Category: Innovation

One of the first books I bought on the ‘the future’ outside of texts I was reading for the Masters of Strategic Foresight was Cradle to Cradle by McDonough and Braungart. I bought a copy in 2003 while at a World Future Society conference in San Francisco, it is printed on a material made from plastic resins and fibres. It claimed to be waterproof, which I tested, and recyclable, which I haven’t as yet. The material is soft and pleasant to the touch. They describe the material as a ‘technical nutrient’, “a product that can be broken down and circulated infinitely in industrial cycles.” (p5) I still remember how excited I was by both the book’s message and the embodiment of the message by the artefact itself. The idea of cradle to cradle manufacturing, where the waste products of one process becomes the feedstock for another, is still a very seductive idea to me. That this should be key requirement of all design is also one which has been slow to catch on, but is starting to appear. Europe requires that the recycling of packaging and products be considered during the design process. The idea of upcycling is starting to gain traction, as is the closing of systems in restaurants and the like.

Cradle to Cradle


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One of the issues I alluded to in the previous post was our tenancy to bifurcate the future into positive and negative stereotypes – utopia or dystopia. This topic has come up a couple of times in the past week, so I thought a follow up post might be appropriate. The model I want to use to start this discussion was developed by Andrew Curry and Anthony Hodgson and you can find in the Journal of Futures Studies which places all of its material on the web free of charge.

The format of their model that I use in my work is below. The standpoint is today, and you can see from the chart that I start five years or so into the past, the first horizon is the world we know today, overtime it recedes and the seeds of the second and third horizons can be seen if you look. In the work we do, the third horizon is the future we are trying to create, the emerging signals of which exist today. It won’t be a straight line extrapolation from one to the other, instead there is what is known by the technical term of ‘the messy bit’ between us in the present and the future we are wanting to create. It is the messiness of the second horizon that derails many in their thinking about the future. We want the clean break from the past and to step into a future that is desired. Our ability to make straight line linkages between events in hindsight fools us into thinking this is possible when looking out to the future. My contention is that we currently need to develop compelling images of 3rd horizon futures and that it is the role of the leader to navigate the messy bit from today to tomorrow. Continue reading


There are some interesting ideas in this latest list of fashion meets environmentalism or, depending on your point of view, the commodification of nature continues… 10 Eco-Fashion Garments Inspired by Nature and Biomimicry | Ecouterre.

Stefanie has found scraps of wood which she has made into couture pieces of clothing, Suzanne is using couple of bathtubs, some yeast, a pinch of bacteria, and several cups of sweetened green tea to make her fabric which is then dyed by beetroot. Donna is using a nanotechnology-based, structurally colored fiber that mimics the microscopic structure of the Morpho butterfly’s wings that does not require dyeing (see image).

When you have a look through the fashion on the website above it is an interesting  project to question the assumptions and thinking behind many of these ideas by moving them into to a world of restricted resources to generate questions such as these:

Which could continue to survive under cradle to cradle manufacturing requirements?

Which looked to ‘waste’ to find a source of material?

Which are high-tech and therefore require the full functioning of a technological society to support it?

Which can be used to support people when they are deprived?

Which will require low wages and third world manufacturing to be commercially viable?

All of these questions can be legitimately asked in relation to innovative strategies and new products in any industry, but more often than not are ignored. When these questions are answered, there will be products and services supported that are acceptable to the moral stance of the organisation/entrepreneur. People may still not like the outcome, but at least the bigger questions have been dealt with. It is the unconscious choices we are trying to make conscious.

In addition, the sustainability of innovation is a key issue when looking at the future. What are the assumptions about the techno-economic base that the large-scale commercialisation of any of these ideas rely upon? If we are into making things for the long-term, these issues will be at the forefront of our minds, if we want to make a quick buck, then we can afford to ignore them because, at the moment, externalities are not priced into our market.

When I am working with clients to determine a course of action, I like to ask the ‘three questions’:

Who benefits?

Who does not?

And the kicker – just because we can, does that mean we should?

The moral dimension of innovation is often swept under the carpet when shiny new technologies beckon.

In a future where we may have less rather than more, who decides what resources are used for?

From time to time we find ourselves speaking to the next generation of leaders about leading for the future. And not surprisingly we speak about, and place a premium, on the quality of people’s thinking. We extol to people that “the level of thinking that creates a problem is rarely about to solve it” (with apologies to Albert Einstein or whoever is supposed to have said that). Without fail when you listen to and analyse the way that these proto-leaders are thinking, you hear and see how they are trying mightily to transcend the narrowness of previous modes of thought.

One mode of ‘prior’ thinking that gets a thorough caning is the thinking underlying most of our institutions. Like the famous Monty Python sketch about “what have the Romans done for us?”

Institutional thinking is seen as outmoded, slow, narrow, restrictive and totally unsuited to our modern times and thoroughly modern challenges. So naturally our problems require thinking that is un-institutional. This all seems perfectly obvious so where exactly is the problem?

The problem is that large scale change requires institutional steps to change the laws, rules, boundaries, agreements in order for those changes to become widely adopted. Without institutions then change is always just a matter of individual personal choice. Garret Hardin showed in his archetype, ‘the tragedy of the commons’, that well thought out individual action can maximise the personal and bring down the collective very well. At some stage rules are going to have to be established and enforced that compel the bulk of people to conform to a set of agreed social agreements. And along with these social agreements we will also need a whole bunch of people to enforce and possibly even punish people who will not conform. Climate change is one such change that is only going to managed at a planetary level when a planet full of individuals begin to cede their individualism to the rights of institutions.

Yet the post-modern way, the post-conventional way, is to see the institutional as always being shallow and prior to their way of seeing the world. So as a person’s perspective grows then the institutional is left behind, not for them, not for their leadership. Who, therefore, is left to do institutional leadership? Who would want to be a plodder, to do the long and hard yards that are necessary to get laws changed, to fight for new rules? Who would want to sacrifice their efforts to support an institution, somewhere were their individual efforts are subsumed into the collective? In our world in the thrall of change, innovation, and creativity then those who push knowledge forward are seen as the leaders; the creators. Someone nameless and faceless has to follow behind and institutionalise the best of those innovations otherwise they never really change the world. Ideas don’t change the world; they need to be institutionalised to do that. The idea of women voting didn’t change the world; the fight to get women the vote did that. The concern about the environment did not change the world; the new rules around environment protection did that. And as soon as something is institutionalised it is out of date, now part of the problem not part of the solution. Who wants to be that?

The funny thing about knowledge is that it is always provisional. An idea is only as current as it is, until a better idea comes along. Thus we see the ceaseless growth of knowledge as progress. Institutions are different. Find the error in an idea and we get a new, better idea. Find the flaw in an institution then we get a weakened institution, we don’t automatically get a better one. Diminish the institutions of politics, of education, of commerce and you get a weaker, less effective institution because it is less respected, less authoritative. Someone else has to come along afterwards and build the new institution, do the hard yards, make all the new deals, create the new agreements.

So when we talk to the new leaders about the future, those who grasp the need for new ideas, we ask them are you prepared to build the new institutions that we need? Because if you don’t who will? Someone has to. But it will take time, maybe more than your lifetime to do. And if you do commit yourself to building the new institutions then you know that there is someone who was like you who now sees you as part of the past, too slow, too reactive, the problem and not the solution.

What kind of leader will you be? What kind of leader does the future need you to be?

It always amazes me where inspiration strikes. Innovation comes from having the time to think and I make sure I have thinking time on a weekly basis – usually when walking the family dog. On my walk yesterday, I was looking at the profusion of lilly pilly trees planted on nature strips in front of the houses on my street. I have looked at these trees, and the mess they make at this time of year when the fruit drops off them, for 12 years and only yesterday was I looking at them as a source of food. Lilly pilly is bush tucker, a native tree with a small purple fruit with quite a tart taste, good for eating off the tree as a snack but also good for utilising in jam. It struck me that the idea of foraging for food amongst the ornamental trees and the blending of the old and new (bush tucker with jam making techniques) was a great metaphor for the type of thinking needed in organisations today.

I think that we should develop the ability to look at the everyday occurrences and assumptions within our organisations in new ways. Reviewing what is useful and re-casting that which we take for granted. Only through the conscious use of perspectives and the ability to shift from ours to another’s, do we have any hope of becoming nimble enough to try and deal with the ‘black swans’ or future unknowables that will arise for our organisations.

I think the practice of blending the old with the new has merit as well. When you spend as much time as I do working with organisations around future direction setting, you quickly learn that there is absolutely no point in thinking that the future is a place where the past no longer exists. On the contrary, if you have not taken the time to review and decide what will be taken from the past into the future, there is a good chance that the future will either be the same as today or that you will have undermined what is possible in the future by not putting down what is not needed from the past. Often the hardest question for organisations to answer about the future is ‘what are you going to leave behind?’

The leaving behind process is not easy, even when it is acknowledged that what is being left is no longer useful. For many organisations, and the people in them, doing what we have always done is a comfort. It is a tried and true approach to chaos and complexity that will leave us with a feeling of control and influence. That fact that we may be deluding ourselves is not often reflected upon!

The process of looking at the old and seeing something new should not entail recrimination or the feeling that one ‘should’ have seen differently beforehand. Sometimes seeing takes time and space, or it may be a new context shifts your perception of those things around you that were taken for granted. This ability to move the way you see the world is one worth celebrating.

Lilly pilly jam may be an acquired taste, but the process of engaging with an old fruit in new ways is a path to utilising resources we have around us that we may take for granted. What can you see in your organisation that could be used differently or leveraged in another direction? Where is your lily pilly jam?

“If you are willing to talk with me, I am willing to work with you”. The speaker is the head of a family owned company with a rich history of manufacturing who is facing a future in which he works in collaboration with his former competitors to re-shape the future of their industry.  Picture this: twenty representatives from small and medium companies from the same industry intently debating the future direction of that industry and how they might work together to shape it. They aren’t talking price, they are talking about survival in the face of large multi-national companies flooding their market with cheap, mass-produced furniture. There are disagreements, and former competitors are finding it difficult to imagine working together, but there is a will to try to create a different future for the industry than the one that is unfolding at the present. They are engrossed in learning a new way of developing a business model and planning framework using the future.

These scenes occurred during a recent trip to Valencia, Spain. I was working with family owned furniture companies involved in a Valencian Government funded research program run by AIDIMA, the government-funded furniture research centre in Valencia, aiming to assist companies to develop more competitive businesses through the use of foresight. This program has been running since the late 1990s. At its heart is the development of a robust and resilient furniture industry for Valencia. Spain, like many other high cost manufacturing countries, has seen an increase in imports from China, they have also seen the market share of the domestic companies overtaken by increasing market presence from large European companies such as IKEA. The Valencian region is resisting this trend and supports their local industry but they acknowledge the local companies have to become more competitive.

The process of providing the furniture companies with an accessible stream of competitive intelligence on what was happening in similar countries, and within Spain, began in the late 1990s. This developed into a trends spotting service known as the Trends Observatory. This service utilises environmental scanning to identify emerging future trends and reporting these to the local industry.

In 2005, the next stage of the process was devised as a foresight exercise. A number of scenarios were developed that chart the possible future for the Valencian industry over the decade to 2015. The next stage of the project is to develop new business models for each company that will give them resilience in the face of a changing business environment.

During 2007, the head of the project came to Australia looking for foresight expertise in the development of scenarios. Whilst here, he spoke to our domestic industry about the idea of assisting the long term sustainability of place-based manufacturing and, by all reports, they were perplexed as to why a domestic manufacturing capacity was important.

‘It is cheaper to manufacture in China’.  This demonstration that an industry appeared not to value the retention of domestic manufacturing expertise reminded me of something I had read about Britain after the Romans started to roll back their Empire. A king’s tomb that was dated to 300 years after Roman occupation included pottery from a part of France that had been renowned for its quality and craftsmanship. The pottery found was dated to around the end of the Roman occupation in Britain, but at that time it would have only been seen as suitable for the family of a worker. In 300 years, what was once seen as everyday had become so precious that it was buried in a King’s tomb.  The specialisation that occurred during the Roman Empire resulted in the British ceramics sector losing its ability to manufacture quality pottery, which left it no resilience in the face of shocks from external forces.

The Valencian Furniture industry is not looking to turn back the clock, they understand the future is coming to them, but they are also aware that their ability to maintain their resilience in the face of external shocks is rooted in the strength of their place-based manufacturing industry.

More details on the scenario process and the business model workshops in following posts.


CEFFOR Project