Silicon Valley. Facebook’s new offices are styled to change according to need. The other trend is to integrate your high-tech campus into the city centre and bring life to it instead of hiding away.

Jobs, like most of us, was a latecomer to the ethical/sustainable supply chain, and Apple still struggles with the eternal tension between cost and quality (and by quality we mean good/ethical/sustainable).

We are all on a journey.

Like any good idea, we need the light switched on to be able to see it. It’s not in our DNA to know everything/see everything at once. And of course that’s the essential nature of the stock market and the free market economics that we love to play in because they are so much fun. But they’d be nowhere near so much fun or profitable if everyone was on the same page.

So even the brilliance of Steve Jobs is limited.

In the end, the biggest legacy he has left us is one of the mind: that we need at all times to remain open, humble and ready to change. No matter how clever we think we are for a moment in time.

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