Change weather — Why innovation can’t be instrumentalized?

(This article was originally published in Antonio Esparza’s Medium profile, 3 August 2016)

Being serious about innovation and change

The more I study, the more I am convinced that today, the circumstances for successful business performance are more difficult than the ones in our parent’s generation. In all possible levels, we are threatened by the uncertainty of the surrounding complexity in society. Technology changes in an unprecedented way out dating our everyday practices while we still try to catch on the means that we control. Moreover, as if it was not enough, social environments become more unstable and precarious. All the former fueled by people’s restricted working conditions and the fear of people whose jobs are threatened by Artificial Intelligence (AI) and automation.

The easiest way to describe this uncertain environment is to list the rise and fall of industries or the scenario of the 2008 financial crisis. Nevertheless, examples of these micro level symptoms of collapsing macro structurescan be felt in more subtle events in everyday business. Just to mention few examples; the value of our productive assets diminishes, the value of intellectual property rises at the expense of our ability to leverage and protect it, and workers do not engage seriously with productivity and avoid compromise with their environments. Facing these scenarios, our most obvious answer is scaling up. Only through the multiplication of business we can reach profitability. And only through heavy infrastructure investment we can multiply business. In conclusion, such uncertain environment only forces us to acquire more capital.

It is in the middle of this volatile and complex context that innovation became a top priority concern for management. Just as “total quality management” in the 80’s and 90’s, novel ways of understanding the “exploration” of new opportunities were extracted from the study of the ones who have managed to stay relevant inside their industries. Tools like “business model innovation canvas”, “open innovation”, “disruptive innovation strategies”, and “design thinking” are now the new repository of an army of specialists in charge of building a vessel that can help us navigate through all this turmoil.

Nevertheless, my point in this essay is that the idea of tooling and instrumentalizing innovation and change goes against the nature of change itself. Coding such a volatile environment requires the homogenization of different terms and techniques for the purpose of scale distribution. These actions hijack the definition of what “ought to be” thereby restricting our chances to create something different. In addition, coding such procedures implies expected successful results misleading us from reality. Finally, technology forecasts and trend analysis tools give us a sense of linearunderstanding of the environment while in reality we struggle with exponential effects. Contrary to these perspectives, a critic approach to design science as a way to determine what “ought to be”, clearly shows that the architecture of the future can’t be easily defined and tamed beyond heuristic approaches. Accordingly, when Herbert Simon discusses the ontology of artificial sciences in “ The science of design: creating the artificial” he points out that such practices are extremely difficult to define since future domains are constantly changingCoding a deterministic approach to innovation may help our anxiety as decision makers, but certainly it will not guarantee the success of our enterprises.

In this moment it is important to clarify that I am not against the homogenization of practices that help us improve our performance. I only make a difference with innovation and change where homologization is nonsense. My guess for the diffusion of this practices is our despair facing uncertainty and the responsibility of our own agency. It has always being better to trust the experts and follow the best practices in order to minimize perceived risk of failure. In my opinion, such unease towards ambiguity comes from the foundational metaphor behind our manager stance. As decision makers we are responsible to guide our organization through a competitive landscape to achieve profitability as if it was some kind of boat or spaceship with a navigation computer that can bring us from A to B. Under this paradigm, it is understandable to expect deterministic tools that bring us from A to B. But if the actual socio-technological landscape cannot be mapped, risks can’t be calculated either and forecasts become as valid as mere guessing. Then, what are we supposed to do to guide our vessel?

In order to look for a metaphor, I focused on my current research. As part of my studies in Auckland University of Technology, I struggle a lot with the definition of design and entrepreneurship. Within that context I found a very coherent definition for entrepreneurship by Per Davidsson who describes it as “the micro level phenomenon of a macro level change”. This definition highlights the mechanics of change stressing the complexity that actual change brings at different levels and the relationship between all of them without being deterministic in the effects of our actions. While discussing this post with my supervisor he pointed out how this definition was similar to the study of attractors in dynamical systems. In such simulations, complex systems are simplified to study its performance in a “toy model”. An attractor is the set of values in a complex system that despite its variability always attracts the values to a certain plotted shape. In such simulations, little variations in the initial conditions create great differences of final performancenevertheless all those different results, are attracted to the same set. If we plot those systems we get very interesting shapes that show us the dynamical relationship of the involved variables without losing its complexity and unpredictability. Such models were born with the study of weather, a super complex system where every single layer of molecules has a different set of physical properties. Its discovery coined the term “butterfly effect” in a conference paper by Edward Lorenz in 1972. Clearly, the complexity of the actual landscape, could be described by an “attractor set” where slight differences in the initial circumstances can create huge and complex results in the whole system. In such complex scenario, we are not in charge of creating a strong vessel and a convincing road map, we are atmospheric molecules that perform in a micro level as part of a macro ecology of events. Therefore, the Lorenz Attractor of atmospheric simulation clearly resembles a metaphor that in my opinion, describes our role as decision makers in the middle of complexity.

Lorenz attractor spreading into chaos

Conceiving ourselves as individual molecules in an atmospheric scenario might even aggravate our sense of agency. Nevertheless with this perspective, new opportunities arise since small changes in the initial state can create enormous differences in the overall system. Research around the decision making processes of expert entrepreneurs by Sara Sarasvathy, found out that more than planning and forecasting, successful founders rely on themselves and their means at hand to build their ventures. Sarasvathy calls this effectuative logic, a stance where “to the extent that we can control the future, we don’t need to predict it”. Sarasvathy’s entrepreneurs innovate by considering their means at hand and effectuating the circumstances and stakeholders to get more means or higher goals. In this sense, being a lone entity inside a complex ecology of entities becomes an opportunity to innovate through effectuation.

To understand more of this alternative perspective of innovation and change we must push the effectuation logic even further in our relationships within our weather model. We have already mentioned how our landscapes cannot be described only in terms of categories, sectors and industries and how this fact restricts not only our perception of the environment but our agency. In this regard, Anne Burdick proposes a critical approach that makes use of future speculation where the interaction of artefacts, products, services, firms, etc. coexist with users altering each other and creating futures that are more complex than actual Utopian technology forecasting. Similarly, the Hyperstition project proposes a philosophical approach where narrative itself is in charge of future building. Both perspectives stress the importance of future building through critical reflection of our socio-technologicalreality and the narratives that we have today. Therefore, creating an image of a future that we build instead of one that we have hope to catch up.

This surely looks as dreadful as unknown, but in the appreciation of a broader picture and a different metaphor we open up more opportunities for autonomous and successful future making instead of homogenized and partial forecasts. A very interesting example are the concepts of the blockchain (the technology behind bitcoin), artificial intelligence and 3d printing. From a “vessel” point of view, all of them fit perfectly in a linear future road map. We all have read how “bitcoin will disrupt the financial sector”, “how 3D printing will enable localized production” or “how AI impacts marketing data collection” but all this scenarios are situated in a vessel metaphor. A “weather model forecast” would also show us how the blockchain can create wealth in new and more dynamic economies. Or how AI could be used to personify complex environments such as crops and make them easier to manage. Finally how 3D printing can increase the available complexity in product architecture to the extent that bodies can be altered through new categories of prosthetics. Contrary to a linear approach, a complex weather one lets us imagine products and services outside our vessel that could not be envisioned before. Which products can we envision within this different economies/environments/bodies?

The proposal of this essay calls for a more serious understanding of innovation and change, one represented by the weather metaphorrecognizing the real complexity of the challenges that we face today. Only in this mode we can make critical use of the tools that we are given according to our unique position respecting the complete socio-technological scenario that we face. My belief is that in the verge of a deep structural change business creation will find a way to create and capture value outside the actual reigning system. Creating multi-dimensional businesses that foster growth in holistic ways apart from the monetary paradigm. Therefore no only surviving the difficult weather but building one that is more suitable for everybody.

Performing innovation: questioning our current discourses of change

(This post was originally posted in Medium by Antonio Esparza, 15-February, 2017)

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, judgment, 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 their studies, they find that the biases that influence everyday people have the same power in experts, especially 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 beforehand as if they were completely sustained and certain. These 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 beginning 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 phenomenon of distance in conjunction with a ruler and the elements that are being measured. If we consider this stance, every action of change poses 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 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 being 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 bound by the ruling discourses of power?Does this mean that there is a limit to our innovation practices?

So What?

I believe that rather than 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 a 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 Sharon Mazer from the Master of Creative Technologies program at the Auckland University of Technology for helping me in my struggle with this terms for the past 6 months.