Build, Don’t Break
Want to sell people on transformational change? Focus on transition, not disruption.
Innovation is often framed as a disruptive force. Unless you’re moving fast and breaking things, you’re a Luddite — meaning you’re part of the problem. Now, from mounting fears of Seattleization to the rearing up of the techlash, it seems that a decade of disruption has created an army of skeptics wary of increasingly rapid and jarring changes to their way of life.
A quick scan of the headlines makes it clear that we’re in need of some truly transformational change. We need to shift the way we talk about transformation, so it inspires more people to plug in rather than shut down. By re-framing innovation through narratives of transition, we can highlight the processes that lead to transformation over time. This is hardly a stretch: the Latin root innovat- means renewed or altered, suggesting iterative adjustment: improvement of something that already exists.
In short, innovation is about building, not breaking.
A “disruption” is a forcible separation: a sudden break from what came before. “Transition,” by contrast, describes a gradual passage between two states, leaving time for discussion and adjustment. While it may seem sexier, pitching a new app or more sustainable packaging as “disruptive” or outright “transformational” can be alienating, even discouraging. It says, “here, we solved the problem for you,” but ignores the fact that there are plenty of folks who like things just the way they are. One man’s problem is another man’s pension.
Even if you get someone to buy something using a disruptive narrative, you might miss an opportunity to get them to buy in to the larger change you’re trying to create. While it’s certainly not true of all brands, a growing number are looking for ways to help drive real, positive change. If you frame what you’re doing not as transformative in and of itself, but as part of a larger transition, every customer becomes a potential evangelist. Don’t just solve a problem — help people solve that problem together by working with you.
People are hungry for opportunities to participate in initiatives that affect their lives. In an op-ed for the Financial Times, Pilita Clark reflected on several conversations with friends in both the UK and Australia and noted a rising interest in direct action among the ranks of the comfortable middle class. “These women, like me, are tediously law-abiding, taxpaying homeowners,” she noted. “The nearest they normally get to a march is when they have to race to be on time for a Pilates class. [They] are part of a burst in middle-class climate activism that has few recent precedents.”
The useful challenge presented by massive systemic problems like climate change is that they don’t have one easy or obvious solution. They have enormous potential to bring people together and drive real, lasting transformations because they create many different ways for people to plug in. “We can’t assume that a single solution is good enough,” argues climate scientist Roger Aines in a recent article about efforts to engineer plants to sequester more carbon. “We have to prepare all of the tools to be ready, and the scale of the thing is unimaginable.”
Build in Buy-in: Make Change Personal
Recently, a cohort of the world’s largest consumer goods companies — all of which made Greenpeace’s list of the worst plastics polluters — banded together to announce a new initiative called Loop. Dreamed up by New Jersey-based TerraCycle, Loop will offer a variety of familiar products from major brands in reusable containers. While it’s being launched as a pilot in select cities this spring, the idea is it will eventually transform how we shop, greatly reducing the amount of waste generated by single-use packaging.
While Loop responds directly to mounting public concern about pollution, a few critics have pointed out the absurdity of a sustainability program that requires flying empty containers across the ocean. Ordering will largely take place online, with products delivered to your door. Used containers will be returned to Loop in a reusable carrier and shipped all the way back to California to be refilled. This will lower net pollution, and the long-term plan is to open more repackaging hubs as the program expands. Loop is a step in the right direction — you can’t argue with the wisdom of turning off the tap before you start to mop up a flood. But in execution, it has the distinct feel of a disruptive transformation.
Imagine if, instead, Loop were to tap into existing social and distribution networks by partnering with local retailers? The program is rolling out in some of the most densely populated, walkable cities in the world: first in New York and Paris, and then London, Toronto, Tokyo, and San Francisco. These are cities with robust local retail scenes, where shopkeepers are eager to find ways to compete with the Amazons of the world. Local retailers would make excellent evangelists for the program, as reusable containers are a way to keep customers coming back.
Partnering with local businesses one by one would be a tall order for global brands that prize efficiency and scale. But the cities where Loop is rolling out have rich networks of chambers of commerce, small business associations, business improvement districts, and like organizations that could help coordinate. These organizations could also collect valuable qualitative data from merchants on how Loop’s service works on the ground.
Tapping into local retail networks would also socialize the new habits that need to form around reuse in order for it to be successful at a large scale. There’s a huge difference between leaving an anonymous Loop carrier in the vestibule of your building, which presents its own set of headaches, and dropping containers off at the local grocer on your walk to the train in the morning. Creating local touchpoints makes change feel more personal for people because it establishes new behaviors around familiar interactions and routines. The power of social reinforcement should never be underestimated.
If this proposal has one obvious drawback compared to Loop’s actual plans, it’s that asking people to walk containers back to stores would require a higher level of commitment than simply leaving a carrier in the foyer. In a culture obsessed with convenience, you could cite this as a fatal flaw. Ours is an experience economy, and every minute spent on daily chores is a minute you can’t spend having Experiences — right? But experience and convenience don’t always pair neatly. After all, you remember best the things you invest time and effort into.
“The dream of convenience is premised on the nightmare of physical work,” writes Tim Wu in an article decrying what he calls the tyranny of convenience. “But is physical work always a nightmare? Do we really want to be emancipated from all of it? … Today’s cult of convenience fails to acknowledge that difficulty is a constitutive feature of human experience. Convenience is all destination and no journey. But climbing a mountain is different from taking the tram to the top, even if you end up at the same place.”
Work, Together: Create Community Around Effort
The journey matters, and disruption fatigue is the natural result of decades of relentless and single-minded focus on destination. We don’t want everything done for us, as it turns out. When something feels meaningful, we’re happy to roll up our sleeves. Every day, people horrified by articles about the giant plastic gyre in the middle of the Pacific join the Surfrider Foundation in cleaning up waste at beaches. Neighbors who are tired of the lack of local gathering places collaborate to organize Better Block activations. They cooperate on tearing up vacant paved lots to establish community gardens, and pool resources to create and manage tool libraries. These types of activities don’t just help people feel personally fulfilled — they are fundamentally social experiences.
In a recent blog post, Participatory Museum author Nina Simon argues that some of the most significant systemic challenges facing museums and cultural institutions — lack of diversity, equity, and inclusion — is a problem not of the head or heart, but of the lack of a clear path forward. “The how is the meat of the actual change we create,” she writes. “When I share our work — especially at conferences — I find myself focusing on the what and the why. I tell a story of pivoting to deep community involvement, and people get inspired. But they’re often mystified about how we did it. … It’s like I’m waving from a destination to which there is no clear road nor map. By celebrating the destination, I’m ignoring the path that brought us there.”
Simon has spent the past eight years as the executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, where she oversaw a dramatic turnaround. Today the MAH is a model for community engagement, with revenue and attendance soaring. This journey inspired Simon and her team to launch OF/BY/FOR ALL last year. The new coalition of nonprofits uses the MAH’s experiences as a way to inform the development of new strategies and tools that will help cultural institutions around the country better serve their communities. They’re creating a transition narrative. OF/BY/FOR ALL is not just placing the MAH’s evolution in a larger context; it’s building a supportive social network for cultural workers who are doing the hard work of engaging new audiences and creating more welcoming institutions.
Like cultural institutions, place-based brands have been grappling with how to better engage with and reflect their communities as demographics shift. The Manhattan Institute’s Aaron Renn recently warned cities against falling into “the branding trap,” noting that many of the things meant to signify dynamic urban communities — Edison bulbs, microbreweries, downtown streetcars — have taken on a bland sameness, while the more distinctive features of these cities have been downplayed. These symbols have also come to represent gentrification, appealing to a certain kind of consumer and cementing the idea that “change” is just another word for displacement.
A city that wants to transform itself can’t just plop down some makerspaces, mid-rises, and coffee shops and hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner. Transformation takes real work, yet place-based brands tend to focus almost relentlessly on leisure and convenience. Why not build a city’s brand around meaningful work? This isn’t a terribly far-fetched idea, and Renn cites a key example where it has been done successfully. Chrysler’s iconic Super Bowl ad in 2011 “did a much better job of selling Detroit than Chryslers,” he writes, by focusing on the city’s industrial history and the hard work that contemporary Detroiters are doing to turn their communities around.
Detroit’s public profile has improved not because it offers a glamorous backdrop for Instagram selfies, but because it’s a place where millennials feel like they can plug in and really do something in a way that they could never afford to in crowded superstar cities like New York and San Francisco. Detroit was synonymous with the automotive industry for almost a century, so its fortunes rose and fell with that industry. Now, the city is aligning its brand with the chance to try something new.
Down south, Greenville, South Carolina, has taken a different tack. With just under a million residents in its metropolitan area, the city is in the midst of a transition from run-down textile mill town to thriving arts refuge. Sparked by the success of an annual festival called Artisphere, this revitalization “is centered around the catchphrase ‘Yeah, THAT [Greenville],’” according to a recent [print-only] New York Times profile, “as in yes, the Greenville in South Carolina as opposed to some 36 other towns named Greenville across the United States.”
Yeah, THAT Greenville could be the least bombastic city revitalization slogan in history, and this gives it an accessible charm. It’s clever, slightly self-effacing, and it speaks volumes about the kind of place that Greenville is — and wants to continue to be. There is no pretense about “world class” this or “unparalleled” that. Greenville portrays itself as a city where a sense of humor counts for more than a desire to impress, highlighting its human scale, and this strategy has been successful in attracting working artists from across the country. Greenville has positioned itself as an arts hub more focused on participation in the creative process than the consumption of art as an “experience.”
From the New Yorks and Parises of the world to the Detroits and Greenvilles, disruption fatigue is real. This is a huge opportunity for brands looking to get in front of the pack. As people push for more agency, companies and organizations that make transformational change personal, and make it social, will have a unique advantage. We’ve been moving fast and breaking things for long enough. We need innovators to reach out, build connections, and invest time in planning thoughtful and engaging transitions. Our future, quite literally, depends on them.