True Innovation is Thinking Beyond Human Centric Design
Human-Centrism is a Frequently Overlooked Assumption
What do the fanatic religious zealots of the 16th century and modern business / innovation practices under the name of “human-centered design practice” have in common today?
They both have an unwavering commitment to a human centered paradigm where the human is in the center of the universe, and everything else revolves around our exceptionalism. This is a glaring and usually unrecognized bias, and it should be the first assumption addressed before embarking on a creativity session for innovation or product development.
True innovators of the past, are not restricted by such an under developed bias.
On first appearances it would seem that the ethics of today’s atheist western human centered business philosophies and early theological thought are leagues apart; businesses today depend on complex debt and interest systems, while Usury (charging interest) was a sin in Western Europe up until the 16th century — one of many sins committed by modern business practices that the eager pious minds of early Roman Christian times would probably have declared as an assault on civilization.
But there is one thing in common between these seemingly disparate systems of thought; anthropocentrism. The tendency to put the infallible, amazing and astonishing — humble — human as the axiom at the center of the universe of which all things, and I mean ALL THINGS revolve around.
Early Christian theology is as outdated as the assumptions that the world is flat. So why do modern business and innovation frameworks still cling onto one of early Christianity's founding principles of human centrism?
Traditionally one of Christianity’s first principles was the doctrine that humanity, and especially the human spirit that humanity embodied, was the center of the universe outside of heaven itself. All other worldly (non-heavenly) concepts revolved around the concept of the human spirit.
Christian tradition elevated humanity above the animal kingdom and nature — we were so amazed by ourselves, and blessed, that we believed even the sun revolved around our very existence. The universe worshipped us, because of course it did; we were god’s favorite creatures.
Since the enlightenment period we’ve found this idea to be absurdly fallible….. or so we thought.
This lingering perception of elevating human existence to the center of all other universal existence is arguably still the status quo in modern business practices. We can see this with the highly successful, and in demand, design thinking framework.
If you aren’t familiar with the tech scene, design thinking is probably the most popular “innovation and product design method” in tech companies today. It gained popularity for its ability to “solve problems in human centric ways”, focusing the design, and ultimately meaning, of ideas around the needs of consumers.
Facilitators of design thinking are so in demand, you could reasonably expect a budget similar to lawyers upwards of 15000+ EUR for a design thinking consultant to spend a week with your team to get them conceptualizing “consumer centric products”. You’ll end up with many post it notes, and hopefully a product concept that will match your customer’s demand.
Design thinking may or may not be good at designing a concept around customer’s demand, I’ve seen it 50/50 fail and succeed, and it usually fails due to it’s narrow scope, i.e. it doesn’t have much room for strategy. There’s no doubt some very creative and talented individuals driving these consultancies, that’s not the problem. The problem is that we celebrate it and value it so highly, precisely because it places the customer at the center of the universe. It’s success is indicative of our current business values that we take for granted, and the assumptions we are culturally biased towards.
Design thinking is only the tip of the iceberg, almost every innovation model and consultancy you can find through google will claim that they can facilitate your team to build the best new concepts for the customer. New innovation consultancies might even, unironically, claim they are doing something radical by doing what design thinking does but in 1 day less.
Nobody, except the brave or fringe critics, dare question the customer centric assumption as the center of innovation, because just like in early Christian times, human centric thinking is the status quo — the only difference now is we don’t get burnt at the stake for questioning these values, we just have our digital presence and ego’s burnt.
The customer centric innovation model looks a little bit like this:
The measure of value today is based on the customer, without any context to the relative meaning of the product, or to the impacts outside of our species, i.e. the environment or spiritual growth or mental health. The meaning of ideas today, seem to revolve around the consumer — and this is having some severe consequences on all of the non human world around us.
Since our adoption of material reductionist techniques of the enlightenment, we’ve undoubtedly had excellent material success. With mind-body duality of the enlightenment we’ve also managed a feat that even the early Christian’s couldn’t achieve in all their virtuous wisdom; we’ve elevated the human body above the spirit itself!
Not only is modern business borrowing this anthropocentric model (human centric model) from early Christian thought, but they’ve one upped the original model by removing the spirit from the human spirit model the Christians used to use. Now our culture is celebrating the placement of the spiritless human, i.e. the scientifically defined human, at the center of the universe.
The scientifically defined human has no spirit, no mental life, no experience, no relation to the world around it — they only have well being that can be identified by reductionist models of the world. Reductionism has been a great step forward for technology, but as a model of reality is limited to the progression of material considerations of our species. Business embodies the philosophy of material progression really well, but we can see now with the catastrophic destructive impacts on all other aspects of life outside of the consumer, how the consequences of a narrow scope philosophy ends.
Christian tradition left us with two legacy propositions; 1. A human spirit, and 2. This human spirit is in the middle of the universe. We progressed and removed one part, the human spirit, but are now left with a legacy of humans in the middle of the universe, but with no context of spirit.
What if business practices got the priorities wrong during the enlightenment? What if we should have kept some sense of the spirit, even if just as a pragmatic metaphor for striving to perfection of an ideal vision, and put meaning instead of humans in the middle of the universe; a meaning that humans revolve around. What if the model for idea development looked a little more like this:
Remedying With a Sentient Vision
We have made some strides towards trying to put meaning back into the focus of idea development. The focus on vision has been an attempt to put the spirit of meaning back into business practice; but so often visions are adapted and forced into a reductionist worldview. Business leaders will often think, “how can we make a vision that sells more products?” aka “how can the meaning of the idea be tailored to the material human at the center of the universe model.”
Or the vision will be specifically tailored to providing a good or service to humans, which isn’t a bad vision per say, but it is limited in scope. Some visions are based on providing a solution to a problem; but if the focus is primarily on the problem and not the context of the problem, then the solution will only provide a temporary solution to the problem and not address the foundational causes; e.g the pharmaceutical industry attempting to solve a symptom and not the cause.
Many good visions often start by orienting the meaning as the center of the business, e.g. Tesla: “To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy”, with sustainable energy not being dependent on a human to exist, i.e. the sun could be associated with sustainable energy. It can be a challenge to identify the meaning of an idea in an environment where that is the exception rather than the norm. It can also be a challenge to actually implement such a vision in reality, when the worldly incentives are promoting the customers’ material requirements, rather than embodying the spirit of the idea.
If you’re interested in putting the meaning back into ideas beyond the non-living universe, we’ve created an idea development model that guides the identification of the meaning of an idea, and supports the development of a product that embodies the spirit of the idea. We believe in an animist approach to innovation, where a vision is the introduction of yourself to a sentient idea. Read more here.
Putting the spirit of an idea at the center axiom of idea development is not only possible, it creates lasting and meaningful impact well beyond the traditional scope of consumerist driven ideas. The ideal meaning doesn’t replace practical considerations but places those practical considerations within a greater holistic context that includes — but is not limited to — customers.
Innovation and Product Development Should Start with Questioning Our Assumptions About Reality
Starting an innovation or product development session with the assumption that human centric approach is the optimal solution is often the case by merit that we are designing products and technologies for people, by people. But the human doesn’t have to be the central axiom to create value for both customers and for elevating human consciousness. The best historic inventions weren’t created for a consumer, and some weren’t even created with an end user in mind.
If Nikola Tesla was trying to create a user friendly product, instead of pursuing an inventive passion for understanding the universal phenomenon of energy, he might have created a stronger candle instead of electricity.
If Einstein was thinking about the end user of relativity, nobody would understand his product and he’d probably have become a frustrated artist rather than a revolutionary thinker.
You might think “these guys are scientists though, they aren’t beholden to the same business outcomes as product managers or innovation consultants”, but these scientists are also the greatest innovators of our species, and business should be emulating their inspiration and methods so that true innovation isn’t just restricted to the lab.
Imagine a world where business was able to innovate as well as the greatest scientific minds!
One of the stark realities of our modern world is that business leads innovation practices today more than scientific institution do; businesses has more funding, less regulation, and more scope.
Depending on what region you are in most technological advancements of the recent 10 years have been driven by business outcomes more than for innovation purposes. For instance most AI scientists today are working in private companies for business and consumer outcomes. They are innovating for consumers with a human centric paradigm, whereas maybe 30 years ago they would have been innovation for the advancement of humanity (not consumers) — and this severely limits the creativity and true capacity of innovation.
If business is going to be leading innovation, then business should be adopting non-human centric successful innovation techniques that have been used to advance humanity to where we are now. If you want to know about how to do this, please check the link here to understand our innovation philosophy, or check out our services at www.ideatry.co.
Thanks for reading, and happy innovating.