Corporate Innovation/Interview/

How to foster “creative reception” to improve innovation, according to anthropology

For anthropologist Ulrich Ufer, product innovation doesn't happen unless the whole of society is onboard

By Alejandro Tauber

Ulrich Ufer ©KIT/Lydia Albrecht

In the mind of most people innovation is synonymous with invention. A person or group of people come up with a creative new idea for a new product or service, this idea is produced and rolled out, and consumers or users pick it up and run with it. 

This is wrong. 

At least according to Ulrich Ufer, one of the primary researchers on the concept and history of innovation from an anthropological perspective. 

From his home base at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, one of the leading technical universities in Europe, he has published widely on innovation as a human practice and a theoretical concept. 

“You really have to abandon this idea of the inventor, which is often also reflected in patenting,” he tells Sifted. The idea of the singular inventor, he says, paints an incomplete picture of how innovation actually “works”. 

Ufer posits that innovation isn’t a process in which a new idea or product is created, and then “diffuses” outward to the people using or working with that innovation. Instead, it’s reliant on a two-way process, in which the person at the receiving end of the innovation is as important as the inventor.

And this theory could be pretty relevant for corporate innovators looking to improve innovation. 

Integration innovation into society

True innovation relies on more than just passive reception, says Ufer: “For innovation to really work, it has to become a total social fact, it has to be really integrated in society.” Smartphones might be the best example of this — now an integral part of individual life and society.  

In the corporate innovation context, “society” can also be read as “the engineering department”, or “marketing”, or even “the executive team”. 

Ufer’s statement is underlined by multiple surveys among corporate innovators, in which “cultural resistance to change” or some variation thereof is always at the top of the list of obstacles for innovations.

Ufer argues that innovations do not just diffuse through a society — that implies that the people introduced to the innovation have little agency or role to play in the adoption of new ideas, services or products. Instead, he stresses the paramount importance of what he calls “creative reception.” 

He says that individuals and groups can be creative in their reception when:

  1. Items, practices, places or elements of communication they encounter both give answers and pose questions;
  2. They are adaptable to and speak to contexts;
  3. They allow recombination with what is already there and known;
  4. They can be accessed and shared easily;
  5. They transcend familiarity with moments of estrangement;
  6. Or “make brains work” by triggering connections between memories and expectations or by speaking to different senses of the body.

In the tech-business context, one example of a very successful innovation that ticks pretty much all the boxes is the concept of open source software. Thanks to the permissive licensing structure, programmers are free to use and change the software as they see fit. The creative freedom to use, adapt, share and collaborate on code has led to the creation of 180,000 open source projects, used by both commercial companies and individual programmers. 

In the workplace, creative receptivity is acutely visible in communication tools like Slack. While intended to replace email with more direct but asynchronous communication, it provides enough flexibility to create dedicated space to discuss cross-departmental issues like diversity, or the latest memes. 

Outside of pure tech, examples include pairs of inventions like the cassette tape and the Sony Walkman, apps and the iPhone, and games and Twitch. All of these pairings allow people to use creativity to customise the use and experience.  

All of these innovations are in part successful because they tickle something in humans that make them want to play with them, find out how to use them in different ways that fit their lives and give them a feeling of agency in being part of the innovation. In other words, they’re creatively receptive.

This might perhaps hold an answer for why employees are often resistant to change –– working a new tool and changing their work flow can feel like repression instead of an opportunity. As Sifted’s Thomas Brown found in his conversation with Roche’s transformation lead Anne Nijs, scaling innovation required “influencing people rather than coercing, allowing people to adapt the system in their own way while still keeping hold of the essential guiding principles.”

Change is exactly where anthropology shines. “The strength of anthropology is precisely what the term means, it’s a science of man. We put the individual or the group of people, their identities, their everyday lives, at the centre. By studying the cultures of human societies over the long-term, we gain critical perspectives on current hypes, or widely held assumptions of what is normal. Studying alterity is very much at the heart of anthropology, and it’s precisely this potential of difference and diversity that drives innovation and creative reception.”

What can business innovators learn?

So what practices can we infer for creating an environment of creative receptivity in a business environment?

First, as any good anthropologist, it’s important to think of the creative receivers as full human beings rather than users, taking more into account than their responsibility, productivity and output. Workplace innovations like flexible hours or remote working are recent examples of this (mostly) working to the benefit of both business and employee, as most employees feel they can be more productive when not commuting, and working when it suits them.  

Second, innovations should not be finished products, in the sense that they can only be used for pre-determined and very specific purposes, as this stifles creativity and thus uptake. This allows people to use the innovation as it fits into their (work) life. Spreadsheets or more modern apps like Airtable or Notion fit in this category, as they’re adaptable to fit both business and individual needs.

And third, it’s important to start thinking about the cultural consequences of an innovation at a very early stage –– perhaps even in the lab –– to avoid misuse, in both ethical and practical terms. If only Google would have done this when first launching Google Glass.

Alejandro Tauber is a freelance tech and business writer based in Amsterdam. He tweets from @AlejandroTauber

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