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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.

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.

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.

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. 

Conceptualizing the City as a Synthesis of Habits

When I started my education in city planning, I took a course on urban form, wherein Jay Chatterjee introduced a different perspective on the organization of cities every week.  Jay knew his stuff, having studied with Kevin Lynch and later, as university president, having led the way to a master plan for the University of Cincinnati featuring an array of established architects.  In fact, studying at UC DAAP was basically akin to studying at a museum of architecture, surrounded by buildings designed by the likes of Frank Gehry, Peter Eisenmen, and Michael Graves (himself a DAAP alumnus).

In Jay's class we looked at the history of how a cities have been conceptualized.  Renaissance diagrams of the city as a human body compared roads to arteries and parks to lungs.  Then of course there was explorations of the city as a mandala or as an ecology.  I found these approaches to interesting at the time.

But now, after having worked extensively within complex urban systems, I find them as little more than poetic and perhaps damaging.  To an extent there is truth.  Cells combine to create tissue, tissues combine to create organs, organs combine to create organ systems, and organ systems combine to create an organism.  Thus if to combine organisms you create an complex organic system (city) and to combine these urban systems you create another macro-entity (state). But how does this conceptual organization of systems help advance the needs of the people within it?  How does this framework provide any utility for intervention and to what end?

As an organic system, we can examine capital flows, supply chains, and nodes of interaction just as one would examine the circulation of blood or oxygen.  Milieus of capital and power will intersect in a fashion that is either harmonious or catastrophic.  An array of intersections will form hierarchies in the form of institutions, or institutions will harness the dynamics of these nodes by means of hegemony. Clearly the metaphor can be extended, but what can an urban planner or designer make of this?

I'd argue very little because ultimately it is only a metaphor, an approximate model of reality, and models are fairly archaic in the contemporary world.  With an abundance of technologies to measure and predict interactions, we can do better than model our environments, but we can create new methods to engage, measure, and predict the events around us.  Today, the model and the reality are the same thing, if they are not - then you are doing it wrong.

I say this because we must take for granted that all urbanism is self-organizing, and once we acknowledge that, we are better positioned to ask the more important question: how does a self-organized system actually operate and to what end?  

Now we have an opportunity.

A city, like a business, is better understood - not as an organism or geometric mandala - but as a collection of habitual processes that have organized in time and space to form a collective habit.  This collective habit continues to operate because it has survived to do so.  Any imposition that will undermine the collective habit will force adaptation (new habits) or it will die.  A good example can be found within most manufacturing companies - either they keep with the times or they go out of business.  

At the granular level, changing one individual's habits will merit only limited impact (thus a new mayor or president can only do so much), while changing a large collection of granular habits will lead to a massive change at a larger scale.  This is incredibly difficult but possible.  Take for example the changes in popular music.  While a dominant musical paradigm is perpetuated at the collective scale, a new form of music may grow in appeal at the fringe which will eventually become popular.  No behaviors changed - all people continued listening to music with the same supportive behaviors - but the music selection changed, and thus we find certain elements attached to the music (fashion perhaps) also rising to the fore.  Now we can ask, why has a new form of music replaced the other?  What drove the sustainability of that change?  The habits did not change, but the form of each habit was modified, so how did that work and how can I use the same methodology in my own project?

Conceptualizing a city as a collection of habits will do more for a designer than conceptualizing a city as a body, beast, or geometry.  In the reductionist sense, we can examine the procedure of those habits and fine tune our environments to respond.  For example, if we find that people habitually congregate in a given location, we can  capitalize upon their congregation or choose disrupt the location to redistribute the population, and replicate the process at within all similar environments to the same effect.  Or, from a constructivist perspective, we can examine the array of elements that inform the formation of that organization, and attempt to infuse other environments with those elements to stimulate similar activity, hoping that the inhabitants will contribute something else to create a positive outcome.  

Contemplating a city as a collection of habits will not solve all problems. Yet it provides more utility than visualizing the city according to classical metaphors because it provides opportunities for intervention.  Likewise, I encourage interested readers to create other paradigms for interpreting cities but to never get stuck on any particular idea as the ideal.   For example, thinking of a city as a creative entity, aka Richard Florida, is fine.  But if you really plan to leverage that concept for your own city... don't expect much return.  That singular notion, like any other, is merely an approximation - a model - and therefore it will only reap so much reward.  Rather you need to go beyond the limitations of a single ideology. Believe in nothing. Believe in everything.

For example, what does it mean to examine the city as each of the following? How can you build off of these idea to create opportunities toward a given objective?  Simply challenging yourself to organize your thoughts around each of these given prompts will provide a new way to think of human structured environments in a manner to reveal restrictions, possibilities, mechanisms, and more.  If you map out a series of ideas based on each prompt you will also discover many conflicts will emerge.  That is good. Embrace the frictions and the voids because these points are perhaps more important than the symmetries.

  • City as record
  • City as interface
  • City as library
  • City as software
  • City as hardware
  • City as inheritance
  • City as puzzle
  • City as experiment
  • City as a game
  • City as language
  • City as narrative
  • City as reaction
  • City as sport
  • City as reproduction
  • City as resistance
  • City as byproduct
  • City as ...