Our Story

How Design Thinking’s Limitations Inspired Emergent Futures Lab to Disrupt Innovation

We've been in the innovation space for over twenty years. Lots of critical things happened in those decades; from us working from the high arctic to the rainforests of Venezuela — but those are stories for another time...

It’s the summer of 2016, and we are sitting in our redesigned innovation research center, discussing the upcoming fall semester curriculum. Over the last six years we’ve been working to develop a university innovation lab.

Now, we're dissecting one of the core courses we teach: The Entrepreneurial Mindset - an introduction to entrepreneurship and innovation, designed by others using the principles of Design Thinking as foundational pillars for the curriculum.

We’re reviewing the previous semester's student outcomes: everyone built widgets — generic pointless products. No one needs this stuff. The students were frustrated. We were frustrated.

The painful reality was that Design Thinking only generates widgets. In some cases, better widgets; but nothing more than minor, sometimes slightly better, versions of what exists.

Isn't Design Thinking supposed to generate innovative ideas based on human needs and wants? 

We began to question the merits of Design Thinking. Why emphasize this widgetized thinking in our program? Can this method truly lead to genuine innovation?

Since Design Thinking is based on what we know, it can never lead to genuinely novel paradigms. This is why our students were only able to produce variations of already existing products. You always get what already exists. Some would go so far as to say Design Thinking is bullshit.

We were fed up with how widespread and limited the ideas of creativity and innovation were. So we went searching for answers. We literally grabbed all the books on our shelves used and written by the most respected entrepreneurship leaders in higher education. 

Book after book had the same recurring theme: creativity and innovation are the heart and soul of everything entrepreneurship, startups, and business models. 

Yet, they never said another word about innovation or creativity. 

Creativity and innovation are virtually absent from the index and table of contents of almost every book making this declarative claim. 

The importance of why innovation, and, the how to innovate are glossed over

It's as if everyone assumes they know how to be creative and innovative. That these are innate skills we have the ability to call upon at our whim; Akin to breathing.

The words: creativity and innovation have become synonymous with people and businesses saying what they need to. 

But that’s all they've become - words. 

So why don’t these books tell us how to innovate? Of course part of it is that they simply do not have any real techniques to offer (if they did, surely they would tell us!). But the problem is even deeper: They don’t have methods because they do not believe there are such things. Creativity simply comes from being creative — so just get more creative people in a room, use Design Thinking and voilà! You’ll have innovative outcomes. 

This gap between the importance of innovation - the why, and becoming an innovative team or organization - the how, is the catalyst for Emergent Futures Lab’s founding and why we started a strategic innovation consulting firm. 

We maintain a singular focus: to develop models of innovation that can transform organizations and their teams into radical innovators.

Testing Models of Innovation and Creativity

Over the last two decades, our work in the fields of environmental and social change has taken us from the High Arctic to dense urban centers — working across the globe with communities to collectively and experimentally develop meaningful changes. 

In preparation for these projects we have spent countless hours researching, testing and modifying dozens of existing ideas, approaches and systems designed to foster creativity – from Design Thinking to Lateral Thinking and much else. 

Our boots-on-the-ground approach put these innovation approaches to the test; and our hands-on approach has led us to have serious doubts about the standard models of creativity, design and innovation

Seeing first hand the limits of all these models became the rabbit hole we fell into exploring how we as a culture have come to define, understand, and conceptualize creativity. 

Diving Deeper into Creativity and Innovation

The Western Tradition of Creativity as Inspiration

Digging into the history of creativity in the Western tradition was, for us, both a profoundly frustrating, and ultimately an illuminating experience. 

The total lack of discussion of human or worldly creativity was confounding. We came to realize that in Western historical tradition, humans can only be more or less successful copiers of something pre-existing (an ideal). 

Within this worldview, only God can be said to truly create something novel, while humans on their own can do nothing unique (nor genuinely creative). 

How we, as mortals, come to do seemingly novel things is via inspiration — which literally means “gaining divine guidance” — and from that we can make by copying what is revealed to us. 

A Confluence of Experiences Leads to the Innovation Design Approach

And so, we set out to combine our collective works across each of our lifetimes, and develop a pragmatic method and approach to innovation which we now teach at the university and to partners internationally.

But back to our story of that day  (what we like to now call “our last day in widget world”)...

The irony of our situation was even deeper. We were sitting in a lab of our own creation filled with 50+ 3D Printers and laser cutters designed to materialize the student's widgets.

This irony sparked our ambition to design a curriculum that would subvert the idea that 3D Printers are for widgets alone. We then started to develop a curriculum focused wholly on teaching innovation — its methods, processes and tools. 

After countless framework iterations, we converted our stream of students, local entrepreneurs, startups, and enterprise cohorts into a dynamic lab that tested our hypotheses in real-time. We'd race session to session, semester to semester, to incorporate the outcomes and shortcomings of our innovation approach. 

Our research led to the addition of a new pillar upon which our entrepreneurship center would stand. Leading to a name change that would add the word of innovation: Feliciano Center for Entrepreneurship & Innovation. 

Today, the Innovation Design Approach is presented globally, at academic conferences, workshops, and organizations - from Austria to Stockholm, to Perth to Austin, back to Montclair, New Jersey, and all points between. 

At the end of each session, we would be met with members of the attending audience standing before us with a look in their eye as if the backs of their heads had been blown off. In a 45-minute session, we'd contested everything they thought, knew, and or were doing in innovation. 

These conversations, as flattering as they were, served a more important purpose: validation. Validation by our peers, partners, collaborators, co-conspirators, potential clients, and team members that we were onto something; and we were onto something big. Something that was filling the void all the most marketable and household names in design, innovation, and entrepreneurship had left in their wake: how to innovate.

The Misuse of Innovation

Innovation has become an ugly word. It’s misused, abused, overstated, and undervalued. 

It's what the marketing department is required to include but has no idea of its meaning.

It's what CEOs say in their shareholder's letters, despite not taking the steps to make their organization innovative, leaving their companies vulnerable to the social, climate, and political challenges of our times, and  speaking nothing of the fierce competition, and rapidly evolving markets, every viable business with a bias towards success must face.

The Emergent Futures Lab Ethos

As we embarked on the Emergent Futures Lab journey we decided - let others champion why innovation is important.

Our strategic innovation consulting firm will focus exclusively on how to innovate. 

For all those roaming conference floors, virtual conference breakout rooms, and the interwebs agreeing on the importance of innovation but left looking for how to innovate... you found it. 

Emergent Futures Lab - we're how you innovate

Want to learn more about us? Have a look at how we work:

on What Is Innovation, and How to Innovate

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