To innovate is to create something new. To change something established. It’s been PCH’s business since 2006 but also an internal studio pledge that we uphold — sometimes by design, sometimes by necessity. We took some time to reflect on how our innovation journey has changed not only what we make but what we make it for, and why.
When our studio founder, Stefan Liske, left his position at Volkswagen to create something new of his own, he sought to challenge the very creative culture he had cut his teeth on. Rather than innovate for innovation’s sake, PCH’s process was to be one that celebrated the value of experience, fostered creative confidence and looked for ways to use technology to make the world more beautiful. And digital breakthroughs of the time provided the tools with which to do it.
Exponential technologies, future-mapping; radical labs; world building; design fiction; highly networked, ever-differentiating, everything-centric: a buzzword buffet that provided the labels and the license for an era of hedonistic innovation.
For a freshly-forged studio with a menagerie of experts, from engineers and scientists to artists and anthropologists, it was the perfect time to define and push boundaries. But this innate drive to chase the new and impossible — for inspiration, growth, efficiency, even rebellion — can be as much destructive as it is creative, and, in its zeal, often neglects our human potential and purpose to thrive.
Acknowledging a problem
Since the dawn of industrialization, for every groundbreaking, valuable development, are volumes of vainglorious gadgetry and wasteful or polluting materials and technologies. Products that don’t consider their value or impact beyond the short-term, how they might be deconstructed, or decomposed. The YOLO-economy.
Even with our own mission to engender a fiercely optimistic vision in our studio output, we felt that something was out of sync. In the course of unbridled innovation, one creates chasms of privilege, of relatability, of accessibility. One leaves people and Nature behind.
And in the end: it adds up. We are left with a society cleaved by inequality, and an environment gutted of its resources and heaving under the weight of human-made excess. Scenes of city air, grey with smog; of oceans darkened by shoals of trash; of riots; of forest fires; of floods.
But, as Nature bears decades of extractive industry ever more visibly, there emerges, in true Nature-style, an equal and opposing force, a growing collective consciousness of humanity’s actions and their reverberations. Within PCH, this manifested itself in a total innovation of purpose.
Exploring the unknown
Much like other studios in our field, we are well-versed in methodologies designed to inspire imaginative solutions for companies looking to disrupt their markets. But these methods get so entrenched as to defy the very nature of innovation, that is, they stop being challenged for their merit. They stop changing. We stop learning. And the ‘disruption’ ends up extending to our ecosystems.
Overwhelmed by the social, environmental and economic signs that our core systems were broken, and our own, if indirect, role in enabling the problem, we took a step back. How could we go from a disruption-first innovation studio to a healing-first technology studio?
We started to look beyond our ‘conventional’ work and ways of working. Instead of first trying to decode what we didn’t know and codify our process; we resolutely slowed down and allowed ourselves to first feel, rather than know, our way. We met shamans and participated in traditional rituals, delved into quantum physics, holistic health and education frameworks, the science of consciousness, new concepts of time and reality, ancient craft, laws of nature and the universe — outside the relative comfort of the familiar and the material, we were humbled by the immense scale of wisdom, knowledge and tools that existed as much in the past, as in the unchartered or unheeded present.
When we immersed ourselves in this panoramic body of research into the Sustainability of Being, we reconnected with our elemental creativity and derived a truly holistic approach to problem solving. One that placed planetary wellbeing in its rightful place: front and centre.
Change is never easy and even welcome change can be uncomfortable — especially when one has to painstakingly unpick patterns that were just as painstakingly made. But while humans can’t unlearn what they know, they can better understand what they still need to learn.
For us, key to making more than a skin-deep shift was aligning our studio principles to a common vision of a regenerative planetary future. A vision that sees us moving from global mass production nuclei to smaller, localized production nets; from generating waste to cultivating feedstock; from individual reward to collective upliftment. A vision that allows us to realize our full potential. With this as our North Star, we then went about using our holistic approach to get us there.
While we have always been, and remain, incurably hands-on, we started to build more for the entire context of what we make, understanding what it feeds, and what it feeds on, within an ecosystem. Without disregarding our heritage, we intersected our hard-earned expertise with new impulses — from nature, to noetics — and gave space to more visceral, empathic responses. We started to regard time as an active property of regeneration and, in doing so, fortified ourselves and our clients against the disturbances that time brings.
As we designed towards a more elastic and sustainable vision, so the shape, materials and application of our technology evolved. Our robotics and AI solutions, previously developed to drive linear efficiency, were rewired to enhance circular processes — repair, reuse, recycle — and to engage consumers with eco-consciousness through beautiful and intuitive interfaces.
Almost organically, we moved away from ravenous, stopgap tech innovation towards more balanced, whole-systems thinking and meaningful technology. And our clients moved with us.
The End as the Beginning
Today, there is a palpable momentum for positive change. More and more individuals, industry leaders and institutions are embracing concepts such as the circular economy and inviting us to co-design their path towards more regenerative organizational systems. In industry, as in Nature, we see so clearly that the more we invest in communities, the more resilient we and our businesses and our planet become.
At the same time, the heady days of innovation for innovation’s sake are coming to an end. An era that both confronted us with our industry behaviors and gave us the tools to change them, it was perhaps a necessary rite of passage. But the industrial hangover Earth finds itself with is a stark daily reminder that we still need better models of consuming and producing, that not only restore what we have extracted but grow new resources. And that’s what keeps us growing, keeps us challenging and keeps us asking: How can we empower more people to innovate towards a thriving future?
Design and words by Gabriella Seemann, concept design lead at PCH Innovations. PCH Innovations is a Berlin-based, multi-disciplinary studio that develops divergent strategy and technology for regenerative systems.