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Transitioning to a New Form of Innovation

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, October 3, 2018
Updated: Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Adam Cowart has written his tenth post in our Emerging Fellows program. He unfolds some aspects of innovation in the light of CLA method. The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the APF or its other members.

For those frustrated with the traditional tools and challenges of transformational innovation in a complex world, focus has turned to systems innovation. But does systems innovation address the underlying problem of sub optimization? Using the oft-quoted Einstein, “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.”

What lies beneath our systems? Causal Layer Analysis, or CLA, provides some insight. For those unfamiliar with this concept, a brief example of the futures technique. At the top is what is known as the Litany. Imagine a headline in the newspaper: “Lawmakers Punished at the Ballot Box for Proposing Tax Increases”. In essence, tax increases are almost never popular despite some fairly substantial benefits. Litany is the noise at the top.

Below Litany is the Pattern level, in which we see tax trends (typically, decreases, especially in the corporate world). Beneath the Pattern level is the System/Structural level, in which political parties, nominations, lobbying groups, political donations, tax laws, etc., exist that shape the patterns of decreasing taxation. We would typically stop here in the more “woke” realms of innovation, system innovation. But in the CLA model, there are 2 more layers.

Underneath our tax systems, we have Worldviews. For our example, we will adopt a Modernist worldview: “Work hard and your life will get better”. And, underpinning all of this is the Myth or Organizing Metaphor. In this case, let us go with the American Dream: “Anyone can succeed.”

So, to play this all back: The organizing metaphor of the American Dream manifests in the modernist worldview of hard work and progress, which crystallizes into the political and financial systems, which create patterns of ever decreasing taxes (because we work hard for our money and if you have no money you must be lazy), which flare up into an event where a small group of pitiful politicians actually tries to do something about it.

How do we overcome sub optimization at the systems level? Narrative Innovation. By digging to the deepest layers of our collective existence. Not in the way that narrative innovation has perhaps been used before; using stories to generate new innovation. But rather the inverse: innovating the stories. Our underlying archetypal stories need to change in order to create true “systems wide” innovation.

This change is not merely a reworking of plot points, but a re-conception of the structure of our archetypal narratives. The French philosopher Deleuze asserts that we have moved from a moral existence to an aesthetic one. Within this move, there are Five Dualities, one of which is the move from Idea to Image. Much has been written about “images of the future”, and, perhaps, before we had images of the future we had ideas of the future. But as Fred Polak noted more than 50 years ago, our images are in decline. While we have focused some energy on regenerating our images to guide us towards a new future, perhaps it is too late? Perhaps images are no longer the vehicles, the beacons of our future? Perhaps we have moved into a new form of existence? From moral to aesthetic to something else altogether. And our underlying organizing metaphors must also evolve, must also be innovated. From ideas of the future to images of the future to (you fill in the blank).


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  CLA  innovation  narrative innovation 

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Ugh, Scenarios? That’s Not Very Innovative…

Posted By Administration, Tuesday, July 3, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his eighth article written for the program. In it, he explores scenarios. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

Previously we have challenged what is truly innovation (depending on how you parse the definition, maybe nothing!), and the challenges of systems wide innovation. We can now introduce 4 possible scenarios (among many, many others) to begin to conceptualize what the future of innovation looks like:

1. Baseline. The baseline scenario has organizations, governments, and economies continuing to muddle through. Some continue to sub optimize and exist, others innovate to various degrees, others are shape shifters, able to leap from one new industry to another, evolving as they go along. Over time, we become more fluent in the efficiency and quality of innovation activities, using such measurements as research quotients (RQ), developed by Anne Marie Knott, that measure innovation inputs and outputs to gauge success. Innovation as disruption is still seen as the gold standard, though large, mature firms still struggle with whether to embrace or suppress these disruptions. Innovation is still largely situated.

2. Systems-Bound Mutual Self-Interest: A greater understanding of systems, and systems literacy, coupled with virtual and software based platforms and physical innovative cross-disciplinary spaces point to less sub optimization and unproductive situated innovation. Instead, organizations will bond together in mutual self-interest (perhaps making some a bit uneasy as self-organization looks a lot like vertical integration and monopolization). Definitions of competition and anti-trust will be rewritten and new measurements of social good will come to eclipse GDP as the primary measurement of innovation and economic health.

3. Double-Down on Sub-Optimization and Quick Profit. The insatiable thirst for quarterly profits points to a future of sub optimization that shows no signs of disappearing. In an effort to stimulate the real economy, governments implement varying policies of charging demurrage on the financial market, charging fees or taxing capital that isn’t being used in “productive” ways. This will increase available capital for reinvestment. However, instead of increasing innovation and productivity, it could simply “feed the beast” of sub optimization. Especially when coupled with the relentless focus on quarterly returns, on “maximizing value”. In a world where capital must be reinvested in the firm, the resultant behavior could involve a great deal of tire spinning, or more precisely, short-term cycles of excessive value extraction meant to replicate share buy-back schemes and large dividend payouts. This, coupled with rapid rise and fall “fad” industries, make for rapid boom-bust cycles globally. Think of it as shifting the burden on overdrive.

4. The Rapid S-Curve Economy. Organizations become increasingly amorphous, shape shifters that are constantly seeking out new emergent industries, colonizing them rapidly, then moving on once the industry matures. And the maturity of the industries is also rapid. Organizations become almost nomadic. With either large or scarce reserves of capital for innovation and expansion, organizations move to rapidly create and capitalize on opportunities; one or two players prove successful and monopolize the space; the rest move on to find greener pastures.

What to do? The answer may be in the form of government policy. Governments are still the primary investor in risky innovative endeavours. When will investment programs and structures be put in place to invest in systems wide innovation? Even if it is still sub optimized within the nation-state?

Perhaps this is all just an elaborate way of saying that innovation is messy, often fails, and even when successful we can’t be sure of what positive and negative externalities it will cause. Ultimately, sub optimization is inherently a product of innovation. By correcting one problem we create others. Not all problems are created equal, of course, and we would prefer to have certain problems over others – for example, all the side-effects associated with medications we choose are an unfortunate but necessary trade off. We are both selfish in the sense that we view progress from our own situated perspective, and we are utilitarian in the sense that we generally hope that any negative outcomes of innovation will be less than the derived benefit.

We are left with a future where the nature and impact, not to mention the consistency and payback, of innovation, creating results by doing new things, is unclear. Will we move towards increased sub optimization or will we create and adopt the social technologies we need to generate deep structural results?


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  innovation  system 

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Superposition and Frosting a Cake

Posted By Administration, Monday, July 2, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his seventh article written for the program. In it, he compares superposition to innovation. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

We previously challenged what is truly innovative versus sub optimization in some shape or form. We can now delve deeper into assumptions about innovation today. If we start with standpoint theory and situated knowledge, we can drill down a little deeper to reach the concept of situated imagination. Situated imagination contends that knowledge is dependent upon our location: physically, economically, and socially, among other situating coordinates. Thus, imagination is an amalgamation, an alchemy of self and collective conditions, which influences not only meaning but the concept of the “not-yet real”, in the words of Jean Paul Sartre.

In order to “do different things” we must be able to “think differently”. Therefore, moving beyond sub optimization first requires an acknowledgement of what we could call “Situated Innovation”. Situational innovation, the phenomenon of innovation being inherently connected to a particular observer or group of observers, is perhaps the most significant hidden cost in the global economy. Exercises in empathy can help to re-situate the observer, but typically this is done in a manner that is inherently sub optimizing.

While our discussion has largely revolved around the issue of space (across silos, organizations, and countries), time is another dimension in which we sub optimize. The most obvious example of this is shifting the burden of climate change onto future generations. But the issue also manifests in, for example, inter-generational organizational issues. Consider the sub optimization of the past. While not as obvious as the impact on the future, consider the many cost-benefits and projects built around past projections of the future, now the present. By sub optimizing within the present, we underutilize the past, which can have ripple effects into the future. Decisions are forgotten, goals are lost and abandoned. For every idea that survives, countless others falter at some point. A Darwinian perspective on ideas and past innovations is nothing more than permission to hold a bias towards old ideas.

Finally, beyond the space and time, is matter. Agential realism, and spacetimemattering, a theory developed by Karen Barad, provides another perspective on matter and meaning in innovation activities. Agential realism, at its core, is about the inherent entanglement of all things. Any act of observation creates the “agential cut” in which we include some things, and exclude a number of other possibilities. This temporary “cut” allows us to view a chunk of a thing, matter, in isolation, in order to gain a greater understanding of the thing we wish to observe. Hence, our observations of the world are inherently performative. Here, too, we see the challenge of innovation and the limits to our innovative capacities. Observationally, we must isolate an object as either a thing or process. By doing this, we ignore its connected (here, entangled) state of being.

Think of it like this: You are making a cake. Typically, you would wait until it cooled and then frost the whole cake. However, once this particular cake has cooled, you can no longer observe the cake as a whole. You see a piece of the cake and cut out that piece, cover it in frosting, and return the piece to the cake. Then you go about trying to find other pieces of the cake. Unable to see the whole cake at once, you are left with cutting, frosting, returning. In all likelihood, you will only frost a small portion of the cake. Even if you somehow manage to cut off and frost every piece of the cake, it will look more than a little strange! Later that evening, most guests at the party, blessed with the ability to observe the whole cake at once, will agree this is a far from optimum cake. Rather, the cake looks like it was made by Frankenstein.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  innovation  realism 

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Welcome to Earth, the Sub-Optimized Planet

Posted By Administration, Wednesday, June 20, 2018
Updated: Monday, February 25, 2019

Adam Cowart is one of our Emerging Fellows, and this is his sixth article written for the program. In it, he explores the potential of sub-optimized ecosystems. The views expressed are not necessarily those of the APF or its members.

What role can – or will – innovation play in the future of the real economy? To begin, let’s start with the simplest definition of innovation. Innovation is “creating results by doing new things.” The “doing new things” part is fairly self-explanatory on the surface. It is the process of doing something in a way in which it was not previously done. Although, often, we may have done something, then stopped doing it, then started doing it again either aware or unaware of having done it in the past. But the “creating results” piece of the definition is less clear. What, precisely, is a result? A positive outcome? And, if so, a positive outcome for whom? We can say that, today, an innovative result is one in which we either save money, make money, or provide some sort of social or environmental good. But are those the results we should be aiming for? Do we care, or even understand, how these results impact and influence other components of the global system? And, for our purposes here, how will our definition of “results” evolve in the future? The point here is not to focus on types of results reporting, such as triple bottom line or happiness index-type measurements. The purpose here is on the deeper structural challenges to “real” innovation.

There is no question that what we might call “innovation-offset” occurs across a system or multiple subsystems. How often does an innovation in one area generate an offsetting process inefficiency or product redundancy in another? Put another way, if you innovate in one area, to the detriment of another area, are you really innovating at all? And how would you even know?

Two common terms used to describe this phenomenon are sub-optimization and shifting the burden. Sub-optimization commonly refers to silo-type thinking within an organization. This leads to non-value added activities, redundancy, or diminished returns. Shifting the burden, on the other hand, is a term generally meant to describe a tendency to focus on resolving surface-level, symptomatic issues, pushing costs and negative externalities onto others.

What we might call “sub-optimization ecosystems” are now a vital part of the real economy, not only the maintenance of them, but the perpetual attempts to circumnavigate them. By focusing on the self-interest of the firm at the expense of the larger system, we are inherently sub-optimizing. We ostensibly innovate within a department, across a division, across a firm, across an industry, across multiple industries, then across whole economies. There is no escape.

Our attention has been focused on what we can call the migratory patterns of money. How its shapes and structures tend to manifest. And here, we see a profitable innovation ecosystem, where activity and expenditure is its own reward. But wait, isn’t innovation inherently messy? An iterative process of trial and error. “Fail fast to succeed sooner”?

Consider what percentage of global GDP is dedicated to activities that solve problems by creating new problems elsewhere. Cycles of pointless zero-sum innovation. At a time of complexity, instead of adopting the tools of social innovation and systems change, we have doubled down on the mercurial dark arts of sub-optimization, masked as real innovation.


© Adam Cowart 2018

Tags:  economics  environment  innovation 

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