Big Ideas

5 New Books, 5 Big Ideas

We explore The Internet of Things, bigger roles for women, how buildings talk to us, why farm-to-table food isn't enough, and how to focus your efforts on what's most essential.

1. Enchanted Objects

David Rose explores how Internet-enabled devices simplify everyday tasks, help people develop better habits, and improve the way we communicate.

“To make ordinary things as extraordinary and delightful to use and as pleasing to live with as my father’s barometer and my grandfather’s tools, the human-computer interaction needs to be freed from clicking and dragging.”

Rose is an award-winning design entrepreneur and an instructor at the MIT Media Lab. In Enchanted Objects, he explains how the “Internet of Things” — the general term to describe Wi-Fi-enabled objects such as Fitbit wristbands and Nest thermostats that can “learn” users’ habits and seamlessly communicate with cloud data servers — is commonly misconstrued as presaging a future where everything we do is tracked and transmitted up the chain to ever-more-powerful machines. Convene spoke with Rose about what the ever-evolving Internet of Things should and shouldn’t do with our personal data — and about a conference-table prototype he designed that could significantly improve meetings and events.

As the Internet of Things has become a more popular concept, do you see anything that people are getting wrong or misinterpreting? What are some fundamentals that people need to understand?

One of the most important things that I want people to understand is that enchanted objects are the biggest change that will happen in our lifetimes in terms of our relationship to technology, until we make implantables or something else that I can’t forecast. They can positively change things like transportation, like the bus stop and how we get ourselves around, like self-driving cars. They will change housing, allowing us to live more efficiently and in smaller spaces that can “transform” all of our furniture. They will change health care. There are so many important societal issues that can be addressed with this change in our relationship to technology.

For example, this sort of technology has the ability to make us more comfortable with music and with being generative, like “Rock Band.” If you just sort of generalize, the idea behind “Rock Band” and “Guitar Hero” was to let people who had no musical skill or training feel like they could perform in front of people, which is one of the most terrifying things to do, and — boom — new musician. But because there was that scaffolding, and because there were those tools, it was fun. Like, you’re playing the guitar in front of a group of people, and keeping up with the rest of the band and you’re doing all of that together, and after only practicing for 20 minutes and not for 20 years or two years. I hope that people see the promise for helping everybody to be more generative and expressive and masterful and creative.

Enchanted objects need to “know” us to help us. What would you say to people who are concerned with data privacy?

With a lot of Internet-injected things, it’s not clear who’s getting the data and when and how often and for what [reason] and how long it’s stored. So, a strong default should be that data is not shared, that sharing is opt-in. The second idea is to allow people to see their data and to understand what the system knows about them, or thinks that it knows about them, or is trying to predict about them, and allow them to edit and correct that. A third and most important thing is the ability to blow away all of the data, so that you can lobotomize your device and say, “Forget everything that you ever knew about me.”

Part of the driving philosophy around enchanted objects is that there’s no one object that’s trying to be “Big AI” [artificial intelligence]. Like, there’s no Siri, there’s no HAL [the insane supercomputer in “2001: A Space Odyssey”], there’s no phone trying to be really central to your life. Instead, there’s just a little bit of functionality in almost everything, but you don’t have to form a relationship with that one Big AI. It’s just little things like turning on your windshield wipers when it’s raining out, or embedding data in a button that knows how much bright light you’re getting. It doesn’t have to be this one huge service.

I’m intrigued by one of your lab’s prototypes, the Balance Table, which keeps track of who’s talking in a meeting and for how long, and gives participants color-based visual cues when they’ve been speaking for a long time. What was the thinking behind the design?

This is just an attempt to make the patterns of conversation and of who’s getting the airtime more evident, but in a way that was non-distracting and also “ignorable.” Like, if you were sitting at the table, it’s only after a few minutes that you understand that there’s something different. Its [LED-color indicator] is very gradually flowing in front of those people who are speaking more [than others].

So, it’s really only after 10 or 15 minutes of sitting at the table that you get a sense that there’s a pattern there. Sometimes it’s perfectly appropriate for one person to be dominating a meeting or for two people to be dominating a meeting based on their roles and based on the discussion. My goal was just to make the evidence of conversational balance more apparent. It doesn’t store anything and it doesn’t have any memory. Some people have said, “Well, it would be nice to know, over time, that the group is getting better at collaborating.” I say, “Well, the group is going to know that because it’s a group.” You don’t need to have data that supports the conversational balance over time. The table is simply a device to provide real-time feedback, not a device to have any sort of longitudinal memory.

— Kate Mulcrone


2. Playing Big

Tara Mohr has created a practical program to help women quiet the ‘inner critic’ of self-doubt and change their personal and professional lives — and the world.

“I’m working to bring forth women’s voices where they are absent, because I believe those voices will help us create a better world.”


While an undergrad at Yale, and later in the MBA program at Stanford University, Mohr “saw very clearly that it’s simply not enough for institutions created by and for men to open their doors to women,” she writes in Playing Big. “Much more needs to change — the norms, the practices, and the face of its leadership — to create a place where women can truly succeed.” What might that look like? A place where “all the expertise about the external world these institutions had to offer would become integrated with wisdom about our inner lives, the internal reality that shaped external events.” She spoke with Convene about how to tap into that inner life to play on a bigger stage.

It’s a widely accepted belief that there would be more women leaders if we had more mentors. What are your thoughts on that?

I notice whenever I’m at a conference where there’s a panel discussion about women’s leadership or women’s advancement and things get really depressing — people are just sharing sad stories — someone will say, “We just need more women mentors and we need women mentoring women.” And everyone kind of goes, Yeah, that’s what we need! And we act as if that’s going to be the solution. I think that it’s time for us to ask: Would a different model be richer and actually more nurturing for contemporary women?

What might that model look like?

I think it looks much more mutual. So it’s more about connections and relationships where people each bring their own strengths to the table. Our traditional notion of mentorship has had this idea that the mentor can give you the right advice, and if you’re struggling with “should I take job A or job B” that the mentor can help give you the right answer. But often that’s not the case, because the mentor will really be just telling you what the right answer would have been for them.

For our most important questions and dilemmas, the right answer comes from within. And so the inner mentor is a really important counterpart or complement to our traditional mentors. And an inner mentor is you 20 or 30 years in the future. But when we go through a meditation and visualization to access a visualization of that, we get something much deeper than just an idealized version of what we would become. It’s something that is coming from a deeper wisdom in us. And we get this image and sense of our wiser self, a more authentic self. Then we can consult and ask ourselves, how would she handle this challenge?

What seemingly positive qualities do many women possess that can hold them back?

I noticed in my coaching practice that a lot of women who were really feeling held back were also the women who had been the “student type.” And I have a feeling that meeting planners are really detailed-oriented, organized, good with structure. Good worker bees. And that’s great. I consider that a really important part of the toolkit for Playing Big — tools and skills that you have at your disposal to do really good work and execute on things well. However, if that’s the complete toolkit and if we’re using that good-student set of skills — which is figuring out what the authority figure wants and adapting ourselves to it, preparing really well for whatever is going to be asked of us, turning to the book, turning to the teacher, turning to the research — [we may] not [be] getting a lot of practice at getting good at going with what I already know, what’s inside me.

In the workplace it’s not enough to just do good work. We also have to make our good work visible to the right influential people that are in a position to recognize us for it and reward us for it. So we need to add to that good-student skill set: trusting what we already know, and gracefully making our work visible to others.

You talk about the importance of “leaping” as an antidote to hiding and delaying tactics. What might a leap look like for a meeting planner?

Let’s say you’re really longing to bring some sort of innovation to your meeting, and you have a vision that you’re really excited about — different things you could do, and it’s really aligned with your point of view about what creates a great experience for people. But it feels scary to share. And so you find maybe you’re doing some of the hiding strategies: Oh, I should get another certification first, or I could go study it with this person. Or, I should wait until I have three more years’ experience before I really start advocating.

So instead, if we were designing a leap action around that, we would think about a very quick, experimental, lightweight way that you could start Playing Bigger with those ideas right now. So the leap could simply be: I’m going to create a little mock version of this innovation and I’m going to pull together a bunch of people in my network and we’re going to do it as an experiment in the office this week and then do a debrief to see what we learned. It’s thinking about, what are the short-form things, what can you do within two weeks that feels exciting to you? It should not feel totally safe and cozy. And it brings you, your work, or your idea into contact with the people that you want to reach or influence with it.

— Michelle Russell

3. The Language of Houses

Alison Lurie on the intended and unintended messages of the buildings where we live, work, learn, and play — including convention centers and conference hotels.

“A building is an inanimate object, but it is not an inarticulate one. Even the simplest house always makes a statement, one expressed in brick and stone and plaster, in wood and metal and glass, rather than words — but no less loud and obvious.”


Lurie is a Pulitzer Prize–winning novelist whose nonfiction books include 1981’s The Language of Clothes, which examined what people’s style and manner of dress communicates about them. Now she applies the same approach to buildings, musing on the intended and unintended messages we receive from houses, hotels, offices, schools, prisons, churches, and hospitals — considering them through the prism of not just architecture and design but psychology, history, philosophy, and more. Not surprisingly, we also asked Lurie what convention centers might have to say.

How did you come to write this book? It reads like something you’ve been ruminating on for a while.

Oh, yes. I wrote a book called The Language of Clothes because I’m interested in style and fashion. People said, oh, you should do this for houses, and I said yeah. But then I realized it’s a much, much bigger job, because there’s so much more to say about buildings. There are so many different kinds of buildings. So I put it aside, but I sort of kept making notes and reading about it, and eventually I realized I had enough material that I could write a book.

What it is really is a way of thinking about your environment. What are our spaces saying to you? I realized fairly early on that, whereas houses tell people about us, buildings speak to us and tell us how to behave and what to do there. A hotel, for instance, can make you feel that you’re an honored guest and that everybody is glad to see you and that you’re staying with friends, or it can make you feel that there’s something disagreeable and unpleasant about life. It’s not just a matter of how much you pay for the room or how fancy the bathroom is. It’s a whole lot of little things.

Right off the bat in your book, you discuss the differences between formal and informal spaces. Are convention centers and other meeting venues formal spaces?

Well, they’re formal, but I think to be successful, there has to be a feeling that this is a meeting of friends and potential friends. Of course, it depends very much on the theme. For instance, since I used to teach children’s literature, I’ve been to a couple of Wizard of Oz conventions. Everybody is there to have a good time. Some of them are dressed up as Oz characters, and there are balloons and posters. But then I’ve been in a hotel where there was a convention of lung surgeons. That was much more formal and serious. So I think the organization has to be represented in a way that matches it.

Do you have any thoughts about the language of convention centers?

Of course, size is related to importance. The bigger a building is, the more it’s telling us whatever this building represents or whatever is located there at the moment is very important, very significant, because it takes up a lot of space and time and money. For instance, the New York State Capitol in Albany is very impressive and deliberately so. The United States Capitol is even more impressive. It’s telling us, look, this is a big, serious, important organization. I think that’s what convention halls try to do.

Are there ways that you can mitigate or change the language of a building, short of knocking it down?

Oh, absolutely. Perhaps the simplest and most obvious thing is, you can think about the light and the color and especially whatever it is you see when you first walk in. If you have big empty spaces, you can reconfigure it. It depends of course on the space you’ve got and how confining it is to start with, but certainly you can improve any space with light and color. That’s the cheapest — light and color and plants.

[And] it certainly makes a difference to bring the outdoors in now that so many people live in cities and don’t see trees and grass from one week into the next. I think that’s very important — the feeling that nature is around and that unconsciously you’re putting across the message, whatever is being sold here [at a meeting or convention] is natural, it’s organic, it’s alive, rather than dead and merchandised.

— Christopher Durso

4. The Third Plate

Chef Dan Barber makes a powerful case for thinking (and eating) beyond farm-to-table cuisine — and serving a parsnip steak with a side of beef, rather than the other way around.

“Farm-to-table may sound right — it’s direct and connected — but really the farmer ends up servicing the table, not the other way around. It makes good agriculture difficult to sustain.”

Barber is the award-winning chef at both Blue Hill restaurant in New York City and Blue Hill at Stone Barns in New York’s Hudson Valley. In 2009, Time magazine chose him as one of the 100 most influential people in the world. Barber is also as gifted with words as he is with knives. In The Third Plate, he weaves visits with visionary farmers and food producers into an entertaining entreaty for a “paradigm shift” in the way we source, cook, and consume food. What does that look like? “Second cuts” of meat, lost and emerging grains, sustainable fish, and sometimes overlooked vegetables, Barber argues, all can be part of a diverse “pattern of eating” that sustains our soil and our farmers.

Can you distill the essence of the “third plate” idea, and explain why this is the right time for it?

Over the past decade, we’ve seen the enormous costs of our industrialized food system — costs to our health, our communities, and our environment. Until now, our solution has been to substitute more sustainable alternatives: organic instead of conventional; grass-fed instead of grain-fed; direct instead of anonymous. But that kind of thinking doesn’t go far enough. To meet the challenges of the future, we need to completely reimagine our ways of farming, and cooking. Can we cook and eat in a way that supports the health of the land — and, in the end, produces more nutritious and delicious food? That’s the idea, and the hope, behind The Third Plate.

How has researching and writing The Third Plate affected the menus at Blue Hill at Stone Barns?

Today, I am thinking less about individual ingredients or plates of food and more about a whole pattern of eating that supports the Hudson Valley landscape. My hope is that we are helping to inculcate a new kind of food culture. I’ll give you one example. Every year, the farmers at Stone Barns harvest a crop of parsnips in the dead of the winter. The parsnips stay in the ground for almost 12 months, and when they come out, they’re enormous — like dinosaur bones. We roast them like steaks and carve them for our diners tableside, then serve them with a bit of braised beef shank and a Bordelaise sauce made with the bones. It’s the iconic steak dinner, inverted.

What other items, dishes, or techniques might help a chef cooking for 500 (or even 5,000) deliver more seasonal, sustainable meals to their clientele?

I think the next step for large-scale food-service chefs and operators is to begin engaging with mid-size farmers — farmers who are too large to pack up their pickup trucks and sell at farmers markets, but too small to fit into the Walmart-ification of the food system. As “foodies,” we tend to fetishize the small and the artisanal. But these farms of the middle are often better suited to meeting the demands of a large-scale operation.

Meals at large meetings tend toward a formula of chicken (or beef) plus starch plus vegetable, and planners say it’s difficult to guide their clients away from this blueprint. What might meeting planners do or say to convince their organizations to think harder (and spend more) on meals for their event?

That ingrained expectation of what’s for dinner is something that every chef has to contend with. At Blue Hill at Stone Barns, we offer tasting menus that include up to 40 small (sometimes one-bite) courses — and yet, at the end of the meal, I sometimes still have diners asking, “Where is the meat course?” So how does a meeting planner or a corporate chef go about changing expectations? I don’t want to understate the challenge, but I think you need do it through delicious food. You can’t apologize for the constraints of this kind of cooking; instead, you need to celebrate ingredients that are very specific to a particular time and place. That excitement spreads quickly to clients and diners.

Have you met any game changers or disrupters in the world of hotel or large-scale food service?

Looking at someone like Steve Ells, the founder of Chipotle, makes me hopeful for the large-scale food-service industry, not only because he is introducing new standards in the sourcing of his ingredients, but also because he is applying those ingredients to a more sustainable style of eating, which incorporates grains, legumes, and vegetables, and second cuts of meat.

— Corin Hirsch

5. Essentialism

Greg McKeown would like us to think about not how to do more with less, but how to do less better.


“The way of the Essentialist means living by design, not by default. Instead of making choices reactively, the Essentialist deliberately distinguishes the vital few from the trivial many, eliminates the nonessentials, and then removes obstacles so the essential things have clear, smooth passage.”


McKeown is CEO of THIS Inc., a leadership and strategy-design agency headquartered in Silicon Valley, and has spoken at companies including Apple, Google, Facebook,, and Twitter. Named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, McKeown also teaches a course at the Institute of Design at Stanford University, where he earned an MBA. Before he aspired to Essentialism, McKeown once left his wife and hours-old newborn at the hospital to attend a client meeting. “I think that we are in a busyness bubble,” he said. “Like the real-estate bubble, or the Silicon Valley bubble, or the Dutch tulip bubble, we are in a time of irrational exuberance about being busy…. I think that eventually the bubble will burst, and we will think that we’re ridiculous and foolish to have lived and worked this way.”

Your book’s subtitle, “The Disciplined Pursuit of Less,” makes me think that it might be easier to add things and more difficult to cut back. Do you agree?

Absolutely. [Meeting planners] are at the nexus of all of the things that make this a challenge. For any [planner] I have ever worked with, their lives are fast and full of opportunity. The complication is they can really believe they have to do everything. The impact of that is that they can end up making only a millimeter of impact for their attendees in a million directions.

My whole position is that you can make a different choice. It’s a bold choice: You can create space in your design process to really figure out what is the essential message of the conference or event and what is the essential path of learning. And then have the courage to either eliminate everything else or at least really turn the volume way down on all the other things. I’ve taught at a lot of events now over the last 15 years. And I think the number-one mistake — made by a huge margin between that and mistake number two  — is trying to do too many messages, and not [offering] enough space for people to think and process the messages they have.

One of the challenges is that conference and event organizers often feel they have to market themselves on the promise of more — more sessions, more and better speakers.

First of all, you’re right that this is, I think, the primary way conferences are sold. When I wrote [Essentialism], I knew I was being countercultural, but it’s more radical than I thought. As I’ve watched people try to wrestle with these ideas, I’ve realized that the monopoly that the alternative thought has on people.

The monopoly view is what I call Nonessentialism. If you can fit it all in, you can have it all. The problem is, what that actually produces at events is stressed-out attendees, who from the first second to the last second of the conference are filled with the fear of missing out. And where they can’t process the information, and it exhausts them, so they’re stressed and exhausted.

What I’m arguing, especially now, is that there is a whole other strategy of selling. It’s getting really clear, as an event designer or event organizer, about who is the primary customer. And what do they really care about? Saying, “I’m going to provide a smorgasbord of offerings, on the basis that I will be able to grab everybody,” is like the sales equivalent of a bottom trawler in fishing — it just pulls up everything. In reality, it ruins the seabed and destroys the ocean.

When we market like that, we can never get our events to the next level. We never know what it is that’s really attracting people, because we’re not thinking deeply enough about who is my customer and what is their real painful agenda? What are the priority issues?
I think one of the things event planners can do for their attendees is to be really generous — to create a luxurious amount of space for their participants to just go and chat, to go and think, to reflect on what they’ve heard. Not a few minutes at the end of the conference, or two minutes at the end of the speech, but space all throughout. Instead of half an hour for lunch and rush back in, you create two hours for lunch. Instead of breaks of 15 minutes and rushing people back in, do half an hour. Give them more space, because there is enormous value in that.

— Barbara Palmer

Convene Editors