Metadesign and Innovation

On December 1st we had another interesting conversation here at JuntoSP, our coworking space in São Paulo. It was about metadesign but the innovation theme was brought up again, it seems to be what makes hearts and minds uneasy.

Ours guests were architect Caio Vassão and conversation designer Luiz Algarra, in addiction to some communication professionals, designers, executives, and partners from Dobra’s network as well. It was a really interesting mix of people.

Where does the term “meta” come from?

According to Vassão, the first term to use the prefix “meta” was “Metaphysics”. Legend has it, that it was a way to classify some of the books of prime philosophy by Aristotle, which had no name. As they were positioned after (meta) the physics books, the term metaphysics was created. But the word metaphysics has important consequences.

It refers to matters of ontology, namely, it belongs to the same category of thought we use to reflect about something, adopting the position of an observer of our own lives: a meta-position.

For me, Humberto Maturana´s question: “how do we do what we do?” is the great and powerful meta-question. We can ask ourselves about how we do physics, how we work or how we design the spaces we inhabit. “The metadesign is the project’s own design project,” says Vassão.

He gave the example of the program METAFONT, a publishing system that, as the name says, programs fonts. The person who programmed the system to program fonts, was a metadesigner.

It’s as if life had layers and we were rising and rising to increasingly higher levels to observe what we do. These layers, Vassão says, are levels of abstraction. Being a Metadesigner is to place oneself in a higher level of abstraction to reflect upon the reality being created.

Metadesign and complex systems

When we face complex systems, as an organization or a community, for example, we can’t create a closed project.

The system is constantly changing and adapting. Metadesign then creates an environment of decisions made of few basic guidelines, criteria that make life easier for those working within the system. These criteria are not control parameters, but operators to guide action within the system which are validated (or not) by use.

The principle behind it is that simple elements can generate complexity. Reversing this reasoning, we may say it is possible to find the simple elements that build a complex system. The Metadesign seeks to identify those simple elements a posteriori, creating what Pierce called opportune categorical system.

Shared criteria for operating in a complex system: it is easier to say than to define them, but they can help us give a positive answer to the question “is it possible to project complexity?” If we think about working and learning contexts, this is a key question, since the growing connectivity and availabity of information increases the complexity of the systems we operate in. It is a great temptation to simply categorize and cut the system to pieces to understand it, with great risks of ending up with inadequate analytic answers.

Algarra pointed a critical distinction: what makes us human is that we talk about these criteria or ontology. This is one of the foundations of the collective intelligence concept, which rises in Bateson (Steps to the Ecology of Mind) and is further developed by Pierre Levy.

That might sound harsh, “headstrong”, ultra-reflective, but then another interesting concept was brought to stimulate the conversation: the homo ludens. According to this concept, the basis of culture is a play.

Then what makes us human is our ability to play with concepts and ontologies, to play with the design of how we live what we live. Playing is an essential, yet overlooked skill because it leads us to revise, combine and generate concepts creatively.

We lead the life we are able to perceive and talk about. Playing with concepts that underlie our lives would be metadesign.

From this point on talking about innovation was inevitable.

What is innovation anyway?

Algarra brought up Maturana, and proposed innovation emerges to save something we want to conserve. We want to conserve a way of life, the possibility to have affordable energy, the possibility of dealing with scarce resources and yet have comfort; we want to sustain the business of an organization. Actions, ideas and changes are articulated on the basis of what we want to conserve.

Vassão suggests: innovation is manipulating ontologies. We can do it top down from pre-defined categories or bottom up as we watch the events and create ontologies from this observation. For Vassão, this second path is much more innovative.

So innovation would be “to confront the cognitive boundaries of the reality that we build.” I´ve  twitted this statement of Vassão´s and Paulo Ganns (@ pganns suggested:) “Breaking instead of confronting?”. Well, maybe innovating is “dissolving the cognitive boundaries of the reality we build.”

But why innovate? Where does this desire come from?

Again we returned to the point of the previous meeting: the reason why of innovation.

We discussed two opinions about the origin of our motivation to action: the reaction (negative motivation generated by a  perception of error) or affection (according to Deleuze, affections are our real drivers). People who work with innovation know it very well that there is a big difference between these two motivations!

Innovating in response is not the same as innovating in search of a path built upon affection and desire. It is much more difficult to generate radical innovation from the first path, when the decay of something is imminent, but, yes, there are many who only get moving in this kind of situation. We are inside the box.

Then someone says: we live in alienation, we lack awareness of where we are, and it is difficult to be connected to one´s own emotions when we’re trapped in this kind of place.

Think outside the box? What box?

The box would be this ontology, these categories of thought that inhabit us without our being aware and determine what we can see. A metadesign conversation opens these boxes and these categories to reflect and play with them. As Maturana would say: Do I want to conserve this way of thinking?

Is Innovation always a good thing?

That got us into a conversation about the binomial innovation x ethics, and about how we think of innovation in a complex system (the communities where we live in).

In a complex context, an innovation unleashes a series of systemic reactions. Vassão reported the case of the pocket car project in which he participates.

Thinking about a new type of car means rethinking the entire production chain of the car. If the engine is oversimplified what will happen to the jobs of steelworkers who make engines? If the cars are shared, what will happen with the insurance companies?

As consequence, we can consider that the real challenges of innovation begin, in fact, after a new product or action is launched. Innovation needs will be multiplied by the actions we have to take to deal with the systemic consequences of that launch.

How do innovations emerge in culture?

Innovation irradiates through new concepts that will penetrate and spread in a given culture. It may be a new product, but it may simply be a new concept with which we begin operating.

Someone asks: does it come from a new need? Or we create new needs?

Who needed the cellphone before it existed? The need seems to be more of a consequence. The innovation arises; we become accustomed to what it provides. From then on the need emerges and is nurtured.

But innovation goes far beyond product, services and processes. It may simply be a concept, a new way of living. (The term “to stay” – for example, was created less than 20 years ago to name faster forms of love relationships – in Brazil at least).

These easily replicable concepts that change our lives are memes.

Thus innovating is agencing possibilities. If you do not understand it yet, do not worry, if you are curious about it, read a bit of Deleuze, but let´s make it simple: possibilities are vectors that are available, someone or something finds an intersection or a new combination of these vectors, and voilá here’s the innovation.

Being attentive to the events that emerge around us without categorizing them a priori, allows us to think of new ontologies.

Innovation is experimental, says Vassão.

Yes, we live in Beta.

Mariana Gogswell, another colleague places: “How can we develop the emotional resources to live like this?”

Good question! We´ll stick with this one and reflect upon its consequences to education, learning, smart work and innovation.


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