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The Advanced Design Institute (ADi) works to facilitate a deeper and broader understanding of design as activity and culture. Design activity is the way individuals and organizations continuously create our world. Design culture provides the societal context that supports design activity. In a time of dramatic change and of increased complexity, design culture is more timely and crucial than ever. The purpose of ADi is to advance design culture through public education.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The reclamation of endangered or abandoned ideas

Claims by idea assassins that systems thinking is dead, design thinking is dead, innovation is dead, are attempts to claim credit for hits never consummated. In addition, some consultants are famous for taking good ideas and turning them into fads. Businesses and governmental agencies are famous for taking fads and turning them into bad ideas that are then abandoned by both when the oversimplified or misshaped concepts fail to deliver cheap or easy solutions. Whether declared dead or abandoned the ideas remain viable in the right environments in interaction with the right people.

For example the term innovation is used in ways that make it difficult to discern what someone actually means when they are championing it or abandoning it. Is it creativity, is it implementation, is it market share, is it....? When innovation is declared dead what actually is being declared to be no longer among us?

Innovation has been assumed up to the present to be a positive thing (where alive and well). If we assume the term means (as I do) bringing something into the world and making it part of people’s lives there follows concerns for why that would be automatically assumed to be positive. Crack cocaine is one of the most successful innovations in American history. It is found everywhere at every level of society. Even though it can be declared a successful innovation it is not necessarily a 'good' innovation.

Discerning the assumptions behind the term innovation as it is popularly used is a challenge. Innovation is not the same thing as creativity. If democracy (a very old idea) becomes a real part of the governance of a people who have only been under some form of dictatorial rule (tribal, political, religious etc.) it can be considered an innovation in their lives but certainly not a novel, new or creative form of governance in human affairs.

Implementation and innovation are often interchanged as terms. Implementation is an executive function. It is the activity of making something happen or putting something into effect. Implementation occurs on behalf of someone—while innovation is usually treated as a sales function. It is an activity that attempts to influence people to buy, consume, behave, adapt, etc.

The distinction between implementation and innovation is not a judgmental call. Innovation often leads to happy outcomes as in the case of Apple. Paraphrasing Steve Jobs—consumers don’t know what they want until they are shown it. Of course changing people’s behavior through innovation (the new fad among some designers) rather than serving them through implementation raises a number of concerns.

The reasons for innovation can be very different depending on the intention and purposes of the innovators (the same is true for implementation and implementers). It can lead to reformation  (change of means) or transformation (change of ends) in a social system as pointed out by Russell Ackoff. Innovation and implementation are subset activities of designing. Designing is also the strategy used in formation—the implementation of a desired new form of reality.

Innovation is an example of a vital and viable idea that needs to be more clearly developed and understood through an ongoing dialogue rather than being cut off in its prime by assassination attempts or abandonment.  

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