The Future Of Innovation ... Design As Catalyst, Not Control

Mr Greg Van Alstyne

To apprehend the future of innovation, we need to better understand both the increasing ubiquity and the dawning limits of design. In my research I’m seeking to articulate the role of design in the new, complex spaces of co-creation, where outcomes are the result not of direct specification and control from the top down, but of indirect forces that must be elicited, harnessed, or induced to emerge from the bottom up. I believe we are witnessing a paradigm shift from top-down, centralized model of design to increasingly bottom-up processes of creation and development.

As a result innovators must learn to design for emergence. I first articulated these views in What People Want: Populism in Architecture and Design, proceedings from the 2004 DOM Conference in Linz, Austria. This inquiry continues in Toronto at OCAD’s Strategic Innovation Lab, through a series of papers in collaboration with physicist and media ecologist Robert K. Logan (also in this volume).

Designing for Emergence (D4E) re-envisions the responsibilities of the designer and the mechanics of the innovation process in these new models of co-creation, in which many agents provide input. D4E supersedes the inherited legacy of modernism, with its overt ideology of domination and mastery. In this new, systems-based model, intended benefits and other consequences are appreciated as effects and patterns that emerge through complex interactions among these agents and their environment, in a model analogous to that of biological self-organization and evolution.

In ecology and biology, the ceaseless co-evolution of organisms with each other and their environment is accepted fact. In the social sciences, language, culture and behavioural interaction may clearly be understood as the product of emergent processes. For business, industry and design, however, the co-creation/co-evolution model of innovation has yet to acquire this mature status: while it gains relevance and popularity in practice, theory races to stay abreast. Yet once we look for evidence we find it in abundance. One can examine past examples, as Dr. Logan and I have done, from the tool making of early humans to Gutenberg’s printing press. Our contemporary awareness of D4E arises from the increasing power and importance of contemporary techniques such as the collaborative filtering recommendation system used by, Google’s much-admired PageRank algorithm, the rise of the open source movement, and wider application of genetic algorithms.

Those who have chartered this terrain from different perspectives include Dee Hock, who founded Visa and the Chaordic Commons; Tim O'Reilly, who coined the term Web 2.0; and Norman Packard, who pioneered complexity studies at Sante Fe and went on to synthetic biology. While I don't know of many others who are articulating the shift in the same terms that Bob Logan and I are using, nonetheless we are clearly witnessing a tectonic shift from nouns to verbs, from products to services, from making stuff to making sense, from controlling and specifying to enabling, inducing, influencing and inspiring. This is the biggest and most interesting future wave in the innovation ocean.

Article © 2009 Mr Greg Van Alstyne. All rights reserved.

about the author...

Mr Greg  Van Alstyne

Mr Greg Van Alstyne

affiliation:   Ontario College Of Art Design; Strategic Innovation Lab Slab

position:  Director of Research

country:  Canada

area of interest:  Designing for Emergence

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