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Presidential Innovation Fellows

Beyond Ideological Innovation - Into the Methods, Concept and Experience


I just spent the last two days observing members of an entrenched government and business community learning about principals of lean startup, design thinking, and agile processes.  That was a good thing and I'm proud of this community for walking down these roads.  By taking these steps they will be better equipped to produce strong results and different kinds of outcomes. Yet we should not confuse this set of practices as innovation.  There is a distinction between innovation methods, innovation as a concept, and innovation as an experience.

Methods
Innovation, as a term, has come to describe a set of methods to drive new forms of socio-cultural and economic production.  This brand of innovation, like all other ideologies, was borne of necessity within particular economic conditions. The rise of the merchant class advanced Capitalism, the Industrial Revolution pushed forth Marxism, and Silicon Valley delivered The Lean Startup. Like any ideology - complexity, nudge, sustainability to name a few others - innovation has been appropriated by corporations to benefit their bottom lines and advance their missions.

It is easy to identify when the concept of innovation has been repackaged for consumption. If you participate in a workshop concerning Innovation as Design, you will likely have to do something with post-it notes and white boards, and maybe have to participate in low-fidelity rapid prototyping exercises.  If it is concerned with Lean Startup, you might take a standard idea shared with your team then quickly go call a few customers to ask if they like it or make a mockup for them to test.  This is also the general description of many UX Design education programs today.  These strategies at their core attempt to reconcile the simplicity of the scientific method with the irrationality of social behavior.

These procedures are all good things to do. I do these things and teach them to others. More people should try them.  Is this innovation? Sometimes, but not necessarily. These processes can provide pathways to innovation, but more acutely, do more to provide pathways to success according to an already existing - but perhaps unarticulated - definition of success that is situated within the minds of the participants.  To satisfy the demands of a  shared disposition is not the same thing as realized innovation.

Concept
We must consider innovation as something far more powerful, a force at work within a paradigm shift.  When Thomas Kuhn wrote on the structure of scientific revolutions, he described the paradigm shift as a social process, in which an accumulation of outlier evidence - over time - suddenly sways social beliefs to then become the new normative reality. When the earth was believed to be the center of the universe, attempts to research the universe often validated this belief or were built off of the assumption. It was held as fundamentally true, and to simplify history, Galileo was executed because his evidence contradicted the belief. Over time, enough evidence accumulated in favor of Galileo's argument and the community changed their belief.  In consequence, a new era for the intersection of science, religion, and society was borne.

There are things like religion in which one must work to hold a belief - to have faith - and there are things we just believe outright, such as the shared experience of a color or the weather. Within this distribution of beliefs, science is held as objective and the scientific research method is void of human error, but we fail to consider how science or faith is founded on a widespread predisposition.   In theory we eventually learn to identify our collective errors and we pivot or manage the constraints. When that happens, the school text books are rewritten as the sun becomes the center of the solar system, the universe grows in size, and space/time is a fluid dimensional fabric we believe in but struggle to understand, because the evidence is at odds with day-to-day human experience.

Innovation is not about design, science, or lean frameworks. It is the distribution of events that brushed up against each other so as to transform the entire normative experience of reality. These moments could be anything - scientific evidence, a new idea,  an observation, or a conversation. Some of these moments might be brilliant and profound, but many are just outlier fragments and glitches of daily experience.  We like to imagine innovation as a singular act, but singular acts have limited force, and thus the power of innovation relies upon loose configurations.

These individual events have limited power as a singular instances, but in coordination, can become a fulcrum of radical difference. A strange turn of phrase, uttered at the moment a butterfly lands on your arm, might unlock the gateway to a new personal ontology.  When this moment happens en masse, all possible roads into the future shift toward a new direction of possibility.  When Latour wrote Artemis, the failure of the high-tech transportation system was described as a network effect of many flickering and semi-related life moments. Latour wrote this to prove that social systems do not exist but are merely perceived... yet when these flickers do align into a system?  That is innovation.

Obviously this approach to innovation is too complex for a corporation to adapt because it cannot be packaged as a playbook or a method.  It cannot be entirely designed and it cannot be diffused or appropriated with ease. The Cult of Innovation fills much of the demand for change but in 10 years, our corporations and governments will look to another trend for answers because the more tightly packaged a concept for distribution, the less that concept can satisfy complex organizational needs. A truer path of innovation will not be appropriated because it is a plurality of outliers, and the core of its value is a contradiction to what we hold correct. Design or lean tactics may bring us to innovation - but I suspect this happens with less frequency than we believe.

Experience
Often if something is innovative, we do not like it. We dismiss it.  It pushes against our values, rubs us the wrong way, and introduces friction into our lives. We can adopt methods to reduce pain or mitigate risks, but ultimately, change has a cost, and that cost is at times the very foundation of whatever we believe to be real and true. Innovation is painful because it forces our brains to work differently.  If you witness a singular event and consider it brilliant, it is only a good according to subscribed preconditions.  By this definition, Elon Musk's Hyperloop is a good idea, not innovation. It might be an innovative act with in lattice of other acts, but we will need to stand back and observe.  
We usually only know if something was innovative in the past tense.  We believe in historical periods and future epochs such as the renaissance, the 20th century, and the information age.  We do not know how to experience time in other ways and yet we also have no ability to determine if something is ending an era or creating a new one.  When a radical disruption creates discomfort and only appears to be situated within the broader trends of the present tense - then we do not call it innovation.  We expect dramatic paradigm shifts to be immediate and identifiable - but this is misguided thinking.

As innovation is ambiguous in time, diffused in activity, and dissonant in experience, we would benefit to stop repeating our expectations of innovation as 'sudden, concrete, satisfying and specific.' Changing our perception of innovation might give us a better path to embrace it. And later, when the dust has settled, we can look back to say innovation has happened, though we may not be able to repeat it. 

Formulations of Post-Conflict Reconstruction Beyond and Within

Aerial Image of MIT during WWII from Lamelson Center for Invention and Innovation
The world will always have war and poverty. There is also no moral justification for the nature of war or poverty to be as severe and punishing as can be found throughout much of the world. Diseases can be reduced, incomes can be increased, and war can be less violent. It would seem that simple and practical solutions - common sense - could solve many these problems. But I've found over the last 15 years or so, that common sense is often the point of failure. True innovation is irrational. Systematic methods can be designed to facilitate innovation, but the starting point is an entrenched understanding of the problem.

Today's wars do not end, are rarely state-to-state engagements, and technology has shifted the capability of the non-state actor, giving individuals power on par with the state. Yet if technology can empower individuals to create chaos and fight the state, then it can equally empower an individual with state capacities to create peace and opportunity. Where terrorists destroy the present tense, an individual - not a government can likewise create a new future tense. Stability-minded, entrepreneurial individuals are the antithesis of terrorism, not government employees.

Inspired by organizations like Independent Diplomat, I went down this road as an urban planner, and built a private business for governance. In this capacity I aided governments in Afghanistan, Kenya, and Somalia for several years in addition to advising multilateral institutions. Unlike many of my peers in the humanitarian and development industry, I never once provided a report as a project deliverable (this is no easy thing, given that the entire industry is obsessed with reports). Rather, I focussed on building concrete mechanisms and leveraged technology to perform necessary change within entrenched problems.

The interesting consequence wasn't so much within the success or failure of those mechanisms, but the way other institutions responded. The best known example is how the UN restructured its Somalia efforts to compete and then later appropriate my municipal-level urban technology center in Mogadishu.  Years later, that effort has faded away, but a key lesson remains intact: if you want to change the operations of ]global institutions, a faster method than advocacy or protesting is to beat them at their own game because they fear competition.

For awhile, I believed that I had gone as far as I could personally take this work in postwar reconstruction. Over the years, marriage, fatherhood, and the brutal realities of active war zones left me believing that I had dug in as deep as possible, and that it was perhaps time to look into the future and shift gears.  I set new targets far from the front lines, leading to doctoral studies and a deeper immersion into the technology. Making an honest departure from the domain of reconstruction was valuable as it exposed me to new ways of thinking and working in addition to the acquisition of other skills.

Yet today, I find myself working in governance in a refreshed capacity. As an innovation specialist for the US federal government, I essentially work as an entrepreneur in residence. In this capacity I am approached by, or reach out to, federal agencies with deeply rooted and complex problems in search for new vision, strategies, and tools. Much of this work has been connected with Veterans Affairs, and thus my work within the domain of post-war reconstruction continues.

When rebuilding a wartorn city, or considering the future reconstruction of a city presently in war, I have always thought primarily about the actors there - in that space - and those who grew up there but left. Consideration of conflicted and secure space were constant to the extent that it gave a name to this blog. But in the way that I work, space is merely a container for relationships between people, and in the case of Mogadishu, for example, the stakeholders were the Somalis and the AMISOM soldiers (among others on site).  Throughout all my years of working, I never once thought about how the lives of those AMISOM soldiers will continue to influence the stability of Somalia upon return home.  Post-war reconstruction is not the rebuilding of a place - it is a web of flickering interactions between people, perceptions, objects, places, and wounds.

Mapping the Stakeholders in Post-Conflict Reconstruction of Future Wars as a Field of Lightbulbs

Working with Veteran Affairs, I have found myself looking into the eyes of the same soldiers who were in Afghanistan during my years there.  We were there for different reasons, to do different jobs, and possibly with different goals.  We also had different kinds of relationships with the local population and lived in entirely different ways.  We made and lost friends. We think about Afghanistan everyday, and also, think about it very differently, but it always in our minds. From this I know that the Afghanistan and Iraq wars will shape American politics for generations, just as the Vietnam war was discussed in every US political debate into the early 2000s.

To consider the demands of every node in the complex and time-warping web of global conflict is not feasible as a design approach. But consistent with the methods I have applied to other complex problems, to consider the thematic and territorial overlaps does prove effective. For example, in the domain of mental health, the impacts of war via PTSD are well documented within America and other NATO states. It is, however, less discussed among resident populations of war-torn regions and only marginally (if ever) discussed in reference to displaced populations.

The healing from trauma is complicated, and there are many who never fully recover or find effective remedies to move forward in their lives. Yet initiatives that have brought soldiers in contact with the places where they served, to build new memories and relationships with long harmful experiences, have been found to effective to some.  For others, there is a need to cut all ties, to relocate, and build new lives elsewhere. No matter how you approach it, healing becomes geographic as much as a psychological process.

To advance the state of postwar reconstruction, there is a necessity to go beyond security, architecture, and socio-economics. Like most design problems, there is an obvious need to factor such variables across time and space. But now I realize the necessity to reconsider our definitions of war in terms of how we conceive of stakeholders and stakeholder needs. This is not a static domain. New individuals and entities will emerge and disappear over time as will their contributions to the problems and the solutions. We cannot end war but we can formulate our present understanding of its ramifications so as to position a better tomorrow.