The Poetry of Innovation

You’ve worked on the topic of innovation in both corporations and research institutions. Do you think there is a perspective on innovation that spans through such different environments, and, if so, what’s your idea of innovation?
I believe innovation in many companies today is very focused on developing future solutions that makes sense for users and consumers. This is a very good shift from the technology-driven innovation common in many companies until some years ago. It is, in a sense, the recognition that competencies such as design are fundamental components of innovation: new technologies don’t go anywhere if they do not correspond to actual needs and desires of consumers. There is however a growing risk of seeing design as a competence that brings ‘data’ about what consumers want, what will work in the future, which innovation will be more successful, or ‘sell’ more. I believe this is an illusion. I mean, the idea that any competence may be able to analyze users today to be certain that an innovation will work in the future is both wrong and dangerous.

So, do you think there is no way to measure the possibility of an innovation to work, or fail, in the future? Wouldn’t this translate into an extremely high risk of failure for any type of innovation? And does this mean the culture of design is ‘giving up’ on its ability to understand and represent users and their needs?
No, at the contrary, I have a lot of faith in the ability of the culture of design to understand people and drive the future. I just think the idea of ‘being sure’ something will work, based on analytical data, is wrong. Let me try and explain this. Recently I’ve seen many books, and conferences, exploring and defining ‘the science of innovation’, trying to find analytical recipes to make sure something will work. Many of these theories are based on the equation needs = solutions. If it answers to a need, innovation will work. But how do you express a need today? How easy is to clearly detect the seeds of a future culture change? And isn’t also the equation solution = needs reasonable too? Meaning, can’t a solution never seen before, or even never imagined before, draw-out a not-yet-expressed need, or a latent desire? Or, better, can’t a vision of the future be so exciting and so powerful to change a way of thinking, a set of behaviors, and redirect needs and desires?
This is very similar to stating that the best way to predict the future is…to make it. I very much believe in this.
Under this assumption, I’m inspired by a perspective very different from ‘the science of innovation’: how would you react to a definition like ‘the poetry of innovation’? There is something I find extremely fascinating in the parallel between a narrative act, like writing a book or a piece of poetry, and doing visionary design or drive innovation: in both cases it’s about fascinating the ‘audience’ (the reader of a piece of poetry or the user of a new product) with an intriguing story. You cannot be sure you story will work, but if you’re a good storyteller you increase the chances you’ll seduce your audience and resonate with them. Which translates into pushing change, a cultural and perspective change. Which is exactly what successful innovation is about. There are also other aspects of poetry that, provocatively, I’d like to associate with innovation: it generates from the desire to send a message, to tell a story; it’s about sharing a vision, a dream, or a passion; it has a very strong private, intimate dimension which sometimes feels cryptic at a first reading, but once discovered it transform into a complete emotional ‘adoption’ of an idea, a resonance of desires between the designer (or the engineer) that proposes innovation and its audience.

…can’t a vision of the future be so exciting and powerful to change a way of thinking, a set of behaviors, and redirect needs and desires?

That’s quite a provocation: counterpointing the science of innovation, which would rationalize and ‘monetize’ innovation at best, with emotional aspects like ‘a resonance of desires’. Are you sure large companies can focus the huge investments needed to develop innovation today on the base of such subjective, intangible aspects?
Well, why don’t we change perspective again and move our reflection to another type of innovation: not the one in a company, but a larger, socio-cultural field of innovation like…driving the destiny of a country, or re-thinking the model of development of a large economy. To start, if you allow me, I need to introduce a personal consideration: I moved from Italy to US 8 years ago, and I’ve lived probably the worse, more reactionary, most depressive 8 years in US culture. For me, this experience was like the re-discovery of America: I formed my image of the States in the sixties, through American movies, through the dream of ‘the man on the moon’, through the myth of progress. If you tell me this was a sentimental, oleo graphic, distorted view of reality, I’d completely agree. But wasn’t this also exactly the same emotional distortion that drove that country through such dreams? In other words, wasn’t America built by an idea of progress that was completely ‘ideal’, idealistic, emotional, poetic? And weren’t these last 8 years correspond also to the demolition of that iconography of progress, that was so important to drive the dream of the ’50s and ‘60s? The United States of today have completely lost any ‘aesthetic of progress”. Designs — look at cars — are mostly retro, many brands squeeze juice out of their 100 or 50 years old legacy. I believe today, whether one wants to revitalize the spirit of a nation or try and revive a dead economy, one needs to propose a very tangible vision and a compelling story, and start spinning a virtuous cycle of ‘seduction’ with the audience. Isn’t this a very valuable, powerful, concrete piece of ‘poetry’?

If I understand correctly, when you introduce this idea of ‘cycle of seduction’ you propose a different way of looking at ‘fulfilling the needs’ of consumers, or a population, and you would propose such model both to invent a new product and for large scale innovation like new development models, and culture changes like the drive toward a sustainable development?
Yes, exactly. Let’s return to the equation needs = solutions. As I said before, I find it an extremely simplistic perspective. The disruption of the global crisis has for sure completely changed the definition of needs and desires: on one side, basic needs that seemed to have disappeared, at least in so-called developed countries, are back. Basic, survival needs are very tangible in all the developed economies hit by the crisis. On the other side, the mere notion of desires seems to be obsolete: superfluous needs, luxury consumption, impulse buying, all seem to be words of a vocabulary from one century ago. Desires, or, better, desire-driven consumption, seem to have completely disappeared. However, I continue to consider that the equation needs = solutions is not the best way to drive innovation. I find the idea of going through years of ‘survival economy’ depressing and wrong. I very much envision a new ‘desire economy’ where desires will be different, less superficial, and hopefully serve as a basis of an economy less vicious and vacuous that the one that just imploded. And drawing-out these desires is the most important piece of innovation we need today.

This distinction between an ‘economy of survival’ and an ‘economy of desire’ sounds intriguing. I am sure many people, reacting both to the economic crisis and the crisis of consumption connected with an environmental sensitivity, will actually welcome an economy of survival, and will interpret the notion of desire as a leftover of the agonizing society of consumption
I would completely agree with people that are fed up with what you call ‘the agonizing society of consumption’. I want to make clear what I call ‘desire’ is not necessarily the superficial desire of consumption. With desire, I mean a pulsion of a degree higher than mere need, a dimension richer than survival, intellectually more ambitious, emotionally richer. I would agree in the last 50 years the idea of an economy of desire has very much been associated with a desire for material consumption, but that’s not a given. Back to the topic of innovation, I just believe innovation needs to be driven by a large impulse toward a better future, by a certain idea of progress. What’s really in crisis today is progress: who has an idea of what progress is, can be, should be today? That’s what innovation needs to drive: visionary scenarios of the future, an ambitious perspective, not just survival. Although crises are a powerful catalyzer for depression, they are actually the ideal soil for ambition. What I’m expecting from the culture of design and innovation is a vision of the future that may draw-out new desires. And such vision of the future needs to be very tangible, visually exciting, I would say it needs to develop a new aesthetic of progress. As a provocation, I’d say President Obama, who has been so smart to nominate a Chief Technology Officer for his government, should also nominate a Creative Director for his government: somebody, or a series of initiatives, that would explore the iconography or the future we want to build. Such ‘poetry of innovation’ would be so important in this moment.
To give you another example, few days ago I saw a retrospective exhibition on Buckminster Fuller, and such iconoclastic ability to rethink everything, from architecture to transportation. The work on one pioneer of innovation can in itself condense all the dreams of an era. And I don’t find any better term than poetry to define his visionary ability.

Let’s elaborate on this Buckminster Fuller reference to move to a very different topic about innovation: innovators like Fuller were very creative individuals that were developing their ideas in an environment very different from, say, a company today. Do you think the role of the solitary, creative individual innovator would make any sense today, or large teams, or even larger collectivities, such as the open source movement, are the most fertile drivers of innovation?
I’m very torn on this subject. I would totally agree that movements like the open source movement are new actors of innovation, and that the networked society has changed drastically the relationship between innovation, its development, and its audience. I have however an extreme interest to understand how institutions like large corporations deal with notions like solitary genius, and craft.

Craft? I’m surprised you mention craft when talking about innovation in a large company. I’m actually surprised you mention craft at all in our contemporary culture and society, especially when dealing with innovation.
True. Craft ‘sounds’ strange today. And it sounds like totally heretic in a large company. However, for somebody like me, grown and nurtured in the culture of Italian Design, craft is a fundamental dimension, almost the essence of our way of working. I found one of the best definitions of craft, and one extremely interesting in the contemporary culture, in a couple of books by Richard Sennett [Richard Sennett — The Culture of the New Capitalism and Richard Sennett — The Craftsman]. He notes that a fundamental dimension of the culture of the craftsman is “doing something well for its own sake”. That’s exactly what I experienced working in the most inspiring innovation environments. And it’s in apparent clash with the dominant ad-hoc-ism that drives most corporate cultures today, where focus, concentration, experience and talent risk to be sacrificed to speed, flexibility and superficiality. To be clear, I’m not nostalgic about the work in a Renaissance ‘bottega’, but I’m saying there is something in that way of developing and transferring knowledge about innovation that can be very relevant today. After all, there are many commonalities between knowledge creation and transfer in the contemporary networked society and the way knowledge was generated and transferred in the oral, pre-mass-media apprentice-based crafts of Renaissance.
In one word, if I try and summarize both the poetic dimension we discussed in the beginning of our conversation and this notion of craft, I’d say PASSION for doing something well for its own sake is a fundamental driver for innovation.

this interview was originally published in the newsletter FORM in Perth Australia in March 2009

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