What if no idea goes to waste? Idea ideation, generation and sustainability.

Photo by Júnior Ferreira on Unsplash

This post is an output, or rather, a result, of my philosophical quest that I’ve put upon myself, even though in reality, it is a result of my inborn curiosity and a constant quest of asking “Why?”.

I should note that this paper might seem a bit abstract. It is mostly based on the creation of , sustainability and bridging the gap between highest level of abstraction to the lowest level of behavior, trying to explore new, hybrid combinations between current nature-like systems and mapping them in service systems in order to achieve creative and sustainable business opportunities. I believe an exciting new way of approaching problems is just behind the corner, and we need to dig into it to create more adaptive and flexible solutions.

What if we upcycle ideas? Let no idea go to waste?

During my Business class last semester, I’ve heard about the hot, new buzzword of economy. A few months after, I’ve watched The world is poorly designed. But copying nature helps by 99 Percent Invisible and Vox.

There, Janine Benyus, a Co-Founder of the Biomimicry Institute explains how big challenges in design, engineering, and sustainability have often already been solved through 3.8 billion years of evolution on Earth — with biomimicry. The topic intrigued me from the beginning as I somehow always find inspiration within nature.

Today, our economy is based on a linear system of production where we take raw materials and natural resources out of nature, process them into usable goods to meet human needs, and then discard them back into giant holes in the ground that, ironically, were often where we took the raw materials from to begin with. You may say that our current dealing with problems is also linear — people who have an existing framework, an economic framework or an engineering framework or similar, feel that logic is the answer. Their conclusions are derived solely from numerical data and those spreadsheet driven ideas, or rather mechanistic ideas, are today somehow prioritized over psychological ideas.

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Just imagine, what is the last time someone had opened a door for you at a hotel by a hotel employee with his only job being opening doors to guests? Engineers saw it as a thing that could be improved upon — why have a person opening for you when we can create automatic doors? So they did. But, what they have missed to consider throughout that process is context. Culture. Sensemaking. Having someone to open the doors for you was rarely bothersome. On the contrary, it was the symbol of status.

Why were we not given the chance to solve that problem psychologically? I think it’s because there’s an imbalance, an asymmetry in the way we treat creative, emotionally driven psychological ideas versus the way we treat rational, numerical, spreadsheet-driven ideas. That’s why I would argue not to make any decisions solely based on economic data. We should be able to feel it to — it’s a helpful way of understanding something not only with our rationale, but with our humanity as well.

For me, this intuition begins to draw parallels between unexpected patterns and, ultimately, being able to reinvent all the rules which were once considered sacred.

So, I continued on thinking,… if we are turning to user-centered design and if (ambitious and successful) companies are adopting that approach, aren’t we reframing economic theory to enable a human centered and sustainable future? Are we moving from the capitalistic economy to a new one?

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“The most powerful tool in economics is not money, nor even algebra. It is a pencil. Because with a pencil you can redraw the world.”

Remember the term I coined in the beginning of the post? Yes — at its core, a circular economy means that products no longer have a life cycle with a beginning, middle, and an end, and therefore contributes less waste and can actually add value to their ecosystem. When materials stop getting used, they go back into a useful cycle, hence the circular economy. Imagine, what would happen if everything was designed to be restorative and regenerative, including ideas?

Soon enough I’ve discovered that the amazing Tim Brown from IDEO has already started the shift with the Circular Design Guide, collaborating with Ellen MacArthur Foundation and I was happy that from watching the Vox YouTube video, my thought process has led me to this.

But… what about bad ideas?

Edward de Bono talks of four different types of lateral thinking tools.

  • Harvest Tools — Work with existing ideas to maximize the value of those ideas.
  • Treatment Tools — Often, new ideas that have been found by means of interesting thinking, are still a bit wild. By wild, I mean that they are untested, possibly impractical (in the originally conceived format), and/or generally undeveloped. Treatment tools apply lateral thinking to ensure that innovative ideas can become real-world solutions.

Lateral thinking is defined as: the solving of problems by an indirect and creative approach, typically through viewing the problem in a new and unusual light. Bad ideas can challenge our assumptions. They can at first seem shocking or counter intuitive but they are worth our attention, even if we end up rejecting them — and you might think like that for this article, but in the end, that’s good. My goal is to challenge your thinking and to possibly wake up some unusual ideas inside your own realm of existence.

Here comes my question: What if we design the circumstances where bad idea becomes a good idea?

Go back and re-read Harvest and Treatment tools de Bono talks about. Bad ideas will always be judged by the marketplace, but it doesn’t have to be judged by our community, whether it be colleagues, friends or family. By enabling a safe place for bad idea generation, we can revisit them and unlock creativity within that safe space. Don’t waste ideas, upcycle them.

When I have an idea (it’s generally more of a provocative thought than an idea in the beginning actually) and I pitch it to people, my favorite response is “That would never work!” YES! Tell me why it wouldn’t work. Tell me what do you see as obstacles. That kind of conversation helps us revisit our constraints and criteria as both, individuals and as a group. By laughing at outrageous ideas, and not people, we gain trust and listening, which are key to innovation.

Idea is, at its creation, a thought — a single, 0-dimensional dot in our mind. By letting it grow and facilitating its development, it becomes a line — or a of somehow connected thoughts. Some of the previous thoughts have been old residents of our mind, some of the thoughts have just developed now as a co-product of our initial idea. By connecting our previous knowledge, current insights and new ideas, we can derive new findings and challenge old ones.

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Challenging the way people think

I like to intentionally provoke people with seemingly bad ideas or weird questions as I believe it will put them in a different mindset. It’s not that trick “Oh I’ll tell them a stupid idea so they outrage and then be astonished with the next amazing idea I present!”. No. I’ll poke you with those kind of crazy ideas to provoke a new way of thinking and get you out of your current mindset that what you have in mind is right and correct. Almost like counter argumentation, even though it might as well be.

One of those crazy ideas was when I said to my friends: “What if we try to make our own geoid model of our country?”. Just to tune you in, geoid is a hypothetical solid figure whose surface corresponds to the mean sea level and its imagined extension under (or over) land areas. They said I was completely nuts, but they wouldn’t be my friends if they didn’t have a touch of madness within them as well. Hence, they rolled with my idea and little do you know it — we’ve won 1st place on a European contest in the category “Geodesy, topography” with our scientific research paper, and consequently, a Special Rector’s Recognition for Achieved International Success.

When you have a bad, or seemingly dangerous idea, play with it. Go to some places a little bit different with it. That creative impulse is what we want to harness. It’s a different form of thinking. Learn to be able to pick up that bad idea, build on it — the thing that it could be is this — and help finish it. You want to bridge that gap from the highest abstraction to the lowest level of behaviour so that it becomes implementable. Can you sense the beginning of circularity already?

Reframing bad into good

One of the great mistakes, I think, of economics is that it fails to understand that what something is, is a function, not only of its amount, but also its meaning, the context, the sense making. Following the same thought path, isn’t it one of the great mistakes of idea understanding to think that the idea only works for one given context and if its stupid, it should be thrown away?

Why not look deeper into what actually shapes the idea? On which grounds does it stand? Which methodologies and principles does it consist? Where can it find its true meaning? The narrative and context are important. Don’t stick with just the obvious. We need to push through to the second round where we get to innovative, wacky & breakthroughs. Choose your frame of reference and the perceived value, and therefore, the actual value is completely transformed.

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What’s so bad about improving our enjoyment by improving our perceptions, rather than spending money to improve material goods directly? If we can move from products to services and if we can learn how to appreciate more of what’s already there, aren’t we already making a step towards sustainable future?

Neuroscience and behavioral economics have taught us that all value, as represented in the human brain, is relative. Hence, I’d argue that there are no bad ideas, but rather that all ideas are relative, because for the relativist, there is no more to truth than the right context, or the right personal or cultural belief. That’s the power of reframing. We as designers have that power. Even from the worst starting point, we can turn things into a positive.

Idea generation

This kind of systems thinking requires a shift in mindset, away from linear to circular. The fundamental principle of this shift is that everything is interconnected (remember how ideas are born within the borders of our own minds, first the dot, then a line, then a relational database). We talk about interconnectedness not in a spiritual way, but in a biological sciences way. From this, we can shift the way we see the world, from a linear, structured ‘mechanical worldview’ to a dynamic, chaotic, interconnected array of relationships and feedback loops.

Synthesis is about understanding the whole and the parts at the same time, along with the relationships and the connections that make up the dynamics of the whole. Essentially, synthesis is the ability to see interconnectedness.

Identify and map the elements of ‘things’ within a system to understand how they interconnect, relate and act in a complex system, and from here, unique insights and discoveries can be used to develop interventions, shifts, or policy decisions that will dramatically change the system in the most effective way.

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Idea sustainability

Today, and increasingly in the future, good ideas will come from both amateurs and professionals: new approaches are needed to reverse top-down design processes and shape horizontal frameworks of collaboration. Innovation here is interpreted as a social, cumulative and collaborative activity, where ‘ideas flow back up the pipeline from consumers and they share them amongst themselves’.

That’s why design today is a silent and powerful social scripter that influences every living being on this planet. That’s the power of the designed world — it designs us as much as we design it. There has always been an incidental social and environmental benefit in service design. However, the relationship between service design and sustainability needs to become more explicit.

If we want to move towards sustainability and regeneration, I don’t think that only focusing our energy on changing people’s behaviors will work. Instead, we need to try to shift cultural conventions around values and redesign the systems of production to normalize sustainable consumption.

We know we can directly translate lessons from nature and apply these into the design process for technological outcomes (devices, artifacts and engineering), but how do we translate natures process for the design of intangible human (and service) systems?

Janine (from Biomimicry Institute I mentioned in the beginning) goes to state that the wicked problem of the 21st century is sustainability and that all aspects of design: from policy to ecosystems, require trans-disciplinary teams with the designer as instigator and facilitator in this process. She then shifts into the theory of complex systems, quoting German systems psychologist Dietrich Dörner. Dörner investigated ways trans+multi disciplinary teams interact in the process of complex, unpredictable and interrelated problems.

This theory should be fundamental for service design thinking. Such changes in intention are changes in meta-design that affect all human activity. Changing the intentions behind design — changing mindset — is design at the paradigm level.

All knowledge is transferable

Asking what knowledge might be transferable from biology to service design implies a situation which is in a potential state rather than in a realized state. On the other hand, recently I have written about being equally passionate about two seamlessly different things and that’s geodesy and design.

The example I took was one as told by Joost Holthuis from Edenspiekermann in his TED Talk — let’s say you have a project that will influence people’s lives for almost 20 years — a construction of a busy railway station. That means that the people have to live in an another situation that’s permanently changing, and you want to assure that they have a safe and pleasant stay in their surroundings.

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I argued that without realizing it, humans are actually developing cognitive maps which include knowledge of landmarks, route connections, distance and direction relations; non spatial attributes and emotional associations as well.

Now, let me try to apply this new concept of biomimicing to the example I showcased in my latest post.

Well, let’s look at ants’ behavior. Think about it — how do they move? How do they get so much done without communicating, at least the way that we can perceive? Their self-organization is based on direct physical communication but more importantly through indirect local information, called stigmergy, where one insect modifies the environment inducing a behavior to others to follow at a later time.

Hmm… that sounds familiar now, does it? Artificial stigmergy algorithms have been applied in several areas such as routing traffic and identification of shortest path. Humans really excel at stigmergic interactions. For example, a train travel includes many way finding (modification of the environment) techniques that allow for an easy and undisrupted customer journey, just like I described in my previous post.

Essentially, service design touchpoints that enhance the service intensity can represent direct or indirect communication. Could we gauge how reliable a touchpoint is according to its stigmergic strength? Possibly, yes.

“You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.” 
R. Buckminster Fuller

Natural resources are cycled in closed loop systems, while technology goes through a linear open-ended cycle of manufacture and disposal. Feedback loops are cyclical information flows that allow organisms to properly modify their reactions to environmental situations and stimuli.

Cyclic processes can be as simple as the diurnal cycle (the 24 hour rotation of the earth), or things that are less absolute in their timing, such as the need for living things to acquire nutrients. Many plants spread their seeds by supplying nutrients to fill the cyclical needs of hungry animals.

Time-lapse photograph of stars by Nirav Insomniac on Unsplash

In the context of products and services, good feedback loops are critically important for helping users understand where they are in a system, what has happened, and what will happen next. They could be long cycles with months between interactions or short cycles with interactions happening many times every day. Taking advantage of these cycles and considering the time spans is important to getting the interaction or a touchpoint just right. For me, this places design in a unique position to build bridges with science towards significantly impactful ends.

Lighting the spark: Service Design and Biomimicry

Lets continue to scope existing knowledge in biomimetics and try to establish how it relates to service design.

Firstly, the most obvious premise is that ecology and service design share the same level of organization, which is the systems level, and they are both complex systems. The main entity in ecology is the ecosystem. Similarly, in service science the basic unit is the service system, which is perceived to be a dynamic value co-creation congregation of resources, including people, organizations, shared information (language, laws, measures, methods), and technology, all connected internally and externally to other service systems by value propositions.

Secondly, services develop over time by co-evolving with their users. Through constant interaction, feedback and communication services adapt to their users, just like nature, day by day.

Lastly, both areas of study are highly relational, which is a topic I’ve already touched upon. Ecology studies the “interactions of organisms with their physical environment and with one another”. Likewise, in service design relations are paramount. Service blueprints map front and backstage interactions; stakeholder maps describe the interplay between various groups within a service; customer journeys map service touchpoints where service encounters between the user and the service provider occur, etc.

The understanding of service design as a transformation tool is slowly evolving. Service design could go beyond designing experiences which make us “go into one coffee shop and not the other” and put a lot more emphasis on “acting as a provoker” and a force that brings vision and meaning to the design table.

by Austin Chan on Unsplash

Deriving value from abstraction

The awareness of a paradigm shift from design doing to design thinking is already well recognized. As a relatively new field, service design provides an approach that can manipulate and adjust society without destroying or severing its structure. It has already become one of the ideal design tools to encourage social innovation and sustainability. Services are, in this way, the ‘concrete’ illustrations and manifestations of the scenarios and the results of a strategic conversation among a diverse set of players.

I believe we must revolutionize the way we create, so that all design is done to the intent to make positive and regenerative impacts, not accidentally (or intentionally) facilitate the perpetuation of externalities. The opportunities are on the horizon, we just need more activated minds willing to pioneer capturing them. I hope to see companies pioneering and transitioning from single use products to more integrated closed loop systems that maintain value within the systems design and that dramatically reduce the environmental and social burden that disposability results in.

What I love about service design is that it seems to be opening up a room for more promising innovation with regards to sustainability and the human-centered approach, given the focus on interactions, relations and activities rather than on objects. Thinking in terms of services helps designers to deconstruct preconceived ideas about how things should be done, and generate new solutions that have the potential to reshape behaviors, rethink products and places, and eventually transform society.



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