American culture* and big data (case study #6)

American culture is a dynamic thing. It is busting out all over. There are several ways to contend with this blooming confusion, and we will look at several of them at on June 7. (Please come join us.)

One of our best opportunities is big data. Here are some very big data indeed, courtesy of ESRI. This is a screen-grab of their real time rendering of Boston.


This is Boston. From a God-like point of view. (Though I think we know God abandoned Boston a long time ago.)

I have a dream. We listen to Boston by listening to its data streams. This data can be SKU (stock keeping unit) data, vehicular traffic, pedestrian traffic…well the possibilities are now many and diverse.

What are we listening for? Departures. It’s a little like SETI. We are listening for something, almost anything, that breaks from the baseline we have established. We are listening for a signal…instead of all that noise.

For instance, we are listening for a spike in SKU data. Or a shift in traffic. And we are really listening for two streams of data both departing from baseline at once.

Hey, presto. There’s a place downtown that is selling a selling new kind of drink and we can see by traffic patterns that this bar is attracting a new volume of attention.

The map is showing us American culture in action. It may be an artifact. It may be a mirage. It may be a figment of our over-eager imagination.

But what if it’s something? What if we just got a message from the future? What if we are looking at something that will someday transform consumer taste and preference in the spirits category?

What is this worth to us? What would it be worth to Pernod Ricard or Diageo to have 6 months of advance notice of this shift. Peter Schwartz says the American corporation lives in a state of perpetual surprise. This “big board” system would return to an “advance warning” model. With all the strategy and planning advantages that that confers.

I had a chance to talk to ESRI people at an IIR conference in Florida in the spring. (Thank you, Romina Kunstadter. Thank you, Dominik Tarolli.)

ESRI sees their geographical data in layers, as below.

And this is a pretty good metaphor for the way we want to bring American culture together with kinds of other data.

Really, there are two objectives. How do we make the cultural layer make other layers significant? How do we use these other layers alert us to cultural developments and help us understand them?

We can imagine the scenario.

“There’s this bar in the North End! Something is happening there!”

This is where we send in the anthropologists, the ethnographers, the design thinkers, the likes of IDEO, the Canvas8, Trend watching, perhaps a creative class from SVA or the dSchool at Stanford. We are there at the beginning.

Culture is the cause and the consequence of much of what happens in American markets. But like everything else in those markets, it is also diverse, complex and dynamic. Big data to the rescue. And I think we can argue that the “rescue” works the other way around: culture can make data meaningful that is now merely big.

✻ Why do I call it “American culture?”

To distinguish it from “corporate culture.” There are two kinds of culture an organization must understand and a manager must manage.

Culture Inside: this is the culture of an organization, the “corporate culture.”

Culture Outside: this is American culture.

We sometimes confuse these. But that’s a little like confusing American football and European football. My Culture Camp is dedicated to understanding American culture, the culture outside the organization. This is where we find blue oceans of opportunity. This is where black swans of disruption find us. It’s time we made the distinction.