[Thesis]. Manchester, UK: The University of Manchester; 2013.
The core concern of my thesis is with shifting the focus from the description on how
innovation is done (predominantly STS accounts of innovation in-the-making) to what
designers do with conceptions of innovation. The thesis is based on ethnographic fieldwork
within a group of interaction designers of Milan. Despite the different conceptions
and traditions of innovation that these designers bring in – the artistic and technological
ones – I observed that a design-centered conception of innovation is reproduced, as
well as the idea that plans and intentions precede things. However, another key idea
of my fieldwork is the importance designers give to imagining things as they might
be, rather than focusing on how things are. This is where different models of action,
planned and open ones coexist in creative ways: it is these processes that the ethnography
Let us imagine two “tribes” of designers – obviously “tribes” here is an intentional
exaggeration, as I am not sure if should I call them ‘types’, ‘cultures’, ‘traditions’
or ‘communities’, and anyway, this is a fictional example, so “tribes” will do. The
“tribe” A) designers who create what people want/need; and the “tribe” B) designers
who create what they want. These correspond to two different conceptions of innovation:
A) user-centered innovation (co-design with users) and B) design-centered innovation.
The question is: which “tribe” is more able to produce innovation, to generate new
ideas, things that didn’t exist before? And which “tribe” is more likely to produce
conservative ones? So the question is ‘where does the ‘new’ comes from? Is it from
the ‘outside’ world of users or from the ‘inside’ world of designers’ intentions?
This is not my question, and it is not a theoretical one either: it is an ethnographic,
situated one. So my aim is not to resolve it – rather, my ethnography details how
this dilemma happens in the field, situating, contextualizing and detailing how it
arises as a problem within specific social relationships. My fieldwork is based on
a group of interaction designers who consider themselves part of “tribe B” – the simplification
is an anecdote to outline in a few words what criteria they use to define themselves.
This “tribe” has a more artistic background than the designers of the other “tribe”,
and so they privilege specific models of action: they tend to prefer a more adventurous
mode of action, based on improvisation of the process, intuition and unpredictability,
if compared to the more ‘rational’ and ‘scientific’ type of the other “tribe”. From
their point of view, while in “tribe A” designers work with ‘what there is’, they,
the more daring ones, work with ‘what can be’ – they work with potentialities. The
argument of this thesis is that the two “tribes” (that is, the contrast itself) correspond
to two extreme ideas about innovation (two models of action), two different myths:
one point of view (that of “tribe A”) concerns the idea that the new arises from the
‘outside’ (objective approach; the Science perspective) and the other view (that of
the “tribe B”) is centered around the idea that the new arises from the ‘inside’ (the
subjectivity of the authors’ interpretation and mental synthesis; the Arts approach).
The contrast between these two views reproduces modernity. The contrast itself, which
is an ethnographic one, is a reproduction of the division between mind and body –
it is to those processes that my thesis refers to.