Performing innovation: questioning our current discourses of change

While watching the “Cosmos” series on Netflix I listened to Neil DeGrasse Tyson talking about how every discovery made by science has opened a different level of understanding to us. Such levels are always more complex, and from his point of view, wonderful. Yet more than giving us more certainty and control, they tend to move us from the center of our conceptions showing the limits of our agency. Transporting this thoughts to my everyday practice, I recall how much I struggle with people’s expectations around design processes of innovation & entrepreneurship. It would seem that as innovation professionals, our mind should be full of positive dogmas and definitive answers. As I described six months ago in another post, it is commonly believed that we are supposed to build an armored ship or vessel to navigate the risky weather that surrounds us. But just as with scientific discovery every time we have tried to deal with the future, we have realized the complexity of the interactions of systems and how false such positivistic answers would be. Yet, just as Neil DeGrasse Tyson suggests, the complexity of this discovered landscape also brings a different level of understanding with awesome new possibilities.

I’m not trying to be apologetic about our role as designers and innovation professionals. This is something that is evident in many disciplines today. Studies concerning medicine, biology and economics seem less deterministic and acknowledge the complexity that wicked problems bring. Among many, one of the best examples of this phenomenon is the work of psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahnemann. Starting as a discussion of whether or not humans are good statisticians, their work uncapped a huge amount of evidence of the use of cognitive heuristics and its biases in what we thought to be a completely rational mind. This means that by studying processes of intuition, judgement, and decision making, they found that human cognition was primed by models and shortcuts that affect the way we view the world. Their evidence, backed by more studies made after them, undermines the value of expert intuition. Through they studies they find that the biases that influence everyday people have the same power in experts specially in forecasting new events. As a result, expert opinion is extremely unreliable when trying to forecast stock value, market growth, and economic crisis. Even though some people claim to have accurate recalls of their predictions, Tversky and Kahnemann found that there is no evidence that shows that this forecasts can be sustained. Moreover, they describe a hindsight bias that affects us all by confirming partial guesses we made before hand as if they were completely sustained and certain. This findings make us question our confidence as professionals and ask ourselves, what are we supposed to do then? In the face of this complexity and bias, which is our role as innovation leaders, designers and so called future specialists?

What I found in performance

While working in a workshop facilitated by the Additivists Morehshin Allahyari & Daniel Rourke I was introduced to the work of feminist theorists Judith Butler, Karen Barad, and Donna Haraway,. Feminist & queer theorists like them depart from a focus in the study of gender performance and the relationship to the discourses of power. Even though it was a completely different domain at first, the premises of their work began to make sense to me. These theories postulate that these discourses of power, the way we constitute knowledge and social practices, have a strong relationship to who we are and how we become. Whereas it does not bring certainty to the future of our becoming, it definitely brings a different metaphor to how we shape the future. Based on the definitions of discourse and power laid by Michel Foucault, Judith Butler’s main arguments describe a term called “performativity”. For her, this is how discourses of power produce rather than just describe our bodies (power here is not authority or government but the logic that binds us together). From Butler’s point of view, the way we understand innovation, change, and our roles as innovators are determined by our discourses of market positivism, future determinism and evolutionary competition.

Yet, Karen Barad expands this by describing a performative stance of science (YES SCIENCE!). She builds her ideas based on extracts from Niels Bohr’s insights on the epistemology of science and describes what she calls a “post-natural performativity” (or way of becoming). According to Barad (and Bohr), knowledge about nature, has always had a problem of representation. We have always struggled to design more accurate ways of representing nature in a way that allows us to predict its behavior. Yet, as the begging of this essay recalls, every time we achieve a discovery, we open a new layer of complexity to be represented. Thus, Barad uses the term “performativity” to propose that instead of witnessing natural phenomena, we are involved in the production of phenomena between components of a system bonded together by discourses of power. Hence, our material discourses produce artifacts where we interact in the observation of what we formerly called nature. Therefore, in the measurement of distance we do not objectively measure distance but perform a phenomena of distance in conjunction with a ruler and the elements that are being measured. If we consider this stance, every action of change poses as an enormous challenge. Nevertheless, Barad defines our performative agency as our ability to affect the locality of the phenomenological artifact we are immersed in. She describes this agency as a being-doing, and as such, it is in our being that we select and exclude different ways of performance. Consequently, if we are to select a new way of performance, as in an innovative practice, our local discourses and components in this local artificial cut need to be acknowledged, from resources to beliefs. Here, our main challenge is unraveling our mechanisms of becoming and the limits of our agential locality rather than the unreliable representation of a predicted (and natural) future.

Finally, Donna Haraway, famous for her feminist cyborgian conjectures proposes a post-humanist understanding of of our localities by considering their ecologies and their role in our becoming. Her understanding of the now popular “anthropocene” is not an epoch where humans affect the globe unidirectionally but one full of accumulations of interactions between thousands of species. Moreover, this is why instead of trying to improve our standard of living through a linear and future oriented innovation, she recommends to be focused on our NOW, and how are we shaping the world TODAY. In Barad’s words, our temporary locality. Together, the three arguments pose a perspective far different from our naturalistic economic descriptions of innovation. Does this mean that within all our claims of change and innovation we keep ourselves bounded by the ruling discourses of power?Does this mean that there is a limit to our innovation practices?

So What?

I believe that rather that portraying current design practices obsolete, this stance ignites different possible action routes where success is more achievable than our current ways. So far, the only thing that we know is that we rely on the transmission of best practices of successful cases that can’t be replicated. We can’t deny that under this rationale, only a handful of people have become millionaires. Hence, in the formerly explained theories of performance, I find a new way of understanding innovation and value creation. Innovation as a local re-configuring of an temporary artifact in charge of exchanging value. Value, that is not universal but a local and sustainable force. The definition of the word local must not be mistaken by the current folk understanding of local consumption. Local here is extremely important since in the consideration of discourses, actors and artifacts we have a different locality specially enhanced by technology. The degree of reach that technology allows us to consider local today is completely different to a geographically restricted locality. This exchange of value, within our locality allows us to include a different set of variables and actors. Then, rather than engaging them through a traditional co-design perspective, our performative approach to innovation can expand our definition of that co-design into different exchanges between human and not human actors within a bounded discursive practice.

If before we understood innovation as a mechanism of creative destruction that we need to manage in order to perpetuate organizations and individuals regardless the environment. Now we could be talking about the design of mechanisms of translation between artifacts, that perpetuate sustainable ecologies beyond a shared value conception. Inside this scenario, digital technologies are not only tools for optimization but tools for human extension in the process of meaning creation between this local complexity. Virtual Reality (VR), Artificial Intelligence (AI), and 3D printing could pave the way for us to perform sustainable advantages rather than just build competitive ones.

Could we co-design with climate? Can we use VR to represent a non-human perspective of a problem? Could we use AI to make associations with microorganisms? When we try to define our current understanding of innovation we always stick to markets, products, and services without recognizing the boundaries of our discourse and leaving all the former questions apart. Nevertheless, in the core of what we do, Fernando Flores, Hubert Dreyfus, and Charles Spinoza find a way of world creation. For them, change agents are in charge of the creation of practices, artifacts and identities in disclosive worlds where we exercise the creation of meaning and freedom. From this perspective, a performative stance towards innovation makes more sense than our traditional corporate understanding based on future prediction. Altogether, in front of us lies a great opportunity to reinterpret what we do as performers of new worlds with infinite possibilities yet to be explored.

** I would like to thank Sarah Loggie and Sahron Mazer from the Master of Creative Technologies program in the Auckland University of Technology for helping me in my struggle with this terms for the past 6 months.