The parable of the National Grid

Learning from the past, to help design the future of the BBC.


Paul Crowley

Paul Crowley

BBC UX&D Alumni

‘The parable of the National Grid’ film made with Complete Control

Motivating designers to work with established patterns and conventions whilst designing the future is hard.

And it's not because designers are a bunch of primadonnas. It's because our measures of success seem contradictory. We need to innovate, we need to move fast and we need to become more efficient.

Look at the environment we're in.

We're in a time of rapid, accelerating change. We need to design a new type of organisation. Technology is changing behaviour. It's changing expectations. So we need to innovate. We need to experiment. And we need to move fast.

But the economic climate for the BBC is changing too. Everything must be done as cost effectively and efficiently as possible. So we need consistency. We need design patterns and standards that speed up the design of new experiences. Let's not solve the same problem twice. Innovation, experimentation, moving fast. Cost effectiveness, efficiency, standards. They're all important. But are they compatible?

Innovation, experimentation, moving fast. Cost effectiveness, efficiency, standards. They're all important. But are they compatible?

We need to innovate and experiment? Yep. We need to move faster? Sure thing. But we also need to be more consistent and efficient when we're doing it? You betcha.

GEL needs to step up.

Efficiency requires consistency. Innovation requires embracing, building on and remixing the ideas of others. It requires experimentation. But it also requires collective learning.

And the story of the National Grid shows perfectly, how the right amount of consistency speeds up innovation. By designing all experiences with common foundations, by making all experimentation visible and re-usable, and by making patterns and components available as code, GEL will step up and into the future.

Efficiency. Expression. And innovation.

Video transcript:

Britain. The late nineteenth century.

Homes, streets and cities are dimly illuminated by the flicker of gaslight.

Electricity can be generated reliably.

But there's no practical use for it.

Then, the electric light-bulb arrives.

And with it, comes an attractive and useful application for electricity.

With it comes a change to the world.

But to get electric light, you need a generator.

And without standards, generators produce different flavours of electricity.

And this means making bulbs in all shapes, sizes and specifications.

Meanwhile, seeing that electricity will transform the world, the Government passes an Act to solve Britain's inefficient and fragmented supply.

And by 1938, the National Grid is working as a fully standardised system.

Standardisation quickly pays off.

The Grid transforms the country into a marketplace for innovation.

Empowered by standards, the development and exchange of ideas grows rapidly.

New products and markets come into being. Sales of electrical goods take off.

Vacuum cleaners, fans, fires, washing machines, radios and televisions transform everyday life.

Standardisation had created a platform for innovation.

At scale.

And we now face a similar opportunity.

The BBC is a creative powerhouse.

The internet has created new opportunities for that creativity; new opportunities for innovation.

And GEL, our Global Experience Language, is how we make the most of that opportunity.

Innovation isn't thwarted by standardisation.

Innovation thrives on standardisation.

And through GEL, we combine standardisation and creative potential to great effect.

Through GEL we focus our creative energy exceptionally effectively.

Through GEL, we create a platform for the re-use and multiplication of ideas.

A platform for innovation. At scale.

Where next?


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