Co-Imagination

A new space for Innovation and Change

For almost a century the Bauhaus movement has inspired purpose in the design community. Founded with the mission of reclaiming the soul and spirit of arts and crafts practices in the Industrial Revolution, the Bauhaus Manifesto proclaimed:

“Let us strive for, conceive and create the new building of the future that will unite every discipline, architecture and sculpture and painting, and which will one day rise heavenwards from the million hands of craftsmen as a clear symbol of a new belief to come.” Walter Gropius, 1919

As we approach the 100-year anniversary of the Bauhaus Manifesto, designers have new opportunities for redefining our mission. The scale and complexity of the current technological and information revolution has presented us with challenges that transcend those that inspired the mission of the Bauhaus.

New Niches

Two types of experiences shaped my ideas about the future role of design: first, ethnographic research around the world; second, our clients’ challenges in managing change and innovation.

Conducting ethnographic research all over the world has given me opportunities to visit people in their homes, to observe their environments and routines, and to converse about what matters to them. I have learned that regardless of their different material cravings, at the core, people are in search of meaning. The artifacts they collect, the rituals they follow, the relationships they build, the gifts they exchange, the stories they tell, and the experiences they seek are all in pursuit of meaning. I have also developed a deep respect for the creativity of ordinary people, who our clients sometimes see merely as consumers. Yet in reality these people are always the true creators of their own experiences.

Working with future-focused organizations, especially those clients who have worked with us for ten or more years, I have found that our true value as a research partner is not the insights from individual projects or even the concepts our research helps generate. Rather, our deepest value is in our ability to influence their culture, demonstrating ways of thinking that enable innovation and change across siloes. The insights we gather, synthesis we conduct, and the frameworks and roadmaps we generate through collaborative processes are all part of an overall experience that itself generates inspiration and momentum for change, and has a lasting impact beyond our involvement in projects.

Both of these influences (everyday people and our client organizations) have made us recognize the need for a catalyst of change who can help individuals and organizations tap into their potential for innovation and inspire meaningful and purposeful change.

Meaning Making

A perfect example of design that enables Meaning Making is LEGO blocks. Since 1932 LEGO has consistently enabled creativity around the world with its generic, configurable forms. The forms are not the end product; the final product is what the user creates. By supporting and enabling this creative process, LEGO has stood the test of time, and has been loved across generations.

LEGO Enables Meaning Making

A New Role for Designers

Curiosity for a more purposeful role for designers in our time led me to the book Tools for Conviviality by Croatian-Austrian philosopher Ivan Illich. Illich argues that over-industrialization has turned humans into slaves of the tools that were supposed to serve us. As an alternative, Illich envisions a convivial society conceptualized on a belief that,

“People need not only to obtain things, they need above all the freedom to make things among which they can live, to give shape to them according to their own tastes, and to put them to use in caring for and about others.” People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves. I believe that society must be reconstructed to enlarge the contribution of autonomous individuals and primary groups to the total effectiveness of a new system of production designed to satisfy the human needs which it also determines. In fact, the institutions of industrial society do just the opposite. As the power of machines increases, the role of persons more and more decreases to that of mere consumers.” (Illich 1978)

Designers who want to explore their role as enablers of Meaning Making must embrace a new mindset. First and foremost, we need to stop treating people as consumers or users, and instead recognize and involve them as co-creators.

Designing with people

Designers can no longer design from the ivory towers of our design studios. The new space for Design must move closer to where the meaning making happens. The design process must begin with a search for patterns in the culture, behaviors, and imaginations of people and groups, followed by a synthesis of the patterns discovered and co-imagining of future scenarios of meaningful experiences.

Observing people in their environments and asking questions can provide designers valuable insights about the explicit aspects of their lives. But implicit aspects such as unmet and unrecognized needs and hard to express aspirations have a critical influence on people’s meaning-making process. To investigate these aspects, designers need to cultivate systematic skills of learning through collaboration that will allow them to:

· Provoke deep introspection about the past and the present;

· Bring awareness to the complex issues that affect people and organizations

· Pay attention to the metaphors and mental models that guide their understanding, and

· Facilitate constructive dialogue about meaningful alternatives and roadmaps to change.

Additionally, designers need to cultivate continuous foresight about the un-observable, latent forces affecting people and meaning-making, including the cultural, social, behavioral, or technological changes that are likely to influence what people will be able to do and what may be meaningful to them in the future.

Involving people as partners in design does not compromise the creativity of the designers. Their creative talent, tools, ideas, and deep knowledge of the process are invaluable in harnessing the unobserved and unexpressed wisdom, energy, and imagination of the untrained.

Co-Creation

The late C.K. Prahlad, who was a professor of Corporate Strategy at University of Michigan School of Business, said, “Executives are constrained not by resources, but by their imagination.” (Prahlad & Ramaswami 2004)

Through the years, we have learned that successful future-focused organizations are able to thrive in a highly competitive and chaotic marketplace by fueling the imaginations of stakeholders throughout their value chain, thereby nurturing a culture of curiosity, learning, and tinkering with disruptive ideas.

Designers can serve to enable this “Co-Imagination” process by influencing how stakeholders learn and how they act collaboratively. We can organize activities to guide collaborative discovery, synthesis, and change across functional silos within an organization and across the value chain. Designers can also help envision the future social impact of innovations through scenario planning and other design tools, thus serving to provide an ethical lens for building roadmaps.

By guiding co-imagination and helping build roadmaps for ethical innovation, this new generation of collaborative designers will enable grounded, purposeful innovation in the organizations they serve.