The virtue of innovation

Innovation doesn't lie in making our existing lives marginally more comfortable. It's truly innovative when it creates lasting changes in our lives that we'll be proud to look back on.

Creativity is based on the belief that there’s no particular virtue in doing things the way they’ve always been done.

– Rudolf Flesch

Innovation, too, should be based on the belief that there’s virtue in doing things better than they’ve always been done. It should be about designing life for the better. It lies in respecting problems strongly enough to see the value in striving for a better solution.

If I read mission statements, bestselling books and industry articles, it seems we all agree on that. If I have a look at what’s happening in the real world though, I can’t help but think differently. What is “better”? What does “good” actually mean? Current trends, start-ups and industry hype make us believe that “better” is equivalent to “more convenient, faster, leaner, simpler”.
Same-day delivery. Instant replies. Ad-hoc commerce. Groceries in under 10 minutes.

This is not really about the future. This is about improving our now. The future becomes nothing more than an extended present.

What is innovation for?

“There is hardly anything in the world that someone cannot make a little worse and sell a little cheaper.”

— John Ruskin

From my point of view, by embracing the notion that cheapness can not only be understood in terms of money, but also in terms of time, all these things do not lead to a richer life. They just deliver a cheaper one. By focussing innovation attempts purely on convenience, we basically succumb to the idea that quality of life is measured in efficiency. In fact, we’re equating it with laziness. Convenience alone leads to passiveness, and thus a loss of involvement, a loss of agency and also a loss of creativity.

I don’t know about you, but what I have learned during Covid is that an efficient life is a boring one and not something that I would like to live in the long term. (I’m aware that I can be considered very lucky. I am among the more privileged of us whose biggest worries were limited social contact, too much screen time, and missing both the gym and going to nice restaurants).

Innovation with values that matter

I did a small experiment with my extended family, friends, and colleagues and asked them: what would be the one thing you could change around your life right now? What would make your life better? What would you wish for in the future?

None of those people said they wished for more convenience, or all of those really nice-to-have things. They asked for those things that make up the multi-dimensionality of human life: connection, depth in relationships, health, meaning, a colourful palette of different emotions.

So, what would happen if we actually designed for those values? For grief, exuberant joy, connectivity, anger, moods, falling in love and out of it? What innovation could that lead to?

For explore this in our work, I think we need to shift three things in both our thinking and doing.

1. From future to posterity

We need to shift from from short-term optimisations to long-term thinking. Focus on the question: what do we want to leave behind? What do we want to be remembered for? Take more into consideration than today’s interests. Design for our children, grand-children or imaginary kids and neighbours. Stop working on low-hanging fruit. Imagine the future generation as a customer instead of the current ones. You’d be surprised on how much more meaning and quality you will demand of your ideas.

2. From “What can we simplify?” to “What can we contribute?”

If you live in the Western world, you already live quite a convenient life. Now it’s time to take the next step and expand the range of values and feelings. Enrich the life of individuals and communities. Deepen the experience we have. This can be big things like solutions for societal challenges like sustainability, community building or education. Or it can be simpler things that trigger joy and excitement in everyday life.

Some food for thought: Why does e-commerce/finance always have to be fast and lean? Shouldn’t we also be able to celebrate the investments and savings we managed? How can we spark anticipation and care? What does gifting mean in the future? What is time well spent online? How can we share individual digital experiences with others and connect in this new reality? What happens if we structure our calendar according to mood, not productivity?

3. Put more on the line – Dare to risk

Innovation should be about respecting the problem enough and perceiving it as profound enough to believe that finding better ways of solving it requires time, effort and creativity. It should make our head spin and shouldn’t be able to be solved in a half-assed design sprint.

Usually working on these problems involves risk. Since the advent of the “fail fast, fail forward” motto, it seems to me that everybody chooses those problems where it’s basically impossible to fail, where there is no real risk involved. This is not what’s meant by embracing uncertainty, this is just playing it safe. 😉  We need to shoot for those ideas where the scenario of it actually working makes us more nervous than it failing because it would result in a radical change of how we live.

I’m aware that these aspects don’t — and cannot — hold up in all situations and contexts.They require time, creativity and, most of all, care. However, I believe it’s worth giving it a try. The result will be fewer ideas and fewer concepts, but better ones. Maybe even some that are for good.

Kristina is an innovation consultant, business designer and strategist, currently at Sinnerschrader. Working at the intersection of business, design, culture, technology and human realities, Kristina’s work strives to inspire organisations to imagine and design better futures for people, society, and the planet. You can catch up with Kristina and her work on Twitter and LinkedIn.


Photo by Gemma Chua-Tran on Unsplash