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Home > Jeff Ubois > Design-Push Innovation: Changing Accepted Meanings (part 2)

Design-Push Innovation: Changing Accepted Meanings (part 2)

by Redazione FGB [1], 21 March 2008

(An interview with Roberto Verganti [2] - ...continues from the previous entry [3])

Jeff Ubois:
There was a Japanese cartoon that had flashing robot eyes. They were strobing at a rate that induced epileptic seizures in some people.

Roberto Verganti:
You know, another example is TV shows, you come from that industry, media, where the Simpsons was a breakthrough change in meaning, a cartoon for adults. In primetime and at night, I mean, something you and I would never have predicted. Very radical also because given it was a cartoon, you could also say something was not very politically proper. Much more clever than Big Brother, much more clever. So, you can have these kind of changes.

Ubois:
To be accountable implies accepting costs. My question about lawsuits over design push innovations was because I'm wondering if there've been costs that have been imposed on design innovators.

Verganti:
Costs can be that someone sues you, but the costs can be more social costs. I wouldn't be very proud to be the guy that invented Big Brother. But instead, they are convinced that that is the way to function, and they are proud.

Ubois:
That's right.

Verganti:
The interesting thing is that in user centered innovation, you believe that you are not responsible. The users are asking that. We are giving the user what they want, which is, of course, untrue. You are always accountable.

Ubois:
But even then, you're asking the questions to begin with.

Verganti:
Yeah, that's right. Design push innovation, I'm sure that people ask the question, themselves. We are sure that the world is going that direction. Do we believe people will be happy or not? With user centered innovation, you always believe that you are doing the right thing. So, you don't ask this question, yourself. I'm sure, it's much easier to escape the question if you are user centered innovation because you assume that the question, people want it better than this. Instead, we know that's not like this. We know that if TV shows ask people, broadcasting TV, television ask people what they want to see, they would broadcast only pornography. And the reason why they don't broadcast pornography is because there is a law that prevents them to do that because people don't want that. And the law is design push in a way. It's likely enough there is someone who has a vision of what is good for society. Eventually, the guys who say, who put the law are elected by people, likely enough, there is a lot between elections and law-making that allows politicians to do good things, even if you ask people, they will decide differently.

Ubois:
Say that again.

Verganti:
Let's mention democracy. People vote. What I was saying is this is interesting because that could be a good question for Piero Bassetti. In a way, you can think let's make regulation totally, immediately democratic. Whenever there is a subject at issue, you say OK, now we are voting for a new health insurance policy for children, let's vote, everyone push a button. It wouldn't be impossible today to do something like that, you see? We could make a continuously democratic world. We know that that would be one of the worst worlds we could live in. There is a moment where people vote, that is once every few years and then, there is timeline between the vote and the legislation, which our politicians also do something that they know that is correct. Even if you ask people, they will never vote for it. For example, pornography on television, you could ask in secret, "People, vote. No one will ever see. Do you want pornography TV or not?" Of course, everyone would say yes.

This is to say that if you ask people what they want, that's not a guarantee that you are doing the right thing. So, with user centered design, people say "I asked people, I created a survey, 80 percent of the people want this feature and 20 percent don't want it, so we can do it." But does that mean you are doing the right thing? Are you accountable or responsible for what you're doing? No, of course not. It's not sufficient that people ask it. You still have to make a decision what to do in the product.

So, I know this is not an answer to your question how to be more responsible when you do design push innovation, but my point is that also, when you're doing user centered innovation, you believe that you are being responsible, but you are not. My point is that there is no way to escape your own analysis of what you are doing. So, I don't know how you can make people more responsible.

Participatory design is even more dangerous in a way. And so, the point is, we can come back to our discussion we had before, is it really possible to be responsible when you do innovation, regardless of your approach? And this came with the idea that responsibility in innovation is a kind of contradiction or oxymoron, because my research shows that regardless of the type of innovation, type of push design, whatever it is. Innovation basically means that people are looking at problems in a given way. And finally, you have a guy, a new dimension that no one was ever looking into. This guy here, why people should look at corkscrews, not simply to open bottles, but to get more emotionally involved. So, when you add a new dimension, typically the innovator tends to stress this dimension. He looks for a solution and direction. And the user tends to forget something else. Because if you don't do that, you'll never be noted. You have to push to be very radical.

Nowadays, many design schools say that students in design have to be conscious about the business, the dynamics. When they propose a new design to companies, they have to know a little about marketing, a little bit about accounting because you can't propose crazy things without knowing costs. And I say yes, that's good for incremental innovation, but for radical innovation, the more you explain a design student how the business works, how the mechanics, the more every time he thinks about a new idea, it's something he has a lot of constraints that say we will never function. Every time he starts to think, there are so many constraints that we stop. We will never push. And in fact, the history of Italian design that is very radical is a history of architects who knew nothing about business, nothing. Architects never take courses in marketing. And for that reason, they were very radical. They were experts in society, in really what's happening around, but business, OK, that's the job of the company. It's not our job.

Ubois:
Sort of a beginner's mind thing, too.

Verganti:
In a way, yes, in a way. So, this is the issue, because we were discussing about politicians and engineers or scientists or innovators, and who has to decide. Coming back to Truman and the Bomb, was it President Truman or the engineers who were responsible? In my opinion, responsibility is for the politicians.

Ubois:
So you and Piero have come down on the same side ... ?

Verganti:
Yeah, in the same way. And first because in my opinion, it would be dangerous to say to the politicians that engineers also should be responsible because in a way, it is like to say to a politician, oh, they are also responsible. Like Truman might say "it is not my fault, it is the engineers' fault." No, you are the President, you are responsible...

And in a way, the more you share responsibility between politician and engineer, the more you make politician less responsible and the more you make engineer responsible, the more you kill innovation. So, I'm not so sure that engineers are responsible, though one of the solutions that Piero proposes always is that engineers who take part of a stake in the discussion. Yes, they can help others to understand what's happening, they can provide information. But my feeling is it would be dangerous both for innovation and for society. Engineers are a little unaware of what's happening, but politicians have to be very aware of what's happening.

Ubois:
Leaving the governance of innovation to people who don't deeply understand it leads all kinds of crazy ideas. In this country, people in Washington thought violence on TV was a problem, and their solution was to just mandate a "V chip" that would filter out the violence.

Verganti:
So, the point is politicians need to understand better. So instead of training engineers to understand the politics of innovation, we need to train politicians about technology, which is not very easy. You can ask the engineers to explain, and they can provide suggestions, of course. Anyone would try to prove their vote is an advantage because engineers are part of society. They want more money, more funding. That's also the reason why I'm very scared of engineers being considered accountable because they have interest at stake.

Ubois:
Well, I'm thinking about the Skype call you just made. That might have been considered an illegal innovation in this country not very long ago.

Verganti:
Really?

Ubois:
Yes. In fact, there are telephone company advocates who say that Internet voice services are theft because they don't pay taxes. For them, anybody who's using Skype is the moral equivalent of a smuggler or a tax cheat, and for that reason, Internet voice is an innovation that should be suppressed. A counterargument is that by suppressing Internet voice services, the telephone companies are taking affordable telecommunication services away from poor people, and living by increasing the divergence between price and cost through favorable regulations, and now, they're suffering for it, too bad for them. But telecom companies are buying influence with politicians who claim to be enforcing some vision of responsibility, but which are also restricting open competition. So, it may be a bad idea to leave any decisions about technological innovation up to politicians because their votes will always be purchased by incumbent forces that want to suppress innovation.

Verganti:
That is an issue. But my point is that in that case, you know who to blame. In a way, there are politicians.

Ubois:
You know who to blame, but you're powerless to do anything. You still can't make the phone call to your home.

Verganti:
Yes, in a way, yes. The next time you vote, you can decide likely enough. Of course, then there are so many things that come, the next time you vote, you forget about Skype and you vote because your candidate is nicer or taller than his competitors. That's true, so unfortunately, we live in a world where accountability of politicians is questioned a lot. But moving that to engineers wouldn't solve that problem at all. If you let the incumbent companies decide, that would kill innovation anyway. So, at least they have to convince the big measure of telecommunication, they have to convince the politicians at the moment which they can do, can lobby, but there is a step they have to go through, which is more in line with the real procedures of how responsibility should be done. Responsibility shouldn't be done only in laboratories.

Ubois:
Well, there's also this place between the engineer and the parliament, which is in the boardroom and executive suite. You can imagine the issue playing out there. But when you say "responsibility in innovation," that just sounds like a cost. We sound like we want others to accept this cost. Given that you're here at the Harvard Business School and it's the center of business thinking in the U.S., how would it be possible to frame this idea of responsibility in innovation such that it is acceptable or even desired by high level corporate executives? I need a design push innovation around the concept of responsibility in innovation.

Verganti:
There is an economic theory, name is the Theory of the Economic Value. It says that eventually, also the interest of the stakeholders are reflected in the value of a company. So eventually, if someone discovers [bad corporate behavior], it can be sued, which means you will have some cost for that reflected in the stock. Or that, let's make another example, if you make sport shoes and you have kids in Thailand to ...

Ubois:
...for slave labor, yeah.

Verganti:
But if organizations discovered [to be engaged in bad labor practices, then they] are on the first page of journals and newspapers. Then your brand value [declines], and this eventually will be reflecting in your stock value. So, there is a theory that says that if there will be complete information, eventually, responsibility in innovation should be taken into account in the boardroom because eventually, it will have an impact. So, if you are not responsible, eventually, so you will have protesters outside your door.

Unfortunately, the problem is that this is a theory, there's no complete information, there are always counter forces. The only way to make decisions in the boardroom more likely to be considered [in light of] responsibility of innovation is to make the theory as real as possible. To do that, you need to have more examples. The Internet, in a way, is a way that will help the theory to get planted because you have more information -- nowadays, it's much more difficult to escape.

Ubois:
So, we need better mechanisms of accountability. And you can argue that the mechanisms for accountability are becoming a little more clear to more people.

Verganti:
Sometimes the issue of responsibility for innovation is dealt with too much in the boardroom. Many innovations are killed because they say "if we do that, we will have a lawyer that will sue us." For example, I have a friend here in a design company who told me that also for them, when they make a very simple design, they are scared now because it's always impossible to foresee all the possible usage. For example, he told me that one of his friends designed a chair, and eventually, they were sued because someone was changing the bulb while standing in the chair, and they fell down. So, the lawyer sued the company, and the company, of course, said, "OK, it's not just our fault. The fault's also the designer who designed the chair." Eventually, it took him, I don't know, 15 years to win, because he won, of course. But every time you do something, you go to the boardroom, now the company is very scared because they know that [they may be liable]. So I'm not so sure that nowadays, boards are not interested in responsibility for innovation.

Ubois:
Another side of that has been a strong precautionary principle, i.e. you're not supposed to do anything unless you can demonstrate that it's harmless.

Verganti:
And the point, yes, which is with innovation, it's almost impossible. In a way the principle of precaution is a good principle. If you don't know, you'd better not try. But the problem is that there are so many things that you don't know that even if you try all possibilities, there is always something you can never imagine and can change it. So, the problem is that the good sense is not a friend of analysis or lawyers - it's hard to say where is the threshold between I should have considered everything. So, my feeling nowadays is that in the boardrooms, there is an over concern for the responsibility in innovation. The problem is that that doesn't mean that company aren't good fellows.

Ubois:
So, we're back to accountability and externalization of costs, whether it's pollution or anything else.

Verganti:
It could be pollution or costs. But the problem is they know they are doing something that is not good. My feeling is that the boardrooms know that nowadays they risk a lot. And maybe they can decide to go ahead anyway simply because they know that the cost if they fail, anyway, will be lower than that advantage that they have. Avoiding that cost is not a matter of responsibility, it's a matter of as I say, lobbying.

Ubois:
There's no conclusive evidence, it'd be like cigarette smoking.

Verganti:
Another example of why user centered design, to me, is not the way to responsibility to innovation because people want to smoke, people want to talk on the phone. So, it's not because people ask for it that you can say it's safe.

Ubois:
Yeah, that's right.

Verganti:
So, should a company stop doing mobile phones because there is a danger for that?

Ubois:
It's also a difficult societal calculation, for example, perhaps we lose 10,000 people a year to brain cancer, but we save 20,000 people a year who call when they're having a heart attack, or whatever, right? Automobiles kill how many hundreds of thousand of people around the world every year, but you don't hear any kind of push against them.

Verganti:
But the premise that how could you stop that or why should you stop that?
In a way, stopping that engine that creates new technology is impossible, simply because people have tried it. You have to care about some millions of engineers that simply love to do that.

Ubois:
And it'll move to different parts of the world.

Verganti:
This is so linked between man and technology. So the only thing you can do, again, to me, is much more decided how you rule and you control technology, which is much more important. So, I'm much more scared on the crisis of the politics than that idea because the problem is that nowadays, as you say, politicians have to be responsible for that. But the problem is that politics is in big crisis because politicians are not accountable anymore for anything. And so, the big issue is how to restore politicians with great visions. And I don't know how that's so because I'm not in that field, but stopping engineers from doing bad things, I think is like stopping artists to be artists. That's impossible. You'll always have some engineer doing creative thinking on the board because they love it.

Ubois:
Are there any other points you'd like to make or get across?

Verganti:
One last thing, about the design push innovation, I forgot to tell you, design push innovation is something that, as I say, given its push, people is used to thinking a lot about what they're doing. And, interestingly enough, in Italy, it was more connected to the left thinking, which is in a way, scary a little because it reflects the idea of communism, which says "we know what is good for people, and stupid people will never know what is right." And in a way, design push innovation is a little like that. We know what's good for people. People don't know what is good for them and we know what is good for them. We give them the right product.

And it's curious because in this vision, this push vision, I know what is good for people and it's great things. And again, and I think this debate is old - is there some wise old guy who knows what is good for the humanity, or should we trust the masses? And unfortunately, there's no truth on either side. But basically, user centered or design push is this argument. The problem is that not all guys who make design push things are wise, not like all communists were, unfortunately, wise. It's a good link between innovation processes and quality culture processes.

Ubois:
One of the outcomes I'd like from this project is to have a group of people that are discussing the issue in some way because I think that's a way it can evolve. It needs a little more of a critical mass of people who are thinking about it and kind of hitting the forward button when they see something interesting.

Verganti:
Through Piero, I met so many people of different background that you'd never meet in your life because we're used to talking among people in the same fields. And only make some different perspectives and generalities.

Ubois:
That's one of the things I really enjoy about it. It's a little daunting because if I'm speaking to someone who is doing biotechnology, well, I can read a few articles prior to the interview, but I'm not deep in biotechnology, I don't have a sensibility about it.

Verganti:
It's difficult.

Ubois:
Yeah, and the same with all the other ones. Well thank you for your morning.

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