From Erika, Fiona, Arnold, Clark, Cheryl and Alexa
“It’s very exciting”, he says, “I’m figuring out how the system works and figuring out what stories I want to tell.” He looks forward to creating video-style infographics and using his perspective as a designer to inform Collective Invention’s work.
“It’s easy to say that you’re going out and saving the entire world. We need to be thinking about making concrete changes at the level of the individual.”
Our future depends on reinventing and re-energizing our social institutions and bonds. Progress relies on both new technologies and new social arrangements to liberate and direct human creativity, knowledge, and energy. At times, technologies have catalyzed social progress. Fire and cooking enabled more efficient nutrition, and freed up time for exploration. Roads and viaducts sped transportation and improved public health. Drawing, writing, and later the printing press enabled the accumulation and spread of knowledge, as well as abstract thought itself. The internet hyper-accelerated our global capacity to create and share information, commerce, and understanding. But social innovation has played an even greater role in spurring progress–including breakthrough technologies. Agriculture began in small groups, but its organized spread formed the basis for markets and money, and the creation of governmental, religious, and educational institutions. The erosion of monarchies and the rise of merchant classes sped trade in goods and ideas. The American constitution encoded and accelerated self government. Public health measures radically increased the average human life span, and universal education spurred rapid social and economic development.
In the past two decades, we’ve seen seen explosive growth in bio-, info-, and nano-technologies. But in many respects our social structures–in education, health, and government itself–have not kept pace. While the potential and need for social progress is now greater than ever, its record in recent years has lagged. Institutionalized structures and practices that reward waste and pollution have caused massive environmental destruction. The concentration and deregulation of financial power has led to worldwide economic crisis. Billions of children and adults who could contribute to future progress are malnourished and poorly educated. Fortunately, we believe that a new force for social innovation is being born, one that we call “collective invention.”
Many people have said this before, notably Peter Drucker, who argued the case for innovation for several decades, but organizations that do not innovate as part of their regular cycle of business will stagnate internally, lose touch with their markets – current and potential, and ultimately fail.
However, as those of us who work in the innovation space know, it has been hard for some organizations to see the need to innovate when times have been good, and they have been achieving success via traditional channels. Innovation, by definition leading to something new and emergent, is hard to measure. Some worry about an uncontrollable, resource hungry, process, without understanding the disciplines of innovation. Others worry about a rise in beanbag futures, seeing their previously diligent employees suddenly wearing casual clothes, lying around on comfortable furniture, and, in dreaming up the future, losing sight of the core business.
Current times are forcing changes upon us. As ever, we have more choices than we think we do. We can slip into fear as individuals, retrenchment as organizations, and isolationism as nations – requiring the creation of scapegoats, and the loss of rights and liberties. Or, we can use our creativity, skills and generosity to change the ways in which we do business, consume our resources, share our wealth and our responsibilities as problem-solvers.
The capacity to innovate is the capacity to adapt swiftly to changing circumstances whilst also moving out to meet and co-create the future. It’s the capacity to work simultaneously on today, tomorrow, and ten, twenty, thirty, one hundred years out. (Or more, see www.longnow.org). And in working in multiple time frames, the capacity to bring the paradigms of the future back to the work of now, rather than carrying the paradigms of now everywhere as the unconscious filters of our experience.
Fiona Hovenden is an ethnographer and partner at Collective Invention, working on change, social research, prototyping, and social influences on the design and use of technologies
Arnold Wasserman recently participated in a Design Leaders Interview conducted by TAXI DESIGN NETWORK in September 2008.
Hello Arnold. You are a strong proponent of “expertise is the killer of innovation”. What is the most effective way, in your opinion, to “unlearn” all the knowledge built up over time?
The question of expertise vis a vis innovation is much more complex than this flip statement that I made within a particular conversational context. Expertise, or mastery of a particular field of knowledge or practice, is crucial to all human endeavor. I only want to be operated on by an expert surgeon and fly next to a jet engine or cross a bridge designed and built by expert engineers.
What I was trying to point to is the idea that carried to extreme, expertise can become a mind trap, inhibiting the exploration of “crazy” paths of creative imagination. It is all in how the expert holds his knowledge – as a provisional launch-pad for ever-further inquiry or as absolute law to be defended against any challenge.
For example, in 1714, the British Parliament offered a money prize to anybody that could solve the urgent problem of accurately finding the longitude at sea. Sir Isaac Newton, then president of the Royal Society and world-acknowledged genius of science and mathematics, said that a solution would have to be based on celestial navigation. Solutions based on time-keeping would not work because it was theoretically impossible to build a watch that would keep exact enough time. John Harrison, a modest clockmaker, after 20 years of laborious trail and error making and testing successive prototypes, produced a marine chronometer that kept time with the precision Sir Isaac Newton deemed impossible. Harrison’s innovation in navigation made possible the successful voyages that gave rise to the British Empire.
Sir Isaac Newton is not dead. He pops up in every designer’s career with dependable regularity.
Organizations are similarly blocked by “what they know to be so.” The better an organization gets at doing what made it successful, the worse it gets at seeing what is coming next. Our consultancy has developed a broad repertoire of techniques to help organizations learn how to unstick creative innovation by embedding practices that connect human insight to strategic foresight.
Perhaps the most important single practice is this: However expert one is, one must always approach each new problem with what Zen philosophers call “Beginner’s Mind.”
Arnold S. Wasserman is is a pioneer in the practice of user-centered, multidisciplinary product development as a competitive business strategy and partner at Collective Invention.