Challenging Imagination

“All invention depends on imagination.”

The Imagination Challenge: Strategic Foresight and Innovation in the Global Economy

Alexander Manu’s new book The Imagination Challenge: Strategic Foresight and Innovation in the Global Economy provides set of methodologies for creating new products, and business opportunities. The book presents a semi-structured methodology around the concepts of using play as an exploration methodology for creating new products.

Manu begins The Imagination Challenge with a tale about the arrival of Columbus in the Americas and how the Taino natives were unable to recognize the Spanish galleons as boats. Their frame of reference and culture did not allow them to see the large armada as boats. They required a trickster shaman to create a space in the imaginations of villagers to allow them to be described. Manu attempts to provide readers the tools necessary to be the “trickster” in their organizations. To help them identify signals like the arrival of the Spanish ships. The creation of a temporary play space to identify and explore the signals from technology, culture and life is central to The Imagination Challenge.

“Organizations and people around the world are currently struggling to see and interpret what is in front of them.”

Next the book introduces us to the role that imagination that plays in creating breakthrough innovations. Play and imagination are often sacrificed for individuals to move into adulthood. There is a culturally induced separation of play and work that needs to be unlearned. The unlearning is to allow organizations and individuals to change the methods and the content of the questions they are asking. Play is often considered unproductive, and as a result there is no direct benefit or gain. The power of play is that play establishes the conditions for possibility. People have the freedom of uncertainty, and have the opportunity to explore the possible. By creating a play space, we are able to explore without the imposed limits of our culture, technology, etc.

Once there is an opportunity to ask questions, the goal becomes to ask the right questions. Manu asks “If the telephone is the answer, what is the question?”. How? What? Why? These are all questions that are asked about technologies and innovations. Often, innovation has focused on the “How?”, which is about the technology. How is this going to be accomplished? How do we add value to this technology? How do we make this process faster? better? These are tactical innovations. Strategic innovation requires understanding the underlying behaviours, desires and motivations of the solution. If the answer is the telephone, Manu suggests that the question is “Can you hear me?”. It is about the human desire to communicate with others, to be a part of society. This has led to a number of “hows” including the telephone, the cell phone, email, etc.

How do you predict the future?

How do you identify latent behaviours and technology experiences? The book introduces the “The Beal Theory of Signals”, which maintains that an individual or organization’s inability to recognize the meaning and potential of signals comes from the limits of their rational boundaries, both socially constructed and individually adapted. What is a signal? A signal is an emerging technology, and emerging behaviour, something in the environment that has the power to affect your world. By analyzing signals through content, context, and history it is possible to infer meaning and synthesize information. This leads into McLuhan’s concept of tetrad as a tool for evaluating and predicting what a society of a new invention and whether it would accept or reject the artifact’s future effects. This combined with the play space provides a powerful set of tools for evaluating the effect of signals on organizations, individuals, societies. These tools are used to define the potential of a new signal.

These are incredibly powerful, useful tools and Manu does an outstanding job of describing their power. The next section of the book he tries to create a workbook to demonstrate the use of these tools. It’s here where I find the methodology becomes clouded. Proposed is a set of 8 flexible steps that can be used to investigate and opportunity.

  1. Signal discovery: basic research, data collection, and analysis
  2. Emerging signals mapping : the diagnostics of opportunity
  3. Imaginative questions
  4. Points of departure
  5. Future scenarios in temporary play space
  6. Experience opportunity definition
  7. Economic opportunity modeling
  8. Post-signal learning.

The steps make sense. It’s a useful framework for evaluating new ideas. It provides a set of basic steps and tools necessary to evaluate new ideas including those that might be orthogonal to your business (called weak signals). This is where art takes over from science. Manu “jumped the shark”. Unlike other methodologies or toolkits, like the IDEO Method Cards which can be used to kick start a process. The Strategic Imagination Circle is so flexible to the point of being a wet noodle. Organizations like Doblin and IDEO are steeped in design just like the Beal Institute and they have the constraints of having to produce real innovations for economic gain. Their processes and tools are aimed at measurable, deliverable results in organizations. The Strategic Imagination Circle is when The Imagination Challenge loses it outstanding grasp on the role of imagination for innovation. And becomes a quasi-academic exercise in producing process that works at an art college. The book does not provide enough depth of the tools used at each stage of a Strategic Imagination Circle for it to be used as a series of guideposts.

Strategic Imagination Circle

The book continues to demonstrate using the Strategic Imagination Circle to explore the concept of “data space”. While the informative about the process, as an example it fails to have the impact of earlier vignettes like the Taino or the Fosberry Flop. It does not convey the flexibility or the power the methodology can provide organizations. There must be other projects at Beal that could have demonstrated the process, its outcomes and the power of the analysis. Even if student projects were used, the book could have benefited from demonstrating and documenting actual projects and their applied design processes as informed by the tools presented in The Imagination Challenge. It’s a design school, there must be students using these methods to create radical new innovations. Instead the process feels more like voodoo that happens at the art school downtown.

“In order to predict change, we must be able to anticipate the path of change”

The questions about the role of imagination in innovation are seminal. It is the combination of tools like the Temporary Play Space, McLuhan’s tetrads and the provide a method for evaluating future ideas and the impact they can have on the present and the future. The understanding that the reference frame from which a signal is observed determines how strongly the signal is perceived is fantastic. It has a similar feel to the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, essentially there is a limit on the accuracy to which is possible to measure everything there is to know about a physical system. What Manu presents is a thesis that says even with the limitation on being tied to a specific frame of reference it is possible through imagination to change your perspective, and thereby anticipate the path of change, and impact of your designs. It’s a great beginning about the power of the tools being developed by the team at the Beal Institute. The limitation is that it is only the beginning, and they will hopefully continue to refine the process, the tools and the stories about how they are changing the world.

If you’re building new products you should buy a copy of The Imagination Challenge

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