Imagination in the air


What if companies hired writers, sociologists, historians, philosophers and even artists to create new, innovative and profitable products? And why not? Because according to Eric Seulliet, co-founder and vice-president of SmartSystem, the future has a headache, stifled between R&D divinity and the blind cult of Holy Benchmarking. So to give the future back to the future, let's give it some air and let the imagination enter the heart of companies! Plea.


What is "true innovation"?

That she's going to cause a breakup, a drastic change. In this, it is different from "false innovation".

The latter brings only a few succinct improvements. In the definition of an innovative product emerges the idea of real added value, of a product that makes sense to the consumer.

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And the "new" will not necessarily be expressed in the form of an additional technology, but more in the pioneering use of a technology in the face of an emerging societal, individual need. In this, it is the revelation of a basic trend, not a fashion trend. It is the second distinctive sign of true innovation. It is not there to momentarily boost sales through the use of a gadget, like all the perlimpinpin powders used in detergents. A real innovation will, in the long run, upset social relationships and individual behaviour. This is evidenced by the fundamental changes brought about by the web, mobile phones, etc...

On the way to the Dark Zone...

The imaginary approach comes into play here and, in order to overcome this fluctuating and unstable consumer desire, makes it possible to "go back" from product innovation to process innovation, which takes the innovation process itself as the object of analysis. To sell dreams, you have to know how to manage your customers' imaginations.
This approach seeks to identify the representation structuring patterns present in innovation processes. As if it were necessary to penetrate the obscure zone, the "collective unconscious" of innovation, hidden in the dreams of engineers and technicians, kneaded in science fiction and technological utopias.
Our approach to innovation is neither romantic - the lonely genius in his garage - nor rational. Rather, let's call it a holistic vision. It is an extension of the idea of "innovention", a neologism proposed by Lucien Sfez (1). It contracts invention and innovation, and thus links founding science and servant technology.

I dream so I create!

Every innovation is accompanied by representations, speeches, images or fantasies necessary for its emergence and socio-economic integration, especially in a post-Fordist society driven by the desire and dream of the consumer. In this logic, Descartes was not necessarily Cartesian. His ingenious intuitions are explained in his biography and are the embodiment of his dreams and emotions. Innovation is nourished by this famous duality, right and left brain. Without wanting to tip over into the imaginary, it is a question of finding compatibility between approaches and stop opposing them. Imagination is no longer the other side of reality, it is the still veiled face of it, its future. Imagination is no longer the other side of reality, it is its still veiled face, its future. It is this place of connections, this laboratory of ideas where all human representations are constructed. Place of production of the real to come and therefore manufactures the future...

Tapping into the company's DNA

In Descartes' country, the relationship with the imaginary remains permeated with ambiguities. Any deviant, non-rational idea is subject to suspicion. The culture of engineers obviously poses a barrier to the creativity of the imaginary in the company. In addition to routines and habits, which are the main hindrance to imagination, the relationship to creativity is very often short-circuited by technology. And if we add the procession of fairly uniform, monolithic profiles, corporate systems... all the ingredients are there to create a constructed, paralysing, repetitive imaginary and not a "motor imaginary", capable of transforming dreams into reality.
It is by drawing from the heart of the company, from its singularity and identity, that we find the sources of its imagination. Every company is the fruit of an individual or collective project. Similar to a living being, it has somewhere a DNA with genes, a founding myth relegated to oblivion. Foundations of its history, they are also the ferments of its future. This internal and holistic approach of the company is a first step.

The envy bonus

To reintegrate the imagination into the company, it is necessary to multiply the number of views and therefore to diversify the profiles, which are more versatile, less standard and more creative. Hiring literary experts, sociologists, historians, philosophers, etc., creates a cross-fertilization conducive to the emergence of new products. The impetus can come from the manager, a consultant or even an internal unit dedicated to foresight.
In any case, it is the state of mind that is the most important and that must gradually permeate all the company's departments. The aim is to create transversal bridges and to leave this organization in silo, R&D, marketing, design...
The internal reorganisation of the company is also another way of reactivating this imaginative approach. Moving furniture around, setting up spaces modulated according to the desires of employees, with places where people can meet and stimulate the imagination is another solution.
In the same way, bringing art into the company allows to broaden one's way of thinking, to break one's patterns reproducing the same scenarios. It is not a question of using art as an alibi, but as a real tool, suggesting a new way of looking at things.

Between cooperation and co-innovention

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First of all, there is a need to establish resonances between fields, to create relationships and to provoke encounters between fields, artistic, cultural and societal. This only underlines the need to network with all its partners, suppliers, customers, shareholders and even competitors. This is what we now call "co-petition": contraction of competition and cooperation. And in this sense, let's talk about "co-innovention", to underline the multiplicity of players and their profiles.
Today, innovation has become a collective and complex phenomenon involving all the players in and around the company. It is the result of networks of actors interacting and structured around large, powerful clusters, centres of excellence and competitiveness, linking activities considered heterogeneous: economic, scientific, cultural.
The second step is to put the company in its context and find all the societal, economic and global trends that influence and shape it on a daily basis.

Thinking outside the box in benchmarking

Innovation will be born from this intersection of internal and external analyses, from this confrontation between its unique identity and its influence on current trends. With such an approach, the two car manufacturers, Renault and Peugeot, cannot decently design the same products.
Innovation here is no longer a kind of copy of the success of the competitor, but the emergence of products born of its own singularity. Let's get off the beaten track of benchmarking, which has long been privileged as a source of innovation.
For the idea of co-innovation branches out to include the company's customers. Innovation becomes the fruit of cooperation with its customers, with their imagination, with their everyday life. Hence the idea of large companies to set up usage laboratories.
In the latter, the idea is first and foremost to observe how the customer uses a particular household appliance or product and then to deduce new needs. A simple but fruitful observation of reality...

Beauty is good... : new company ethic

Today, innovation is no longer just about technology. It includes societal issues such as health concerns, food, climate and spiritual problems. All these collective desires, this new hedonism that is emerging, which includes body care, the development of fashion, dietetics and ecology, are at the source of a whole new ethic based on aesthetics. In this lineage, sustainable development is not a fashion phenomenon, it is truly a fundamental trend. It is an economic, biological and societal necessity.

Foresight... or the return of hindsight...

Tomorrow won't be like yesterday either. Gone are the days of the "Trente Glorieuses" with growth plans of between 5 and 10 % per year! Today, it is a question of looking far and wide, as Gaston Berger, the father of foresight in France, sums up. To be able to know what is going to happen, the company must stop withdrawing into itself or into its field and open up to the outside world.
Looking at what's going on in his field is the first step... natural. Looking elsewhere is the second step... less natural. But it is the requirement of foresight. It is the solution to abstract oneself from internal contingencies, to navigate a world in perpetual motion, subject to multiple interactions of global origin.
Foresight proposes a state of mind, a posture. It is not a methodology, but an approach that also requires a good dose of voluntarism, because it requires to identify new possible fields and to organize oneself to reach them. The future does not fall on you in an inevitable way. We are neither in utopia, nor in science fiction, nor in wishful thinking, but in the concrete, the very concrete.

Interview with ERic Seulliet by Karine Jamen-Salmon for Com Ent

(1) Lucien Sfez is a Professor in Political Science and Director of the DEA Communication, Technologies and Power (University of Paris 1). He is the author of numerous books including : La Politique Symbolique (1993, PUF); Critique de la Communication (1988, Seuil); Technique and Ideology. Un enjeu de pouvoir (2002, Seuil).

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