Was a thrill to be on the Singular XQ show where Iain and Jason were interviewed by Jennifer Pierce.
We dove into a number of innovation topics:
- Collaborative Teams
- Shift innovation away from ideation models
- What is genuinely new
- and more, so much more.
Below the podcast is the audio transcript with time stamps. We’ve lightly edited the conversation to make it more readable.
Transcript: Singular XQ Ep 10 Jason Frasca - Iain Kerr
Jennifer Pierce: [00:00:00] Hello, and welcome back to SingularXQ, the podcast about digital transformation. I am delighted to have here today, Jason Frasca and Ian Kerr from Montclair State University and co founders of Emergent Futures Lab. Welcome guys.
Iain Kerr: Hey, it's great to be on here with you.
Jennifer Pierce: Yeah. Yeah. You know, this is one of those situations in which I've gotten to know you on LinkedIn.
It's happening more and more. I feel like I know you guys, even though this is the first time we're actually talking in the flesh, so to speak. But why don't you tell me a little bit and tell our audience a little bit about Emergent Futures Lab?
Jason Frasca: Sure. Thank you, Jennifer, for having us on. We really appreciate it.
Emergent Futures Lab is an innovation strategic consultancy where we focus on two questions.
Iain Kerr: Primarily,
Jason Frasca: what is innovation and how do you innovate? And so what we find largely is that many speak about the importance of creativity and innovation, and they've [00:01:00] become buzzwords that have been diluted into mainstream.
Very few talk about. How to innovate, how to create and what it, what they are and how to achieve them. And so this was born of a challenge that we were wrestling with in our innovation research lab at the university, where our students projects were largely widgets. And when we started to look at the books and rifle through the indexes, there was very little on actually how to innovate.
They all proclaimed the importance of innovation. But it was a sentence or two and never went into how to do it. So we've been spending the last 20 plus years wrestling with these questions and the last seven or eight developing a process, a framework and a methodology for actually how to innovate. So we have that in the innovation design approach.
Jennifer Pierce: That's fascinating. So how did you guys meet?
Iain Kerr: We were, we were the first two people hired by [00:02:00] the new entrepreneurship and innovation center at Montclair state university. So we didn't know each other before that. And that was about seven years ago. You know, I'm originally from the West coast, from Vancouver, Canada ended up in New Jersey.
And, you know, we just. I think we instantly hit it off because we come from totally different, you know, coasts, backgrounds, approaches to things, and, and that made it possible to explore things much easier than just imagining, Hey, like we have this, we're the same.
Jennifer Pierce: That's great. That's great. So are you guys
Iain Kerr: ready? We're ready.
Jennifer Pierce: Okay. So this is something that you guys have talked about that is really fascinating. What is the difference between a trend and [00:03:00] a radical transformation. It seems to me that there's a lot of confusion about those two things in the press and in the hype cycle of various different technologies.
Iain Kerr: So can you break down for us the difference between a trend and a radical transformation? Yes, that's I love that question. Yeah, I think it's really easily seen when you go back and you look at You know, like the 1950s, 1930s, 1970s, what did people predict would happen in the future? And inevitably all of those predictions are wrong.
They have nothing to do with what really happened. You know, ERs are not the size of city blocks. We're not in hot air balloons, you know, whatever it might be. And those are just like the cliche examples, but all of those are extrapolating from the present into the future. And that's what a trend does.
Like you're looking at where you [00:04:00] see something going from what you know. And it's, it could be the bleeding edge of what we know. But what's, if something's genuinely new or radically different, it's actually unknowable. You can't. Imagine it. And what's even worse is our powers of imagination and ideation are actually conservative because they draw on what we know they draw on the words and the concepts and the images what's happened in the past.
So while trends are really useful to look at. to get a sense in the short term what's happening if nothing changed, but things are always changing. There's always things that exceed what we know. And so I think for us, what's really important is not to confuse You know, trends and predictions with creativity and innovation and to, to understand that to talk [00:05:00] about disruptive innovation is to be engaged in a, in a methodology of making the future, making a future that you don't know.
And kind of emerging with that unknown future.
Jennifer Pierce: That's really interesting. Do you have anything to add to that, Jason?
Jason Frasca: Yeah, I would just, I would just add that, you know, that conservative approach, right? It's, it's not allowing for possibility as well. Like trends is quite limiting and in the possibility of the radically new emerging, it's, it's almost stifling it in some sense, right?
We're imparting What exists and not allowing to what's possible take place. And so I think it requires a bit of an egoless open mind, right? And for those involved in figuring out what's next to kind of let go of the past, let go of what they've invested their careers and what they're working on currently in to allow that new to emerge.
And I [00:06:00] think that that's a bit of a challenge with it, right? There's this, there's this, yeah. There's this contradiction between moving away from what we know and getting to somewhere entirely new. You know, we got to hold on to who we are, but we don't want to let go too much.
Jennifer Pierce: So do you have examples from recent history, say, or even from all of history of something that was more of a trend and then something in contrast that was a radical transformation?
Iain Kerr: Yeah, I mean, I think, you know, well, the things I would say the most obvious examples of radical transformations or once you find in nature in evolution, you know, so it could be as simple as, you know, the emergence of complex life. There's, there's no reason it had to happen. Life could have stayed, you know, like singular cell organisms that were quite simple.
But you know, what [00:07:00] happened was one organism swallowed another and instead of dying, it became symbiotic in it, you know, and that led life on an entirely new path, you know, complex multicellular life. We like to look at examples like how dinosaurs turned into birds. All of these are. If you rewound the clock to those moments, they, there's no logical reason they should have happened or they would happen again.
You know, and I, and I think that's for us paying attention to evolution. Allows us to see what the radically new could look like. And then you see this happening all over the place in, you know, human innovations that, you know, it, it could be the emergence of something like penicillin, you know, where, you know, previous models of, of fighting infection were entirely different.[00:08:00]
And it was an accident of. first somebody not cleaning their petri dishes and noticing how one fungi ate others, you know, and then, you know, that didn't really lead anywhere directly, but a scientist, a female scientist doing the shopping after the second world war noticed like a different fungi on cantaloupe, you know, and that led to something.
And now those are like, Those aren't like part of trends. Those are coming out of left field in a way, you know, of that expression, they're coming out of the box. We can only know what's in the box, you know, and it takes experimentation to, to be outside of the box.
Jennifer Pierce: And what you've just described there with the emergence of penicillin, it's a little bit.
More compressed than the idea of of dinosaurs becoming birds, but are a lot of radical or most radical [00:09:00] transformations happening in a long tail over a long period of time that it's happening gradually and accumulating, or are they often sudden?
Iain Kerr: I think there's Both parts happening. It's, you know, like if you look at what had to happen for say penicillin or what had to happen for us to switch from animals for transportation to, you know, engines.
There was like many, many, many other changes, but at some point they can coalesce in certain ways that speed speed up the, you know, crossing of the threshold into something new. So there's kind of like a slow build up of. An ecosystem that would allow for certain unintended things to emerge. And at that point, the transformation could be quite quick.
It could also just fizzle out and never happen, [00:10:00] you know? And I think that's the other part is to just look at, look at the present, the world we're in, and to try and figure out how it could coalesce into something novel, but given what we have.
Jennifer Pierce: Hmm.
Iain Kerr: I have so many questions. It's like all of reality is iterative,
Jason Frasca: right, Jennifer?
Like, we're always iterating, right? But at some point, iterations cross some threshold to something entirely new. We often give the example of phones, right? So, we start with corded phones, then we go to cordless phones, then we go to cellular phones with little keypads on them. And then, you know, BlackBerry, of course, becomes really wonderful with their full keyboards that, you know, that we can handle.
Yeah. And if you asked, you know, certainly what, what people would want from their little flip phones, they'd say more buttons like the BlackBerry, but then we have the iPhone that says, you know, we're going to leave buttons behind. We're just going to make it a [00:11:00] screen where we can have any number of.
Inputs, right? But we don't need buttons any longer, and it becomes something entirely else right across to some new thresholds. It's no longer a phone. It's an Internet device that makes phone calls, right? And so now we're back iterating again, iPhone 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 14, 14 Pro, 14 Pro Max, right? And at some point, right?
We'll cross some new threshold to some new and entirely new thing, and we'll leave this world behind. So it's always both
Jennifer Pierce: sides. Yeah. Yeah, the constant iteration accumulates to something novel, right? I'm really interested in Buena Vista consciousness, how novelty actually is perceived or not perceived as the case may be, which is something that I want to talk to you about at another time, but I have another topic here I want to ask you about.
Okay. So what is the creativity paradox that you two talk about?
Iain Kerr: That's a great one. You know, [00:12:00] and I think we, we already touched on it briefly, but the creativity paradox is that the new, if it's genuinely new can't be thought it can't be ideated. And if you, if you look up even the definition of creativity, It's, it's usually involves something like coming up with a radically new idea, you know, like ideas and ideation and things in your head are always part of how we define creativity, but the paradox is they can't be, you know, that the, if it's genuinely new, we won't have an idea at the beginning.
So how do we get to the new, if we can't ideate it? And that's what interests us most. And I think that's what Jason was briefly hinting at, at the beginning, when we were talking about them. So many people talk about creativity, but nobody really gives you a method. And all the methods sort of [00:13:00] are types of like.
Freeform thinking like brainstorm throw things at the wall. See what sticks but if if ideas can't do it if ideas aren't at the beginning of the new of the radically new what is and that's you know,
Jason Frasca: that's the question that drives us and then the real challenge of that I would add is when you do start to Explore the radically, the genuinely new, right?
Like there's no words for it. There's no language. There's no way to actually articulate it. So it takes, you know, it takes time and I guess gets it before, but you're, you know, kind of getting into the difference in evolution of time between penicillin and flight. But you have to invent an entirely new language, right?
A new way of speaking and new words and new ways to articulate the genuinely new, because if it's truly unprecedented. Right. [00:14:00]
Iain Kerr: Then there'd be no way to articulate.
Jennifer Pierce: Yes. Yes. That's, that's really interesting. I'm also interested in how, when the new emerges that we start, we try to use it like an older technology first.
Iain Kerr: Yeah, that we were just actually talking about that. That's, you know, the famous, I think it's Marshall McLuhan or Whitehead said that, you know, where when the new emerges, we always make it do the work of the old. Yeah. Yeah. And I think that's also part of trends, you know, to go back to that one, like trends are often like you see the new and you're making it.
Do kind of the work of the old versus asking of the new, like, where will it take us, you know, what's, what's possible now. And those are like experimental questions. They can't be answered through just ideating. Brainstorming, you're thinking in a room, it's, it, there are questions that provoke us to [00:15:00] do things to make that future.
Jennifer Pierce: There's a kind of shock of the new too, right? That we have to, you know, like Toffler's future shock, but that's really, that's really interesting. So I have another question, surprisingly, what is digital about digital transformation? And is there a difference between digital innovation and any other kind of innovation?
Iain Kerr: It's, yes, that's such a great question too. I, I mean, I think there is definitely a difference, you know, digital, you know, because on one hand you could think of digital as sitting, it's still physical. You know, there's, there's giant server farms busily at work, you know, to make our speaking and our images appear.
The quality of digitalness that I think is, is unique is that everything becomes plastic and [00:16:00] changeable. There's no longer anything affixed, you know, so to be in a, in a digital world, you know, there's no beginning, there's no end, you know, things cross scales, things cross logics, you know, you see a culture now of like sampling, continuous morphing.
All of these things that, you know, you know, we could have collage in the past, but collage, like there's a trace of where it came from, you know, now trace disappears, you just have, it's just zeros and ones. It's like in a historical plasticity. And I, you know, and I think this challenge is so much, so many of our deep ideas of, Essence, origin, stability, you know, truth, identity, all of those, you know, that are the foundations of [00:17:00] our kind of historical models of ethics and logic and doing things and.
You know, and I think really with the digital, we're still definitely making it do the work of the old versus like, how do we immerse ourselves in a world of radical dynamicism?
Jason Frasca: Yeah, I just, I'd add to that that I think the interesting part of digital transformation is, is the code that lies behind it.
Right. So we do workshops where we, we dissect processes, right? So we're very interested in process for innovation and understanding how everything is a process of a process and a sub process of a sub process. And essentially, if you tear it all. Down to its simplest form. It's a recipe, if you will. And once you see and understand a recipe, you [00:18:00] can change the recipe for to change the outcome and the output.
And I think that's what's interesting about digital is that the code is the recipe. And we can change the output far beyond what it's intended to do. Of course, the code is meant to deliver something for us to engage with, right? But we could change the code that's serving that as well to actually change the way in which we're interacting and engaging with the digital.
So we're not limited to just what the end user, the user interfaces, we can go much, much further beyond that and, and disrupt the tools, the digital tools, and this digital transformation that's taking place, even hardware is driven by Code, right? So, and so there's, I think, an infinite number of opportunities to disrupt and, and drive radical innovation in the digital world as we're transforming and generate newness and differentiation.
I think the focus largely only lies on the user [00:19:00] interface and user, you know, the user engagement with the digital tools. I think it's a missed opportunity at this point and I think gets back at what Ian was just, you know, saying, you know. We're still just forcing technology to do the job of the old.
Jennifer Pierce: I'm really interested in looking at what happens now.
Like we're at the point where the interface is going away, right? There's ambient computing, conversational design. And when I bring it up amongst designers, there's a lot of skepticism. What do you mean interfaces are going away? And again, it's that, it's that, you know. The human brain can only take so much change, right?
And, and as an example, in this remote environment, we've had the capacity to do this. I was doing remote consulting in 1998, right? I was, you know, I was working at a distance from my clients, so, and not doing a lot of in person meetings. So we've had this capacity to do this and it took something. dramatic to [00:20:00] make us recognize it, right?
Jason Frasca: Just a point about that, Jennifer, is goes back to that ego we were talking about earlier, right? And, and trends versus radical transformation, the idea that you're suggesting that the interface could go away, a small percentage will embrace that as an opportunity for radical transformation, and the majority will hold on to what exists, because they can't let go of, of their world.
And what they've invested so heavily in and they can't see that change coming, right? And, and, and they can't, they can't jump into it. I think it's, you know, it's large ego really gets in the way of what's possible, what, what the new pot offers.
Jennifer Pierce: That is a perfect setup for the next question, which is, you know, we have these hierarchical organizations that are very large where people are trying to get themselves to a particular level or to think of themselves at the top of the heap.
And we have a lot of data coming from Scott Galloway showing us how. The people earning those top salaries are getting smaller and smaller as everybody, the gap is [00:21:00] getting wider between the workers and the people who make the decisions. So that ego is right in there, right? So is it possible for large structured hierarchical organizations to innovate?
Iain Kerr: Yeah, I mean, I would say, just as maybe a footnote before answering that, you know, what What we start to see, and I think this is part of like, you could say the indirect fallout of digitality is part of what, you know, Jason was saying is we start to understand systems and dynamic systems and we can model them and we can model like complexity and emergence, and that gets us to see that.
Organizations, their behaviors are not the outcome of of leaders, and they're not even the outcome of the people in them, but they're like emergent possibilities of the organizational system itself [00:22:00] and the kind of emergent constraints in it. So. Which brings us, I think, to be able to answer your question.
It's like, I think we have to change how we think and see organizations and the idea that we should focus. You know, in a top down way, there's like the C suite and there's like the Elon Musks and these people somehow that are supposedly geniuses, like that's, you know, a total, we're missing what's really happening.
And, and then it, it leads to focusing on people in general misses that we need to focus on the relational. Aspects of whatever system we're looking at and that what matters isn't just people, it's, you know, practices and tools and environments and, and how these things afford possibilities, you know, [00:23:00] so can, can a large organization disruptively?
I think, yes, it's just a question of how is that organ organization ordered and the types of order we have. Are really designed not to do that. So getting more creative people involved doesn't change the ordering of the system, you know, and the ordering of the system is where the, that what kind of drives the outcomes.
So focusing on leadership qualities, focusing on people is really missing what we need to focus on. And that's like the design of these structures and processes and what have you. And so I think what. What makes it so hard today is we're focused on the wrong things. And that, you know, I think we have to start inventing new types of organizational [00:24:00] ecosystems and have the language for that and the tools and the techniques and the willingness to do it.
And then we can get to really innovative
Jennifer Pierce: logics. That's a great answer. Jason, do you have anything you want to add to that?
Jason Frasca: Now, I thought it was a great answer, too. And he covered all, Ian covered all of the points that I wrote down. So I was like, I'm with you, Jennifer.
Iain Kerr: I thought that was pretty good.
Jennifer Pierce: Yeah, and I and I couldn't agree more. I mean, it seems to me like our organizational structures haven't changed much since the medieval period.
And I often feel that these places are structured, like, you know, manor realism, and what how that impacts. Innovation, which I think also another thing that you point out that I want to just highlight is this myth of the single lone genius really interferes. It makes people feel like there's a zero sum game on being creative and innovative, right?
That I can't be creative and innovative unless I'm the single lone creator that everybody [00:25:00] adulates. And that allows leaders to be threatened by any kind of ideas bubbling up from the bottom, because it means I'm not the lone genius, right? It's very interesting. So let me have a final call to action for people who are listening.
I'm sure there's a lot of people who are really interested in what you're saying here. And and, and again, talking about these hierarchies, no matter where your position, whether you're in a very junior position and are my audience is very much split between young junior people and C suite level executives.
There's just kind of like, it kind of reflects the structure that, that. Galloway points out, right? But we have a very evenly split audience here. So if I'm a junior just starting, or if I'm a leader up near the C suite or in the C suite itself, what's something I can do right now? What's the micro successes I can achieve inside these structures that need such radical transformation in order to become more innovative as a whole community?
Iain Kerr: I think the first thing is, is to shift [00:26:00] from focusing on ideating and then trying to carry out the plan of those ideas like future backwards design to a much more expert, like micro experimental approach that's hands on, that's about doing and that the key thing is to involve some type of blocking, you know, where you say we will not Do this, find some, something deep in a structure and block it, you know, and like Jason was saying, like even as simple as blocking buttons on the phone pushes it in a new trajectory, but, you know, experiment with these things and see what, what feedbacks into your world and then, you know, figure out what's the most novel part of that, what's the most normal.
And then how do you stabilize what's novel? How do you block things? And don't get focused on the people don't, you know, focus on process. [00:27:00] And these kind of experimental pathway making processes I think are really critical.
Jason Frasca: I'd add just breaking away from the individual, right? So like, creativity is, is not stuck in any one person.
You mentioned the creative genius, but, and, and Providing opportunity for more people to work together, answering similar questions as a collective, as opposed to a competition. And so it's not that there's a winner of some question that's trying to be wrestled with, but that we're all working and feeding into, you know, some.
Path worth following, some unintended opportunity worth following. So the fact that maybe one team, right, did not say, feed into the the direction we're going 'cause their, whatever they were working on wasn't appropriate or right in that moment, but it did feed into it and acknowledging it because the fact that they discovered not to follow that particular [00:28:00] path, right.
Democratizing and recognizing an organization is more distributed and collective. It's much more than any one. And when they say one, it could be one could be a small team or unit somehow reorganized into a larger whole.
Jennifer Pierce: Okay, then, is there anything else that you guys want to add or anything you have coming up workshops or anything like that, that where can people find you, for example, how do people get in touch with you, that sort of thing?
Iain Kerr: We, I was just going to say the first part, I think, you know, like you were saying at the beginning, Jennifer, like we love hacking LinkedIn and using it as a space to develop community and deep engagement, so you can find us on LinkedIn. We're we're trying to post every day, develop dialogue, and then Jason, you were going to add.
Jason Frasca: Yeah, I was just going to say, we also publish a weekly newsletter that's largely informed by the work we do on LinkedIn. [00:29:00] So we sort of use LinkedIn as an experimental playroom, if you will, to test ideas and get feedback and understand and kind of really work out our own thoughts. The posts, the writing for LinkedIn really largely informs our work and research for the primary vehicle that we communicate, which is our newsletter.
Iain Kerr: Which we publish every Friday morning. You can sign up for the newsletter via our website, which is emergentfutureslab.com. You could also sign up via LinkedIn. We just published a book that might interest people that you could also find through our website. We're really, we're really into dialogues like this.
So we're talking with people every week. We're really excited to explore things. To be accessible, to experiment, so reach out.
Jennifer Pierce: Yes. That's great. And I, for one, attest that your content is something that I look forward to and read [00:30:00] all the time. And not only that, you're doing a great job building a vibrant community around that content.
Like the conversations in the comment box are high level and stimulating, and I really enjoy that. It's, it's a relief from some of the more like prosperity gospel Literature that's so popular out there. I mean, that's, there's a place for that too, but I really appreciate the way you make me think and the way I actually can draw upon my graduate training when I, when I read your material and, and relate to it.
So it has been great talking to you. Look for the links to everything that they've just described in our blog. I release a blog post with every on medium, with every episode. So you'll have the links. there. And don't forget to subscribe and follow to SingularXQ podcast. Your support really helps us. I've got a great team.
I want to shout out to Brogan Malloy, who's our editor, Caden Hethorn, who's our producer and, and Ikra, who is our content designer. So we're really, really excited for the team that's forming [00:31:00] here behind this podcast and your support really helps us continue that good work. So everybody have a great day and tune in next time for our Singular XQ podcast.