By Christian Villum, Entrepreneur and Digital Strategy Consultant
Just imagine that you are sitting on the floor with a big pile of LEGO bricks. A voice tells you: “build a house.” So you get started. You don’t know exactly what form the house is going to take, but you start building anyway. And sure enough, before long you have built a house. Perhaps not the prettiest one ever built, but a house nonetheless. If a passer-by were to walk past they would nod appreciatively and no doubt concurs: “that’s a house, nice.”
How did you know where to start? How did you manage to build something when the objective was so diffuse? The answer is because as a child, no matter whether you played with LEGO or not, you learned enough about the function and the principles behind the bricks to be able to build basic things on command. Are you a world champion? No, you’re not. But you can certainly build.
Now imagine that you’re teleported to a construction site where you are surrounded by building materials. This time the voice says: “build a real house” to which you respond: “I don’t know how.” The voice replies: “okay, then draw the house on paper and tell me how you want to build it.”
You will then most likely draw a rough sketch depicting walls, windows, a roof, and foundation, and you will describe where you want the plugs, the cables in the walls, the pipes, and so on. You might not be able to build a house, but you can describe almost everything about how one’s put together. Once again, these are things you know even if you’ve never once taken a trowel in your hands before.
Now imagine you’re transported in front of a a computer. The voice says: “build a digital service.” And that’s where you hit the wall. Digital service? You haven’t the faintest idea where to start. Even though you might have a fairly good understanding of what AI, 3D printers and VR are all about, you have no idea how to go about building these things.
I’m sure you can see what I’m driving at here: the fact that we as citizens – and especially as business leaders – should know more about the building blocks of digitization in order that we may help to build them. Bingo. You’ve heard it before: we need more people who can write code. But we also know that it is difficult to find the time and the motivation to realize this ambition. So we shrug our shoulders and say pass. But there is another and a considerably easier path. One very similar to the LEGO blocks you know already.
The American designer John Maeda has been quoted for saying: “before you can get machines to do what you want, you’d better learn to speak their language.” By language, he doesn’t mean that we all need to learn how to understand computer code. Rather it’s about doing what you learned as a child to do with LEGO bricks. To learn just enough about their function and principles to understand how they can be connected together and built into something else. And don’t worry, nobody expects you to become the next world champion in LEGO building. But rather just to understand how we can assemble things together at a level that is just functional enough for those who walk past to recognize what you have built.
Maeda calls this computational design. He has written the book How to Speak Machine (2019) which is highly recommendable for a non-technical audience. Start there and you will soon realize that building digital services is perhaps not the alien concept it may appear to be at first. Then the next step is to go back to the LEGO pile – because now it’s time to start building.
This is possible because there is a new way to build digital technology which is based on the same principles you know from LEGO bricks. The phenomenon is known as no-code and involves tools that allow you to build fairly advanced digital technology without the need for technical background. You simply click things together. Want to train your own algorithm? Then use Teachable Machine or Obviously AI. Want to build a mobile app? Look no further than Glide or Bubble. Need to build a web platform? Then Webflow or Notion is your path forward. Do you need everything to communicate? Zapier or Automate.io have got you covered.
Disclaimer – you can’t build everything with no-code. But just like with your childhood LEGO building, you can easily learn enough to take yourself from diffuse objective to functional prototype. You won’t be winning any competitions, but you’ll be able to do anything to get on-lookers – i.e. your customers – nodding in recognition as they say: “Now that’s a digital service, how cool!”
The LEGO bricks of digitization are waiting for you.
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