The Salesforce Design Ohana recently invited Tim O'Reilly to be a part of the Design and Innovation Speaker Series. O'Reilly has been a leading Silicon Valley innovator for over three decades. He began his career as a technical writer in 1977, then soon after founded O'Reilly Media in 1983. A student of Classics and Linguistics, he's known as one of Silicon Valley's leading intellectuals, famous for coining the phrase “Web 2.0” and championing the open source movement.

I got to sit down with O'Reilly to discuss all things design and innovation – as well as his latest book: WTF? What's the Future and Why It's Up to Us?   The conversation highlights, edited for clarity and brevity, follow.


Commodity vs. Value

O'Reilly believes there's a tension between commodity and value. “When one thing becomes a commodity, something else becomes valuable.” Using the food industry as an example, he pointed out how labels like “local” or “organic” can layer meaning – and value – onto goods typically perceived just as commodities. He then underscored Apple's ability to sell products for “what they mean” instead of “what they do,” to which he ascribes the root cause of a massive paradigm shift in the tech industry. For him, designing for value is a critical part of the innovation process: “how you differentiate [your product or brand] is a design idea.” 

Ubiquity of Computing

Given his decades-long knowledge of the Silicon Valley computing industry, I was curious to get his thoughts on where we are now as well as where we are going in the future. “The arc towards ubiquity” in computing and our increased connectivity to one “ubiquitous, global brain” were very much top of mind. “The future will include further integration of humans and machines. People are going to build new brain capacities that can interface with new devices.” He believes that this will have huge implications for the near-term evolution of the human race. 

It's Up to Us

O'Reilly argues that designing great products and experiences has always been important, but what's changed over the years is the broader cultural awareness of its importance due to the kinds of problems our society must solve. “Every great innovator is a designer. You're redesigning what's possible.” A technological optimist at heart – but also a realist who understands the challenges and complexity of technological design – O'Reilly believes that the conversations swirling around right now about the possibility of AI replacing human jobs is fundamentally one that comes down to design issues. “If we want to have a different world, we've got to ask for and design a different one. We have an awful lot of fatalism in our technological and economic thinking. There are all kinds of design choices to be made [by us].”

Designing Marketplaces

The places we frequent often – Amazon, Facebook, and Google, for example – may seem like open and democratic marketplaces. However, they are governed by algorithms and other business-driven biases that virtually dictate what we see, how we see it, and how we react to it. Think about your everyday experience at the supermarket. When given a choice between multiple cashier lines to choose from, more often than not we'll choose the shortest line by default. For O'Reilly, this is the famous Adam Smith concept of the “invisible hand” at work wherein the dynamics of the free market plus the rise of new organizational systems together have the power to alter our perceptions as well as our concept of reality. “It's really not just product design or marketing design; it's really about the design of algorithms – the design of the values that we're encoding into these big data systems that we're building – that are really going to shape the economy.” 

Designing for Trust

Trust is a core value of Salesforce. Lately, we've been talking a lot about the tension between growth and trust as well as how important designing for trust is to digital transformation. Can we be more transparent about the underpinnings of our technological systems to better understand what drives editorial bias? O'Reilly believes that trust is really about whether or not any given transaction is worthwhile for the consumer. If you give away your data, do you get something of equal or greater value in return? Sometimes consumers are happy to share their information because they know doing so will lead to a worthwhile reward. Even so, the relationship between businesses and their customers continues to be increasingly complex and ever-evolving (i.e. GDPR). This makes designing for trust even more important than ever. Businesses must be proactive and transparent in everything they do to earn consumer trust today. 

Centralized vs. Decentralized

Blockchain, the distributed ledger technology behind the rise of cryptocurrencies, has also reignited the conversation around “centralized” vs. “decentralized” technologies. Will a small, privileged few control this powerful technology? Or will it be shared by all who use it? O'Reilly admits that there is a lot of enthusiasm for “total decentralization” today. Earlier technologies like the PC, the Internet, blogging platforms, and peer-to-peer computing systems were all hailed as beacons of decentralization. (That is, until somebody figured out how to re-centralize all those systems and processes.) “You have decentralization technologies, which create new kinds of opportunities. People who are quick to exploit those opportunities tend to become market leaders, and then they gradually close down the opportunity [associated with those technologies] and recentralize. Then, the process starts all over again.”

The Design and Innovation Speaker Series is just getting started. Our next guest is Maria Giudice, Founder and CEO at Hot Studio, former Design Lead at Facebook and Autodesk, and author of Rise of the DEO. Maria will be interviewed by Seth Bain from the Salesforce Experience Design team on June 26. Also look for Designer, Social Innovator, and Urbanist, Liz Ogbu coming to the Design Speaker Series sometime in the fall. 

Curious about design at Salesforce? At Experience DesignIgniteProduct/UX, and Corporate Marketing, we're using design to accelerate innovation every day. Check it out today!


Thumbnail image attribution: Gathering by Lexie Moreland