Crisis driven innovation

Research in creativity suggests we’re good at solving problems – but we can also be a bit lazy! We satisfice, finding good enough solutions and then calling a halt. Brainstorming sessions work because we allow a free flow of ideas, everybody throwing their contribution into the ring. It’s exciting, energetic and fun – and usually there are plenty of ideas to choose from, spread all over flipcharts or scribbled on to hundreds of post-it notes.


The trouble is that these are often variations on some emerging themes, trajectories which quickly become established across the group and which act as a focus for further thinking. They open up new thinking but then channel it along particular lines, refining and improving on the early insights.


As anyone who works in brainstorming sessions knows getting wilder ideas, jumping the tracks, moving to very different trajectories is important. The evidence is that if we are told that there are more solutions of a different kind then we open up our search more widely. We find this uncomfortable, our lazy brains grumbling about having to get out of their chairs and go hunting around to try and find new solutions, but the process usually works.


The well-known problem of ‘functional fixation’ is another good example of the challenge. In this research groups are presented with an open-ended problem – the famous example is that of trying to stick a candle to the wall so that the wax doesn’t drip on to the table below. Given a box containing a candle, matches and some tacks most participants explore solutions involving trying to glue the candle to the wall or using the tacks to hold it in place. Very few think of using the box itself as a candle holder and attaching that to the wall. Karl Duncker’s research has been replicated many times and highlights the way we become ‘fixated’ on the normal ways of seeing – for example that a box is a container – and fail to recognize alternatives.


The good news is that with additional prompts we can break out of this bubble. In creativity training giving people a nudge can move their thinking in new directions. Functional fixation can be overcome if we prime people to take a different view or break away from their ‘normal’ interpretation of the function of certain objects. Wilder ideas can be stimulated by using metaphor and analogy or by forcing random connections.   And sometimes deliberately generating a sense of ‘stuckness’ can force open the doors into a new insight.


We know from many studies of creativity that the sense of being stuck, of not being able to solve a problem is an important part of the process. It feels frustrating and uncomfortable but on another level it is a reminder of our capacity for search. Our brains don’t give up on the problem but go into a search mode which is often unconscious. We sleep on the problem, go for a walk, distract ourselves – and suddenly there is a flash of insight, an ‘aha!’ moment and we know we are on to a new and promising direction for solving the problem.



Organizations behave in similar fashion. They can innovate but often do so along tried and tested pathways, deploying creativity but in a bounded form focused by dominant designs and technological trajectories. Plenty of research highlights the difficulty of breaking away from this – not for nothing do organizations yearn for the skills of breaking out of their particular box.


That’s where crisis comes in – it forces us to jump the tracks. Necessity really can be the mother of invention, and sometimes being backed into a corner is the key to finding a radically new perspective. We may not like the feeling of being pushed but the stuckness triggers powerful new search behaviours.


Consider the case of ‘lean’ thinking – something which revolutionized first manufacturing and then a growing set of services, public and private. This approach to process innovation grew up because the dominant design based around mass production couldn’t work in post-war Japanese factories with extremely limited human and physical resources and with markets which were fragmented and small. These crisis conditions triggered the search for a radical new alternative; it didn’t emerge overnight but the learning and problem solving associated with it opened up a rich new field of possibilities.


Our work on humanitarian innovation suggests that crisis conditions can offer a powerful space in which new thinking can emerge. In the terrible aftermath of disasters like earthquakes, hurricanes or tidal waves many of our ‘normal’ systems break down. There is an urgent need to provide food, clean water, shelter, to enable effective communications so people can reconnect, to establish effective logistics across broken roads and fractured rail-lines. Our existing set of solutions may simply not work under these conditions – but the evidence is that crisis of this kind brings out creativity, enabling new pathways. Importantly these not only solve the immediate problem, they also provide a template for dealing with future versions of it.


For example after the 2010 Haiti earthquake mobile phones became the basis for an effective crisis information system, a communication device for reuniting shattered families, a substitute banking system to replace smashed ATM equipment and a food distribution and retailing system which meant that families could quickly and effectively manage getting their own lives back to some semblance of order. None of this arrived in the holds of planes carrying emergency aid but rather it emerged bottom up from people experimenting and implementing new solutions.


Google have a phrase – ‘creativity loves constraints’ – and it’s not a bad motto. Sometimes there are alternative solutions out there but we need to be stuck and pushed out of our comfort zones to search and find them






Joseph’s – the Service Factory


You aren’t going to find any technicolor dreamcoats just yet but for shoes, jewellery, accessories, even a DIY crocheted beanie hat, you might want to add Joseph’s to your shopping list. For the past year a new shop just off the main pedestrian precinct in Nuremberg has been offering a glimpse into the future, not only of shopping but of services in general. From the outside it looks like an up-market tech store with big windows, trendy logo and the intriguing label ‘Josephs’ – Service Factory’. Walk down the few steps and you are in a modern cafe with the usual tempting array of pastries, the comforting hissing of coffee machinery and the rich aroma of Mr. Bleck’s (a sort of Nuremberg Starbucks) finest blend wafting through the air.   Plus there’s a rather different kind of shop attached.


The idea behind Josephs’ is to bring the man and woman in the street up to the innovation frontier, to show them some of the new technologies which might shape their service experience and give them a chance to play around with them. It’s part of a wave of activities which involve ‘co-creation’; rather than simply consume users are invited to chip in their ideas, their feedback and even to get stuck in and create something of their very own. ‘Tech-shops’, ‘Fab-Labs’ and other versions have been springing up all round the world offering a space where people can use new design and manufacturing technologies like 3-D printing to create products of their own. Josephs’ takes this a step further, bringing the whole idea of services into the mix and essentially placing a prototyping laboratory in the high street.


It’s the product of a partnership between the nearby Fraunhofer Institute IIS and the University of Nurnberg-Erlangen. (The IIS has a pretty good track record in the world of bringing new technologies into our daily lives; amongst many other innovations they invented the mp3 algorithms which underpinned the digital music revolution). Their interest lies in finding different ways to bring their new technological tools to the attention of a wider public, not just to showcase their ‘gee whiz!’ aspects but in a genuine attempt to source new ideas for how these could be used and what would help accelerate their take-up.


For the university it offers a chance to move their activities out from the (rather pleasant) ivory towers and into the heart of the city. Some of the space in Josephs is given over to workshops and presentations around innovation; a popular session is a hands-on course for start-ups where aspiring entrepreneurs get a chance to develop their ideas under the guidance of experienced mentors. A sort of Dragon’s Den but with sweeter-tempered livestock.

So what’s in the shop? First impressions are of somewhere light and airy, a bit like a museum or art gallery. There is a reception desk where you can pick up a tablet to accompany you; it interacts with each area in the shop and offers a commentary and useful background to what you are seeing/exploring. Beyond that there are the ‘theme islands’ – a series of spaces which participating firms can rent as a prototyping/exhibition area.   Every three months Joseph’s switches to a new theme – for example clothing and footwear, furniture, mobility solutions – and the islands are populated by a range of different players in that space. Unlike a museum or exhibition the emphasis is on getting involved, interacting with the products and services on show and adding your feedback and ideas to the mix. And, courtesy of IIS, you can expand your knowledge about what’s on offer by using a handheld device linked to the Awiloc system which uses wi-fi to connect you to a world of information about what you are seeing.

It takes market research a long way beyond the focus group and sets up opportunities to get direct user and potential user input. (For example, using some more IIS technology (the SHORE system) it is possible to assess the emotional response of people as they walk around the displays. And their Awiloc technology not only gives users a guide as they walk around, it also collects data about their journeys, information searches and other indicators of consumer reaction). Joseph’s provides a bridge between on-line and off-line worlds; for many exhibitors their core business is online but displaying their wares gives them a chance to open a ‘pop-up’ shop for a short period to interact directly with customers.

So far so interesting. It’s an exhibition of what can be done and a way of bringing the kind of online customizers into the mainstream off-line world of high street shopping. But the real purpose behind Josephs is to research this, trying to understand how we might become active ‘co-creators’ of products and the services around them. It’s a well-established finding that people adopt innovations which fit with their lifestyles, aspirations and concerns – diffusion depends on ‘compatibility’. So the best way to ensure this is to engage users up front with their ideas, shaping, configuring and essentially ‘owning’ a bit of the innovation. The big challenge, especially in services, is how to do this effectively? And that’s where Joseph’s comes in, as an ‘on-site laboratory’ in the high street exploring the what and how of co-creation.   Part of the project is to develop ways of asking this question, using techniques borrowed from anthropology, part of it is to experiment with new ways of prototyping with users.

And like a good laboratory it can be reconfigured to suit different experiments. Everything about the place has been designed for flexibility so that the shop can adapt to the ways people want to interact with it.   The staff (a mixture of permanent employees and university students) are not only on hand to help but also part of the research team, actively monitoring what’s going on and making plans to change and change again in response to the signals they are picking up. So there’s a good chance that the Joseph’s you experience today won’t be quite the same as the one you’ll find tomorrow.

Joseph’s has been open since May 2014 and it is constantly changing, shaping its format by engaging visitors in a co-creation process, inviting people in to explore, imagine and even play around. There are plenty of ways to make your views known – scribble them on the whiteboards and flipcharts which decorate the space, capture them on notepads, tell the staff and even (don’t try this at home) write them on the walls! It continues to offer a laboratory for learning about co-creation and is growing in popularity as businesses realize the potential of working in such a laboratory space.


For more information pay a visit to Joseph’s – either in person or via