05.28.22

This boot by an

BY Fast Company 6 MINUTE READ

The US government calls it an “epidemic of amputations.” Of 200,000 people in the U.S. who have amputations each year, 130,000 are specifically from complications with diabetes. Ulcers will form on the bottom of people’s feet where, under the weight of their own bodies, these wounds refuse to heal. Amputation comes next, after which point a person with diabetes has the same five-year mortality rate as someone with cancer.

Following decades in the industry, podiatrist Jason Hanft was disgusted by his inability to help his patients more. And after auditing what was going wrong at his own practice, he teamed up with former Nike designer Michael DiTullo to do something about it.

The product they developed over four years is called Foot Defender. It’s a $250 medical boot that looks, purposefully, like a Jordan high-top. Instead of complicated laces, the entire front of the boot Velcros off, so it’s easy to slip a foot inside. Once on, it redistributes weight off of the ball of the foot, where 83% of diabetic wounds happen, across the arch and leg so that 80% of patients healed in an average of five and a half weeks, in a clinical study. By comparison, only 21% of diabetic wounds heal by 12 weeks normally. As a result, Hanft believes that his product could save up to 80,000 limbs each year in the U.S. alone.

“We know what we need to do,” Hanft says. “We need to create a device that’s easy to use and patients want to use in their daily activities of living, which is what we feel has been missing in the care of these wounds.”

The reason that Hanft understands the problem so well is that he’s actively studied it. In 2018, he pulled together a 20-year retrospective of his clinic’s patient data to see whether the latest techniques in wound care had lowered their diabetic amputation rate. As it turned out, the amputation rate at his practice hadn’t gotten lower; it had actually gotten higher, just as it has for patients across the U.S. When he enlisted a statistics and analytics company to figure out what was going wrong, the company claimed that his own patients had stopped taking his advice in how they cared for wounds: They said they’d grown noncompliant.

“That didn’t make any sense,” Hanft says. “Patients in 1998 were no more compliant than in 2018.”

At that point, Hanft began his own research, interviewing 5,000 patients alongside clinicians. His team asked patients why they thought they weren’t having more success with their wounds, and most of them said that the medical boots they were given—which had incidentally been designed only for ankle sprains and other unrelated issues—were hard to get on, hard to walk in, and made them self-conscious because they looked like medical devices.

“That was my light bulb moment. We’re asking morbidly obese people, for the most part, to reach down to the bottom of their foot to put devices on,” Hanft says. “And they can’t reach down to the bottom of their foot.”

A better-looking, easier-to-don boot would solve a lot of those problems. But if Hanft could build a boot that could also, somewhat paradoxically, remove pressure from the foot at the same time, he knew he’d have a breakthrough product.

After raising an undisclosed amount of capital, Hanft enlisted DiTullo, a former designer on Jordan, Converse, and Nike, who helped bring the vision to fruition. DiTullo’s first concern was how to solve the function of the boot itself to relieve foot pressure, and he found a big part of the solution in standard shoe design.

Your typical sneaker pushes you to the balls of your feet, where you are balanced and ready to sprint. In a shoe like the classic Air Max 270, it’s a full 10 millimeter offset that tilts your foot in this direction. Of course, what works for sports is terrible for diabetic wounds.

So DiTullo added a heel drop into the shoe to tilt someone back toward their heels. It’s a slight drop, just 2 millimeters, but keep in mind that’s a 12 millimeter difference from a sneaker, “which doesn’t sound like a lot but makes a difference,” DiTullo says.

And while many medical boots, and even Timberlands, have a rocker—a rounded heel to improve the wearer’s gait—that approach couldn’t work for the Foot Defender. Why? Because when someone walks with only one rocker, they shift more pressure to the opposite foot, causing it to develop an ulcer.

To support your leg and heel, a large injection molded shell lives inside the shoe, much like a ski boot. “It’s locked through the ankle so you can’t lean forward,” DiTullo says. “Then in the front [tongue] there’s molded carbon fiber, so you can’t get your knees over your toes.”

For the cushy midsole that your foot sits on, DiTullo used typical sneaker EVA foam, but added a layer of gelatinous material that’s more resilient.

“Thinking of someone who is often over 250 or 300 pounds, there’s a lot of pressure coming down,” DiTullo says. “We want to make sure there’s more suspension travel, so they never experience bottoming out.”

A MEDICAL BOOT THAT LOOKS READY FOR THE COURT

Of course, all of these improvements were designed to remove pressure from a wound, but they didn’t address the most immediate issue: to get a patient to wear their boot in the first place.

Originally, DiTullo had designed the Foot Defender as a cool but also typical medical device, to be injection molded at medical factories, with hard plastic parts on the outer shell. Making small tweaks to this design was prohibitively expensive, and it still felt too clinical.

“A year in I said, ‘I think we’re doing this wrong,’” DiTullo recalls. “We need to stop trying to teach a medical factory to make a consumer-grade good, and go to a shoe factory that knows the fit and finish we need and teach it how to build with the precision we need.”

With that new approach, the injection-molded hard parts went inside the shoe, while a soft outer layer could hide them away and appear as a more typical high-top. He added the flat cup sole of a skater shoe to keep a patient’s foot flat, but remixed it with an oversize herringbone pattern on the bottom for traction—the same approach taken in basketball shoes.

Each component is a functional design cue, signaling to your brain that this is a piece of athletic equipment rather than a medical product.

When considering how someone might step into the shoe, DiTullo remembered some basketball shoes at Nike that had used a bit of Velcro as opposed to laces. And he figured that what worked for LeBron would work for others. So he designed the entire front of the boot to peel off, let you stick your foot in, and then attach back on with Velcro.

The final component DiTullo added to the Foot Defender is another sneaker throwback: a pump much like those found on a 1980s-era Reebok. Pushing on the pump up near the ankle inflates a bladder inside the shoe to lock your heel so it can’t slide up or down—improving the fit and feel of an otherwise hard shoe.

According to the company’s own research, all of these components make a shoe that reduces the force on the bottom of the wearer’s foot up to 80% more than other products on the market. While the company hopes to validate the product further through a larger, peer-reviewed study next year, the Foot Defender won an award from the Symposium on Advanced Wound Care where it was presented earlier this year. Foot Defender technically requires no additional certifications, as it’s a class 1 medical device, so it’s on the market now.

Hanft is planning several more releases for Foot Defender in hopes of not just treating foot ulcers but also preventing their high rate of recurrence, noting, “We have a whole quiver of products to manage diabetic wounds.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach.

FastCompany

05.26.22

Elon Musk has questioned ESG, why investors should care?

BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

When Tesla was booted off the S&P 500 ESG Index last week—an index that ranks companies based on environmental, social, and governance data—Elon Musk responded by tweeting that ESG was a “scam,” and pointing out that Exxon, one of the most polluting companies in the world, was ranked in the top 10 best companies in the index.

In a blog post, the S&P explained that Tesla was cut in part because, despite making electric cars, it didn’t have a low-carbon strategy. They cited Tesla’s lack of codes of business conduct, along with reports of discrimination and dangerous working conditions at its California factory, as well as its handling of a National Highway Traffic Safety Administration investigation. (The EV company was also listed on the Toxic 100 Air Polluters, ranking last year for pollution from its battery factories, fined in Germany for not meeting laws requiring it to recycle used batteries; and earlier this year, fined by the EPA for violating the Clean Air Act with hazardous pollution from its California factory.)

It’s clear that Tesla has flaws. But if other ESG funds continue to hold Tesla, while S&P’s ESG index includes an oil company, and the Dow Jones Sustainability Index includes the tobacco giant Philip Morris, what does ESG investing really say about corporate responsibility overall? The first thing to understand is what ESG investing means: Most ESG ratings aren’t actually looking at the impact a company has on the environment or society. Instead, it’s a way that investors are evaluating the financial risk companies face because of environmental or social issues. And as ESG investing keeps growing—with assets that could reach $41 trillion by the end of 2022—it’s worth questioning if it’s measuring the right things.

“There’s a sort of obscure language that ESG raters use to talk about this stuff,” says Thomas Lyon, director of the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business. “They like to talk about ‘materiality,’ which means, is this particular thing going to have a material impact on our bottom line? It’s not asking the question, ‘Will it have a material impact on the planet, or on people?’ It’s all about the bottom line.” For example, MSCI, one of the largest companies that rates companies for ESG, says on its website that its ratings are “not a general measure of corporate ‘goodness’” or even “a synonym for sustainable investing”; instead they “provide a window into one facet of risk to financial performance.”

The concept of ESG investing grew out of socially responsible investing, a strategy that investors use to make more ethical choices; but the ESG approach focused on profits. In 2005, a UN report argued that investors needed to consider how companies were handling environmental, social, and governance risk more broadly because it had financial implications; companies that are managed more responsibly, the theory went, will ultimately make more money. (Many studies have, in fact, now shown a positive correlation between ESG and financial performance.)

Multiple rating systems now exist to score companies on long lists of factors, from recycling strategies to human rights. But some of the choices can seem arbitrary. For example, the S&P index screens out companies that extract oil sands, but not oil companies generally. It also screens out tobacco companies, though the Dow Jones Sustainability Index does not. The S&P index is designed to reflect the same industries included in the S&P 500 in general, so it includes fossil fuel companies—despite the fact that analysts have warned that those companies face financial risks because of climate change.

Each of the firms producing ESG ratings uses different criteria, and they aren’t transparent about the details of their methodology. A company’s rank might be very different from one list to the next. “The thing that’s pernicious is that each of the raters wants to keep their secret sauce—you know, ‘I’ve got the magic method that will help you make a lot of money, and I can’t tell you what it all is, but trust me, it will make you more money than the other guy’s secret sauce,’” Lyon says. “And because they have the incentive to keep their methodology secret, there’s unlikely to be a full convergence in these ratings over time.”

Because most indices aren’t measuring the actual impact that companies are having, their scores might go up even as performance worsens. Even though McDonald’s emissions went up 16% between 2015 and 2020, “McDonald’s is getting ESG upgrades,” says Hans Taparia, a clinical assistant professor at NYU Stern School of Business. “That’s because those emissions . . . are not considered a risk for the company. Right now, everything’s being judged on financial risk to companies, which is extremely disingenuous.”

Also, the scores often don’t include criteria like corporate political activity. Exxon, for example, spent millions lobbying to slow down climate action by spreading disinformation, including op-eds arguing that climate science was “unsettled” and decrying the “media hype” about climate change. Among other things, Exxon funded the Competitive Enterprise Institute, an organization that ran an ad that promoted CO2, saying, “You call it pollution. We call it life.” Lyon says, “Exxon has a terrible track record in its political engagement. But most of these ESG raters don’t pay any attention to that.”

While a smaller subset of ESG funds exclude fossil fuel companies, and according to Lyon, the ESG world is beginning to talk more about ranking companies based on impact along with financial risk, there are also trends moving in the other direction. The Global Reporting Initiative, an organization that helps companies report their impact on climate change, human rights, and other issues, may be replaced by a broader effort between the World Economic Forum and large accounting firms aimed at standardizing sustainability reporting, with a result that may look more like ESG ratings do today.

“What they’re doing is zeroing in on just the handful of things that investors care about the most, and that are easiest to measure,” Lyon says. “If the GRI standards get pushed aside, and we focus only on what investors care about, then we’re missing that broader picture of what do we actually need to protect the planet.” The same is likely true in terms of missing the broader impacts on people.

The ESG space should evolve to track whether companies are reducing negative impacts on the world, Taparia argues. And for now, rather than relying on outside ESG ratings, it may make sense for investors to compare corporate ESG performance themselves. “They should make their own judgments, and do their own research,” he says.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world’s largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

FastCompany

Amazon just opened a brick and mortar fashion store

BY Fast Company < 1 MINUTE READ

Amazon opened its first brick-and-mortar fashion store yesterday at The Americana at Brand, a shopping complex in Glendale, California. Announced earlier this year, the physical retail experience is described as a mix of Amazon Style app-based interactions, in-store styling-and-fitting services, online-to-IRL try-ons, and Amazon One palm-recognition-based checkouts—a blend of data-driven technology that makes the customer journey unique in the fashion space.

According to early reports, shoppers at the 30,000-square-foot store have the option to browse through the Amazon Style app and try their selections on in one of many fitting rooms—each equipped with touchscreens to instantly summon more styles, SKUs, and size options.

Alternatively, guests can browse the rails, where they’ll scan item QR codes to have select sizes and colorways delivered directly to the fitting rooms—which are assigned and unlocked with the app. When the customer arrives at the room to try on clothes, their selections, along with additional Amazon algorithm-selected suggestions, will be ready and waiting.

“Our three goals for Amazon Style are to make shopping more inspiring, personalized, and convenient for each customer,” said Simoina Vasen, managing director of Amazon Style, in a statement. “While trying on clothes in-store, customers no longer need to get dressed and go out on the floor to see if their size is available. Instead, shoppers can keep ordering, trying things on and continue their shopping experience from the dressing room.”

In addition to trying on in-stock items, customers can request to have their online fashion purchases delivered directly to the Amazon Style store to try on in one of the company’s high-tech fitting rooms. Returns can also be processed directly in store, saving shoppers a trip to the post office.

05.25.22

Microsoft Teams new feature just changed screen sharing

BY Fast Company 3 MINUTE READ

If you feel like you’ve spent the last couple of years talking to your colleagues inside your business’ video-meeting app of choice—be it Zoom, Microsoft Teams, Google Meet, Webex, or something else—you’re not alone. But when you’re in one of these environments, you’re probably talking about stuff you’re working on in other pieces of software. And that’s where collaboration can start to break down.

“We’ve noticed in our use of Teams and other sorts of collaboration tools that what people do is static, non-interactive screen sharing,” says Jeff Teper, corporate VP of Microsoft 365 collaboration. “And that means people can’t really collaborate on the data.”

At its Build conference, Microsoft is unveiling plans to change that for Teams’ 250 million-plus users. The company is introducing Live Share, a new feature for developers that lets them create collaborative software experiences that live inside of Teams sessions. Once built, such software will be available everywhere Teams is, on Windows, Mac, iOS, Android, and the web.

Now, there’s nothing new about the idea that people might want their video-meeting service of choice to play nicely with other apps essential to their work. Teams already has a well-stocked app marketplace of its own, as does Zoom. But even before you get to the notion of creating software that exists within something like Teams, letting multiple people simultaneously interact with data is a significant software engineering challenge. “We’ve done it in our collaborative apps, and some of our peers have as well,” says Teper. “But most applications don’t have real-time collaboration built into them. It’s really hard.”

ALL THE TOOLS

Live Share is designed to expand on the inherently real-time nature of a Teams call in ways that weren’t previously possible. It’s built on top of Microsoft Azure services designed to streamline the process of putting together a collaborative app. Fluid Framework, for example, helps developers construct such software using JavaScript, a language they’re probably already familiar with. “We’re actually hosting that application, and it’s aware of the people in the meeting and the security, and people can interact on it,” says Teper. “They can go back and forth on video or engineering diagrams together, as opposed to having two windows and paging back and forth between them.”

To demonstrate what’s possible, Microsoft gave me a preview of an ambitious Live Share app from industrial hardware and software maker Hexagon that lets coworkers examine, manipulate, and discuss 3D models together. The presenter can see from what angle each participant is looking at the model and use an onscreen pointer to direct attention. Rather than just passively viewing a static object, everybody can make changes to the model on the fly, as seen in this video:

Along with Hexagon, Microsoft’s initial list of third-party Live Share developers includes Frame.io, Skillsoft (seen in the video below), MakeCode, Accenture, Parabol, and Breakthru. That roster might or might not include anyone whose tools you’re eager to access within a Teams meeting. But Teper says that he expects an array of organizations to build on the Live Share platform, including purveyors of both specialized applications and more widely used offerings. He also thinks that some company will merely extend their existing products, while others will create useful new experiences and charge for them.

“The word ‘leapfrog’ is the most overused word,” says Teper. “But there is nothing else like this that lets a video-meeting sharing experience be truly interactive and gives you the underlying platform so you don’t have to build it all yourself. . . . Developers like both new technology that delivers better experiences, and the opportunity to make money from lots of users. And we have both with Teams.”

05.24.22

This Amazon car (Zoox) is built to challenge Uber, Bolt and others

BY Fast Company 5 MINUTE READ

I’ve seen the future, and it looks a lot like an old, horse-drawn “wagon.”

That’s not my analogy, but the way the eight-person design team behind Zoox so often describes their self-driving car. First founded in 2014 and acquired by Amazon in 2020 for $1.2 billion, Zoox has spent nearly the last decade building an autonomous vehicle from scratch. Their goal is not to sell the car, but to build the rideshare service of tomorrow to challenge Uber and Bolt.

Few manufacturers truly question how cars are designed. Despite the fact that electric cars need no front engines, and true self-driving vehicles won’t require front-facing seats, our autonomous vehicles of today are still modeled after conventional cars. Waymo retrofits Chrysler Pacifica minivans with lasers, computers, and all sorts of screens and sensors for this job, while Tesla has squeezed more discreet self-driving tech into its vehicles using cameras, but keeping the car’s classic silhouette.

Zoox, on the other hand, gave itself no such constraints, which has enabled the company to build a unique vehicle like none on the road–something that resembles human-sized toaster. The Zoox car is smaller than a BMW i3, and completely symmetrical front to back, allowing it to take passengers forward or in reverse without even turning around. (The symmetry also means the vehicle is built from fewer unique parts.) Large automatic doors slide open on each side of the vehicle so it’s as easy to enter as a sun room, while two bench seats face each other inside, like in a wagon. And yet, despite all these unconventional decisions, Zoox believes the entire vehicle will still receive a five-star crash rating before it launches on public roads.

“It’s the benefit of designing from the ground up,” says Chris Stoffel, director of studio engineering and industrial design team lead at Zoox, who walked us through some of the finer points of the design.

A WAGON DESIGNED LIKE A GIANT GADGET

In many ways, Zoox’s form is self-explanatory. It’s a wagon—a room on wheels—and, as such, it’s shaped like that, while the design cleverly channels air through its own wheel wells to stay aerodynamic.

Instead of being inspired by the silhouettes of vehicles, “we’re going for more of a product aesthetic, something well established in consumer electronics,” says Nahuel Battaglia, senior industrial design lead at Zoox. Indeed, despite its soft edges, the entire design reads gadgety, like you could shrink it to the size of your palm and play with it.

That’s only emphasized by the four sensor pods that stick out from each corner like antennas. The decision might seem lazy—why not integrate the Lidar depth camera and other sensors into the vehicle’s form? But the team frames their approach as a classic instance of form following function. Engineers needed to maximize the view of each sensor, and ensure the vehicle itself wasn’t blocking their view, so they requested a camera in each of the vehicle’s four corners. Each pod has 270-degree vision, which means their field of view overlaps in the sake of safer redundancy.

The other benefit of this overt pod design is that these are modular, complete with their own cleaning fluids to keep a clear view. Without being integrated into the body of the car, the pods can easily be pulled out for repair, or upgraded as technology advances. Zoox estimates its vehicle will operate for 400,000 miles, and as such, it has to be serviceable.

However, what’s less obvious about the exterior design is how it’s been built to communicate with pedestrians. The way we’ve learned to communicate with normal cars just won’t cut it for self-driving, because there’s no driver inside. Zoox’s unique vehicle body grabs someone’s attention, but the car itself is designed to elicit trust and broadcast its safety.

“It’s really about developing a language around self-driving cars,” says Stoffel. “We’re so used to, consciously or not, the way we interact with drivers and other objects, with the hand wave, the nod, the light flash.”

The vehicle features a 32-speaker array, which can actually beam sound to individual people within a 7-degree arc. “It was about smart communication and, in another sense, reducing noise pollution in cities,” says Stoffel. Instead of simply honking for the whole block to hear, the vehicle can chirp at someone who is crossing the street while looking at their phone. The quieter ride benefits everyone—including Zoox passengers who might be trying to sleep.

A PREDICTABLE, BUT CUSTOMIZABLE, INTERIOR

The experience inside the vehicle is just as intentional. And it really does start with the aforementioned bench seats, which have two pairs of riders facing one another rather than sitting in rows. In theory, the idea makes sense—we’ve seen it used in trains for decades.

“I found that to be a careful balance. In those scenarios where you’re facing someone and they are too close, it’s almost too intimate,” says Stoffel. “[But] the architecture really allows us to shove those seats farther out than people expect. It’s more like sitting in a lounge or at a table than a tight compartment.”

The seats themselves feature integrated screens for each person to choose music and tweak A/C, and they’re covered in a no-waste 3D-knitted textile. But what you won’t see are any seat adjustments or moving parts like articulating cup holders. That’s so Zoox offers a consistent feel every time you hop in.

“The experience is the same at 6 a.m. as 6 p.m.,” says Stoffel. “We always call that return-to state. If you have people coming in and out of the vehicle, it should always be the same.”

Yet the one catch with a bench design is its potential impact on passenger safety. Static benches usually hug the body less than form fitting chairs. “That means designing what looks like a couch . . . and having five-star safety!” says Stoffel. One breakthrough that made the design possible was a custom, horseshoe-shaped airbag, which deploys in accidents to wrap each bench up like a fragile item in bubble wrap.

Whereas the Zoox team believes they’ve figured out how to make this neutral, return-to state safe, they did work expression and customization into the interior through their spectacular “Celestial Headliner,” a ceiling with 600 individual LEDs that shine like stars in any color.

“Turned on at night, they are a really magical experience. We can use them for ambient lighting—they have a calming effect on the rider—and we could potentially use them for subtle notifications, like which doors are opening,” says Battaglia. He also imagines that as friends go out at night, they may book a full Zoox rather than sharing it. In these cases, the LEDs might even enter some controllable party mode for the evening. Anyone willing to spend a bit extra to rent the ride for themselves will be able to customize the vibe of riding in a Zoox.

“In the morning, you might want a serene commute. During the day, running errands is a different mood, and at night you want to go out, and that’s a different mood—this can do all that,” says Stoffel. “This is your ride, that’s the beauty of it. You don’t have to worry about owning the vehicle, but you get to enjoy this badass thing and make it your own . . . we’ve enabled the vehicle to be able to do that in the future as we roll it out.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach.

FastCompany

More like this: In search of better “Future of Work” for drivers on Uber

05.23.22

YouTube (Short form) answer to TikTok is gaining momentum

BY Fast Company 3 MINUTE READ

Last year, YouTube rolled out Shorts, the platform’s answer to the rising tide of short-form content.

It seemed inevitable that YouTube—the first popular digital video destination—would join the ranks of Instagram’s Reels and Snap’s Spotlight to try to keep pace with TikTok’s growing dominance. But launching products that mimic existing platforms hasn’t always panned out (RIP IGTV).

Shorts, though, is a bet that seems to be paying off.

YouTube recently announced that Shorts is now averaging more than 30 billion daily views, which is four times more than a year ago.

“We have the opportunity, as we continue to build this product, to really be a leader in this space,” says Kevin Ferguson, creator partnerships director for Shorts. “And the reason I believe that is because we are prioritizing creator needs and creator feedback.”

A big part of creators’s needs, of course, is getting paid.

Shorts launched alongside a $100 million creator fund. In the pool of eligible creators, 40% had never gotten paid by YouTube before. “For us, that’s really exciting because we’re paying this next generation of creators,” Ferguson says. He notes that the Shorts Fund is a bridge to more longterm, sustainable revenue streams, most notably building an ad business within Shorts, something YouTube is currently testing.

There is no plan as of yet to incorporate Shorts into the YouTube Partner Program, the gateway that creators have to cross to monetize their channels. To be eligible for the program, creators need at least 1,000 subscribers and 4,000 hours of watch time. But right now, watch time from Shorts content isn’t counted.

YouTube is pushing Shorts to creators as another tool to build a loyal audience, alongside VOD and live. Conceivably, there could be a rising class of YouTube creators exclusively focusing on Shorts, given the popularity of short-form content. So creating partner-program requirements specifically for Shorts could be a good idea, especially as TikTok is rolling its own solutions for supporting creators beyond its own fund.

Ferguson says that there’s nothing to announce yet along those lines with Shorts, but “we’re thinking through what is the best way to bring sustainable creator monetization to life for this platform, holistically.”

In addition to ideating around revenue streams to support Shorts, Ferguson is also working with creators to build out features for the platform.

Ferguson spearheads the YouTube Shorts Community, which provides select creators with such perks as events, workshops, and early access to new launches, as well as a direct line to in-house managers who give and receive feedback. “Sometimes we’ll hear, ‘Hey, X platform has this feature. I want you to bring that to Shorts.’ But what’s cool for us is, because YouTube is inherently a multi-format platform, we also get requests and ideas for things that can only be brought to life on YouTube,” Ferguson says.

For example, Remix, a feature that allows creators to cut one-to-five second clips of YouTube videos into their Shorts. Remix is similar to TikTok’s stitching feature, but leans on the frictionless nature of editing within the app and having access to YouTube’s massive trove of videos.

“The amount of content that can be unlocked for that type of storytelling is really unparalleled,” Ferguson says. “We’re seeing creators get really excited taking that video that they loved five years ago and bringing it to life again in their short-form video.”

TikTok is the undisputed champ of short-form content at the moment. But Ferguson welcomes competition and remains bullish on Shorts’s prospects.

“A robust ecosystem with multiple players in the short-form space is ultimately a good thing for creators, and it keeps us fresh,” he says. “I think a lot of times people equate short-form-video content with TikTok content. We’re still at the beginning of this thing. There’s an opportunity for us to continue to evolve what this format looks like in partnership with our creators and our users.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

KC IFEANYI covers entertainment and pop culture for Fast Company. Previously, KC was part of the Emmy Award-winning team at “Good Morning America,” where he was the social media producer.

FastCompany

The Future of McDonald’s without the golden “Arch“ in Russia

BY Fast Company 4 MINUTE READ

In a memorable scene from the 1988 Eddie Murphy vehicle Coming to America, the owner of a suspiciously familiar-looking fast-food spot called McDowell’s explains that despite a “little misunderstanding” with the world’s best-known burger chain, his place is totally different. McDonald’s sells a Big Mac, for instance, whereas McDowell’s serves a Big Mick (on a bun with no sesame seeds). Pointing to his logo—a bright yellow, curvy “M”—he deadpans: “They’ve got the Golden Arches. Mine are the Golden Arcs.”

This brief comedic riff on both the inescapable familiarity of McDonald’s branding and the vagaries of intellectual property law comes to mind because of the news this week that the Golden Arches will be leaving Russia permanently, and the chain is selling its locations to a current licensee in the market, Alexander Gover (who currently operates 25 locations in Siberia). According to CNBC, Gover will operate the company’s Russian locations “under a new brand.”

When the company announced it would be selling its Russian operations—and write-off up to $1.4 billion–it underscored that it “intends to initiate the process of ‘de-Arching’ those restaurants.” This means the new owner can’t use “McDonald’s name, logo, branding, and menu,” and that the company intends to hold onto its trademarks in Russia.

While the phrase “de-Arching” may sound slightly absurd, the idea of fully unbranding McDonald’s in Russia actually sounds like a fascinating challenge. To be sure, its other assets—locations, employees, a supply chain, etc.— are real. But we’re talking about one of the most storied, potent, and familiar brands in the history of capitalism. What exactly is a de-Arched McDonald’s? And how much might the answer end up being, well, some version of McDowell’s?

In response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, McDonald’s announced it was putting its 847 locations in Russia on a sort of pause back in March, even as it continued to pay its 62,000 employees there. (The company owns and operates 84% of those locations; the rest are run by franchisees.) And the symbolic significance of even that interim move was undeniable, and influenced other Western firms. The decision now to unwind entirely raises questions for other Western mega-brands that have paused operations, like Coca-Cola and Yum (whose portfolio includes Pizza Hut and KFC).

That said, the McDonald’s brand holds a particularly significant place in Russia: It’s been widely noted that the opening of the first Moscow McDonald’s back in 1990, just months after the fall of the Berlin Wall, was an enormously symbolic event, precisely because it is one of a handful of brands that stands not only for itself but for global capitalism in general. (Famously, that opening was mobbed, and the chain continued to do strong business in the formerly communist nation for the next 32 years.)

No doubt this has contributed to the Russian government’s sensitivity about big Western brands pulling up stakes. In March, The Wall Street Journal reported that Russian prosecutors were threatening to “seize assets of companies that withdraw from the country,” McDonald’s included. The threat included seizing trademarks. Official Russian sources denied making such threats, but the government has indicated that it might simply ignore the intellectual property claims of businesses from “unfriendly” countries, and politicians bandied about the possibility of simply nationalizing some exiting Western businesses.

The agreement with Gover presumably rules out such extreme scenarios. But it will be interesting to follow what Gover’s un-Arched branding strategy might be. Certainly there were hints, during the company’s pause before deciding to pull out entirely, that being as McDonald’s-ish as possible might come into play.

After all, the brand still seems popular with Russian consumers despite the company’s decision to abandon the market. According to Reuters, at least some of the franchised locations have actually remained open and have “seen a pick up in business since McDonald’s closed its [directly owned] outlets.” (In a downer echo of the chain’s arrival in Russia, the news that it was exiting for good sparked lines outside at least one of the remaining locations, as customers ordered up “what may be their last Big Mac.”)

Not long after McDonald’s suspended operations, The Washington Post reported that a domestic fast food outfit, Uncle Vanya, filed for a trademark on “a yellow and red logo [that] looks almost identical to the iconic Golden Arches of McDonald’s, but tilted 90 degrees to the right.” This was later withdrawn, but other decidedly familiar filings (including one for “McDuck”) have followed.

The whole episode highlights how much meaning and value a brand can express. On the most basic, everyday level, McDonald’s customers don’t just want “a burger,” they want a McDonald’s burger. Part of that involves basic quality assurances, but there’s also something more abstract: the idea of McDonald’s.

Some have argued that the company’s decision puts a last nail in the coffin of the famous (gimmicky) theory that no two countries with McDonald’s outlets would go to war against each other. But in a way, it’s actually evidence in the theory’s favor: With two of its global market’s nation-states in what looks to be a protracted conflict, the company decided one of those territories had to be abandoned. The opening of McDonald’s in Russia symbolized the beginning of a new era of peace; its departure signals that era’s conclusion.

One of the questions McDonald’s leadership reportedly focused on these last few months was: Is continuing to operate in Russia good for the brand? The answer was no. That’s why the details of just what “de-Arched” means is going to define how Gover proceeds. Sure, he’s apparently agreed to operate under a “new brand.” But will there be something a bit familiar about it all the same? While McDonald’s wants all traces of its brand history erased, a connection to that history is clearly part of what makes it valuable. What’s Russian for “Golden Arcs”?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Rob Walker writes Branded, a weekly column about marketing and branding. He also writes about design, business, and other subjects.

FastCompany

05.22.22

The employee ownership movement is coming, are you in our out?

BY Fast Company 5 MINUTE READ

A dragon entering the midst of the employee ownership field—that’s how Jim Bonham, head of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan (ESOP) Association, described the splashy April announcement of a new nonprofit, Ownership Works, which says it aims to create $20 billion in worker wealth through employee ownership over the next decade. Spearheaded by Pete Stavros of KKR, the nonprofit is a collaboration between 60 organizations, including private equity firms, philanthropic leaders, banks, pension funds, and worker advocates.

“This effort is about providing entry and mid-level workers with access to a wealth creation tool—equity ownership—without a trade-off for wages or other benefits,” said Stavros. “At scale, this movement has the potential to build billions of dollars of wealth for millions of working families.”

Bonham is not so sure. He describes the project, in an ESOP Association publication, as “a cheap way to diffuse heat” on the private equity field and “very dangerous for those already providing true employee ownership.” We too are skeptical, like many others we’ve spoken to who have worked years to expand worker ownership through Employee Stock Ownership Plans (ESOPs) and worker cooperatives.

“We Are a Movement,” the Ownership Works site boldly proclaims. But is this initiative joining the movement, or co-opting it?

Authentic employee ownership strategies, according to Diane Ives, program officer at the Kendeda Fund, “need to be firmly grounded in democratic decision-making, building employee voice and agency, and promoting shared prosperity.” These characteristics are most associated with worker cooperatives (of which there are about 650 in the U.S.), and the ESOP trusts at the nearly 6,000 privately held companies that typically hold 30% or more ownership, benefiting 2 million workers.

Worker co-ops and ESOPs offer long-term employee ownership—unlike the equity grants that Ownership Works envisions, which may last only three to five years. Workers at cooperatives own the entire business and vote for the board. At ESOPs, a trustee represents workers’ interests.

The difference between short-term equity and real employee ownership can be seen in the stories of Gibson Guitars, taken over by KKR in 2018, and Taylor Guitars, which transitioned to 100% employee ownership in 2021. At Gibson, KKR piled $250 million in new debt on the company, using $225 million of that for a special dividend to the private equity fund. At around the same time, it announced $7 million in profit sharing for Gibson’s estimated 800 employees, which is less than $9,000 each. KKR executives stand to profit massively more. In 2017, the last year for which data is publicly available, four KKR executives earned an average of $167 million each, making them four of the country’s 10 top earners in that year, according to Bloomberg.

At Taylor Guitars, by contrast, an ESOP trust, not a private equity fund, now controls the firm, which reported revenue of $122 million in 2019. Rather than a 5-year-time horizon, the buyout deal involved 10-year financing from a Canadian pension fund, which is enjoying stable returns suitable for its beneficiaries. Taylor is not hamstrung by excess debt. Once the loan is paid off, the firm’s 1,200 employees will own the firm free and clear and can enjoy potential financial upside over the long run.

Real employee ownership is about worker empowerment. Private equity, by contrast, is known for the damage it has done to workers. The 19 private equity funds partnering in the Ownership Works project—including KKR, Goldman Sachs, Warburg Pincus, and Apollo—are known for enriching the very wealthy while overleveraging some of America’s greatest brands, stripping companies of their assets, loading companies with debt, and leaving workers without jobs. Examples of over-leveraged companies forced into bankruptcy by private equity include Toys “R” Us, Hertz, Payless Shoes, and J.Crew.

“They’re doing what big capital does: take over a concept like employee ownership and make it their own in order to make more money,” said Ian MacFarlane, president of EA Engineering, a $140 million environmental engineering firm that is 100% employee owned and a B Corporation.

MacFarlane describes his company as “a living system.” He argues that private equity is applying rote rules for “profit maximizing,” what he calls “the easy button.” “It’s harder to manage for stakeholders, to balance different concerns, listen to multiple voices,” he says. Private equity’s decision-making, he continues, “would destroy our culture and ecological mission.”

Some workers can get a big bump from the Ownership Works model. In a deal announced this week, KKR sold C.H.I. Overhead Doors for $3 billion. The workers who received equity in the firm will each, on average, earn $175,000. That’s impressive. It’s also noteworthy that the payouts impact just 800 workers. On the other hand, at another KKR portfolio firm, BrightSpring Health, 50,000 workers are struggling to make ends meet on wages as low as $8 per hour.

Ownership Works is not creating companies truly owned by workers over the long term, with worker voice in governance. However well-meaning the Ownership Works project, it is at risk of becoming a new form of greenwashing—creating a few social benefits while driving massively more wealth to the wealthy.

No one we spoke to doubted the sincerity of Pete Stavros and his commitment to workers. The trouble is, with wealth inequality in our nation so stratospheric, the bits of wealth this project proposes throwing to workers simply exposes the ruthlessness of the whole private equity field.

The Ownership Works project says it will be setting standards for employee ownership, but thus far, a spokesperson says, the only requirement is that ownership be “broad, meaningful, and free to workers earning less than $100,000 annually.” Such standards do not put guardrails in place to ensure that these transactions are designed to optimally benefit workers and limit wealth extraction, as do the existing “Guidelines for Equitable Employee Ownership Transitions.” These guidelines, developed by The Democracy Collaborative, the Soros family office, and Open Society Foundations, in consultation with dozens of leaders in the field, were designed to become the standard for employee ownership finance.

If KKR and Ownership Works are interested in reducing inequality, they need to look at who is actually creating value and who should capture it. All the companies held by the 19 private equity firms should pay fair wages; offer meaningful, long-term employee ownership; and incorporate worker voice in governance, says Andrea Dehlendorf, executive director of United for Respect and a member of the Ownership Works Labor Advocacy Leadership Council. Her organization’s website emphasizes that more than 60% of retail job losses have been at firms owned by private equity and hedge funds. Dehlendorf believes that the pandemic has shifted the playing field and created an opening to press for greater reforms to benefit workers.

In addition to implementing Dehlendorf’s reforms, the funds should all exit some companies they hold to 100% worker ownership via ESOPs or worker cooperatives. They should also make these worker-owned companies B Corporations. That’s employee ownership at its best. It’s a model of next generation private enterprise.

Steps like these would mean Ownership Works is not about turbocharging capitalism, but about laying the path to a democratic economy—an economy where enduring ownership designs authentically serve the many, not just the few.

Marjorie Kelly is distinguished senior fellow at The Democracy Collaborative (TDC), coauthor with Ted Howard of The Making of a Democratic Economy. Karen Kahn is editor of TDC’s Employee Ownership News, where a series of commentaries on Ownership Works are being published. Employee Ownership News is continuing the conversation on Ownership Works and private equity’s role in employee ownership.

05.19.22

How will we work in the Metaverse?

BY Fast Company 3 MINUTE READ

In the context of work, the digital divide has become less about access to devices and connectivity and more about skills and mindset. Many experienced professionals have never learned more than the rudimentary basics of email, web search, and Microsoft Office. Instead, they lean hard on nearby colleagues or the IT help desk when things go wrong.

By contrast, young people have already demonstrated a competitive edge in the virtual workplace. They come equipped with a more intuitive grasp of digital technology and the initiative to troubleshoot problems via YouTube tutorials, social media, and subreddits.

As a generation, they’re also bigger gamers. As more and more work takes place in virtual reality—and one does not have to share the somewhat eccentric vision of the metaverse Mark Zuckerberg articulated last year to believe that it will—being familiar with massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) like Fortnite and Roblox, not to mention the ability to manage multiple digital identities, is set to make that edge keener still.

Much of the metaverse is still to be built. VR, of course, has long been used in training for certain physical jobs, from astronauts and pilots to law enforcement, surgery, and manufacturing. When it comes to specialist machinery or complex locations, the relative safety and cost advantages of training virtually are obvious. But it is in knowledge work, from software engineering to law to design, where the changes will be most profound.

HOW VIRTUAL WORKPLACES CAN IMPROVE COMMUNICATION

For most people, remote working during the pandemic has been characterized by alt-tabbing between communications apps and videoconferencing platforms such as Slack, Teams, and Miro. And there is certainly a lot of room for improvement there.

Academic studies have found that collaborative work among colleagues suffers when they work remotely. Exchanges over email or Slack increasingly replace real-time in-person conversations, hampering communication.

Google itself has claimed that informal chats at coffee machines and lunch tables in its campus were responsible for innovations such as Street View and Gmail. But with remote working, this kind of serendipitous encounter all but disappears.

And of course there are costs to remote working, in terms of individual well-being too. Stanford University researchers have found that so-called Zoom fatigue is driven by a combination of intense eye contact, lack of mobility, self-consciousness about one’s own video feed, and the cognitive demands of needing to give exaggerated feedback to signal understanding, agreement, or concern.

Technological advances mean solutions to these problems related to remote working are becoming possible. Collaboration software such as Meta’s Horizon Workrooms and Microsoft Mesh, which allow colleagues to meet as avatars in VR or take part in a real-world meeting as a photo-realistic hologram, are already available.

The metaverse 1.0 will no doubt see organizations creating persistent VR workplace environments, in which employees can interact in real time as embodied avatars. VR versions of office spaces can be designed to encourage chance encounters and corridor chats.

Imagine, for example, if going from one remote meeting to another involved leaving the conference room and crossing a bustling virtual atrium. That might sound far-fetched but bear in mind that Korean PropTech company Zigbang has already opened a 30-floor VR office called Metapolis. Employees choose an avatar and navigate to their desks via elevators and corridors. When they meet a colleague’s avatar, their webcam and mic are activated so they’re able to have a conversation. The webcam and mic then turn off automatically as their avatar walks away.

Meanwhile, the ability to use and read body language and actively participate in group discussions by scribbling Post-it notes or drawing on a virtual whiteboard should make remote meetings in VR more engaging and less sedentary. They require much more active use of the neck, shoulders, arms, and hands than a typical hour on Zoom.

HOW TO WORK AS AN AVATAR

It seems likely that a new set of workplace norms will emerge as the metaverse develops. Team games, including virtual bowling nights and virtual ping-pong tournaments, might supplant Zoom drinks as the default remote working social event.

When it comes to hiring, meanwhile, VR could bring distinct benefits. “Blind” auditions have been shown to significantly increase the representation of female musicians in symphony orchestras. It follows that interviewing as an avatar might diminish the effect of bias—unconscious or otherwise—against people on the basis of their gender, age, or appearance.

Just as custom “skins” (outfits) are a feature of many MMOs, in the virtual world of work there may well be demand for creativity in virtual fashion and accessories too, as people seek to express their personal brand within the constraints of professional dress codes for avatars. Gucci has already sold virtual hats, handbags, and sunglasses on the MMO platform Roblox.

Young people have been the worst affected by the disruption COVID-19 has caused to the job market. While some struggled with working productively from a shared house or their parents’ homes, others were scammed into joining companies that did not even exist.

Nonetheless, the pandemic has also brought exciting glimpses of how remote working might evolve. Due to public health concerns and climate pressure, the latter is here to stay. As it develops into the metaverse, it will continue to bring capabilities that are concentrated among younger people to the fore.

Sam Gilbert is an affiliated researcher with the Bennett Institute for Public Policy at the University of Cambridge.

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

FastCompany

05.18.22

Mouse for people with disabilities reinvented by Microsoft

BY Fast Company 5 MINUTE READ

The mouse looks tiny. It’s a small square, reminiscent of one of those novelty mice sold to people who refuse to use the trackpad on their computer. It has two buttons and a scroll wheel, and when Microsoft claims that this new mouse has been designed alongside people with disabilities, I’m skeptical.

And then Gabi Michel, director of accessible accessories at Microsoft, demonstrates how this tiny mouse has been designed to slide perfectly into its “tail”—a large ergonomic grip that your hand can grasp almost like a ball, switching from left- to right-handed configurations with a simple squeeze. Then she pops it out and slides it into a different tail (this one with large finger indentations for people with tremors) and then another (with a longer and even more pronounced set of finger indentations).

“No two people are going to be the same,” Michel says. “Everyone needs a different solution.”

The mouse is part of Microsoft’s new Adaptive Accessories line, a kit of tools meant to provide an easier mouse and keyboard experience for people with disabilities—on a PC or phone. The entire kit consists of three main components: the mouse, a button that has programmable pressure sensors underneath, and a hub to connect them all. The hub can be used with the mouse, a keyboard, plus any other assistive devices one might have, whether they’re made by Microsoft or not (wirelessly via Bluetooth or through the hub’s many ports). Everything will be available later this year for an as-yet-undisclosed price.

While small, the accessories signal that Microsoft plans to enable accessibility not by building any one perfect design, but by designing platforms for easy user customization.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF MICROSOFT’S INCLUSIVE DESIGN STRATEGY

The project is landmark in that it’s the first assistive hardware that Microsoft has designed for the core PC user, but it’s hardly Microsoft’s first foray into building assistive devices. You can trace the lineage of this hardware all the way back to Microsoft’s investment in inclusive design in 2016, when Kat Holmes and the late August de los Reyes helped pioneer a new approach to design, in which designers created products alongside prospective users.

Then in 2019, the company released the Xbox Adaptive Controller, a supersized game pad for people who lack fine motor control. (Microsoft later teamed with Logitech on a series of chunky buttons to add to this controller.) Last year, Microsoft released a series of simple stickers to make its Surface computer easier for anyone, regardless of ability, to use.

Microsoft even constructed a new Inclusive Tech Lab, where people with various disabilities offer feedback and ideas to Microsoft’s designers. The company notes that 1 billion people around the world are living with a disability, and that almost everyone will encounter times of disability in their lives.

As important as the Xbox and Surface are to Microsoft, they pale in comparison to the gargantuan industry of PCs—340 million new PCs shipped in 2021 alone. And 1.3 billion smartphones shipped over that time, for which these products also work. So it is safe to look at the new Adaptive Accessories line as a codification of Microsoft’s strategy.

“We don’t want people to adapt to the device; we want the device to adapt to the person,” Michel says.

Nowhere is that idea more evident than in the new Microsoft Adaptive Button. Like the mouse, it’s a small square, and it features eight pressure sensors on top. With the twist of a hand, you can swap different button designs. That means you can put one big button on top of the mouse, or you can put a joystick on top of it. The default mode is an eight-direction pad that looks straight off an Xbox Elite controller.

That recognizability is by design, so that when most people look at the button, they’ll understand what it’s capable of. Pressing it gives someone the ability to move a cursor with precision in any direction. And yet, each of those directional buttons is also programmable, so users can customize them to do anything from a simple keystroke to complex macros.

“I have a macro that lets me send an email with one press,” Michel says. “It opens Outlook, I dictate, then it sends the email.”

Despite the button’s capacity to support eight directions, Microsoft suggests some people might want just two buttons. So designers created a button that looks something like a big pill of ibuprofen, with a line splitting the middle of the circle, turning one button into two. Why two buttons when you could have eight?

“It is definitely something that has come from the input from the community,” Michel says. “One of the people who was in our beta group is someone who struggles with using a scroll wheel. So what she’s doing is, she takes the dual button, flips it vertically, and uses it as a scroll wheel [using the buttons for up and down].”

Microsoft is listening to feedback from its users and trying to think of every possible need. That comes down to the core ergonomics of its devices. They’re relatively small, and require the ability to press tiny indentations and twist in a specific motion to handle them. That small size was another intentional decision based on community feedback. Namely, everyone travels, and people with disabilities are often lugging around extra equipment to do so.

As for installation, Michel says, “We have a group of beta participants using it who are setting it up on their own,” though she mentions that in some cases users will need assistance from an ally.

I imagine assistance will be especially important for many users when they need to recharge these devices. Because instead of using capacitive contact charging, like we see on Apple’s Magsafe charger for iPhone, the hub, mouse, and buttons must be plugged into a tiny USB-C port for more power. Knowing that I routinely struggle with these ports as an able-bodied person, I’m cautious of how the wider community will react.

WHAT’S NEW? IT’S CUSTOMIZABLE BY DESIGN

Consumer demand to customize mice and keyboards is hardly limited to people with disabilities. We all customize our work setups. “I guarantee you my mouse and keyboard setup is different from yours,” Michel says. “The mouse [that’s] comfortable to my hand, even a traditional hand, is probably different than yours.”

Because people with disabilities have even more specific needs, Microsoft is providing CAD files for anyone to design and 3D print their own add-ons for their mouse and button controller. That may sound like Microsoft is punting the problem to someone else, but it isn’t. Microsoft is offering many printable options that it has already designed via the 3D-printing company Shapeways, and everything blue you’ve seen in this story has been 3D printed.

Microsoft insists that 3D printing was not selected for its cost savings. Yet it’s easy to understand the benefit of Microsoft leaving some of its own official accessories to be produced on demand: They might not be purchased in such vast numbers that it makes sense for the company to produce costly injection molds and manage the inventory to sell them. But that’s precisely what one-off prints are good for.

Enabling one-off prints is also a taste of how Microsoft is willing to quell its own IP protection for a greater good. Traditionally, the company has been strict about who can make official Xbox accessories—only offering the option to license its wireless controller technology in 2016. But supporting modification rather than stopping it is the natural consequence of Microsoft standing by its inclusive ethos.

It’s also part of a larger trend in which tech companies are (slowly, hesitantly) ceding control to ensure loyal, long-term customers, much as we’ve seen Apple allow consumers to repair more of its products.

“We embraced it, and we embraced knowing it’s not one-size-fits-all,” Michel says. “It has to be one-size-fits-one if you want to truly remove the barrier and empower every person, which is our company mission.”

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company who has written about design, technology, and culture for almost 15 years. His work has appeared at Gizmodo, Kotaku, PopMech, PopSci, Esquire, American Photo and Lucky Peach.

FastCompany