Meaningful Innovation: Fresh Perspective for Companies

Image: Title Meaningful Innovation and Copernicus
Changing Perspective in a Complex Environment
How do we make the leap into the new? In our world, we are currently experiencing a surge in complexity that is calling previous certainties into question. Interactions are more difficult to understand and predictions are less accurate. In order to achieve a new capability to act, we therefore need a new perspective for our economic activities. To investigate what we can expect in this transformation, we will now take a look at a famous example from history: the Copernican Revolution. What can we learn for the way we do business today?

The Copernican Revolution

A Simple Idea Leads to a New Paradigm

“Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I’m not sure about the universe.” This quote, commonly attributed to Albert Einstein, is not self-evident, because for a long time our universe was known to be quite limited, with fixed celestial spheres and the earth at its center. It was not until 1543 that Nicolaus Copernicus first described a heliocentric view of the world, in which the earth moves around the sun as a planet. And only this could lead to ideas such as infinity.

Originally, though, Copernicus just wanted to solve a mathematical problem . However, his new (one would say: “disruptive”) view of the universe changed science forever. A simple discovery thus led to a change in perspective that refocused the thinking of the vast majority of people and brought about groundbreaking innovations. Today in particular, we can draw valuable ideas from this story. That’s why we want to retrace it with you with the help of the American philosopher Thomas S. Kuhn.


The “Old” Universe: Aristotle and Ptolemy

Mankind has been studying the night sky for a long time before 1543. By means of naked eye observation, astronomers could perceive about 5,000 celestial bodies even without a telescope. Thus, as soon as in ancient Greece scholars gathered data on regularities in terms of positions and movements of the planets. It was none other than Aristotle, then, who formalized the observations in the 4th century B.C. He developed the geocentric model, which then dominated astronomy for almost two thousand years.

In the geocentric model, which Thomas S. Kuhn later called the “Two-Sphere Model” of the universe, the earth was the central point. Scholars therefore assumed that the other planets known at the time (Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn) as well as the sun orbited our home. Then, there was a second sphere surrounding the universe, which consisted of a fixed canopy of all other visible celestial bodies; the latter seemed to move in unison, at the same speed and in the same direction. Although the geocentric model was based on false assumptions, for the first time in history it provided a feasible way to roughly predict the motion of celestial bodies and draw conclusions about space and time.

An idea with a big impact: The new perspective changed science with long-lasting effect.

The Problem of the Planets

A person who observes the world is automatically always in the center of his or her own field of vision. Therefore it is not surprising that at first a world view arose in which the earth, from which was observed, formed the center around which literally everything revolved. Today we know of course that the perspective of the observers distorted this picture. But how did we finally discover this, if the model was the basis for further astronomical research for two thousand years? Kuhn describes how even 500 years after Aristotle, Ptolemy attempted in his Almagest to accurately calculate the motions of the planets within the philosopher’s model. In doing so, he also focused on the apparently unique motion of the sun, which had to be explained somehow. However, he failed with this attempt – and he was not alone in this.

Kuhn takes a good one hundred pages to scrutinize explanatory attempts of astronomers and mathematicians working this the geocentric model. Of course, we won’t dive into these works here, but the fact is: The basic assumption of a central earth made solving the problem of planetary movement with a mathematical formula impossible. Instead, more and more special “rules” had to be invented to explain nuances of the motion of every single planet. Each new discovery was thus subject to ever more complex explanatory patterns, and the geocentric worldview reached its limits. Nevertheless, people held on to it for a long time.

Reading Kuhn at the Iconstorm Office. We leave the Day-to-Day to expand our view.

A Fresh Perspective

The Copernican Innovation

When Columbus landed in America in the 16th century, Copernicus was 19 years old. In the emerging age of navigation, humans came to be dependent on using the night sky for orientation. However, the Ptolemaic model had so many exceptions by then that it lost its explanatory power. Moreover, astronomy was based on extremely inaccurate data due to the naked eye method employed by antiquity’s researchers. Therefore, Copernicus made an attempt to solve the problem of the planets. As a follower of the two-sphere model, his goal was by no means a “revolution”, but to find a mathematical formula that would work within the existing model.

Nevertheless, during his research Copernicus found mathematical proof that the Earth could not be at the center of the universe. His argument was that a person could never observe the universe from its actual center as he or she would always view it from the Earth’s surface. In order to make observations from the center, the Earth would have needed to slightly move around it. Arriving at this insight, Copernicus suggested that the Earth might be a planet just like Saturn or Venus. Thus, he reworked the Two-Sphere Model and placed the Sun at its center. The heliocentric worldview was born.


A Scientific Revolution

The change in perspective suddenly helped to establish coherent rules for planetary motions, for example, their rotation around their own axis as well as their positions relative to the Earth. The model could now easily explain many of the nuances that previously needed special rules: Why, for example, the Sun “moved” in the sky according to different rules than the planets; or, how the planets behaved relative to each other because of their different sized orbits.

Despite all this, Copernicus’ model was still strongly based on the two-sphere universe and thus mathematically useless at first. Nevertheless, his ingenious idea was the starting signal for a scientific revolution. Kuhn argues that Copernicus’ model was primarily an aesthetic rather than a pragmatic one. He held too tightly to the scientific “truths” of his day. But his new view of the universe was so appealing to some subsequent astronomers and mathematicians that it permanently changed the study of the universe.

Important Developments After Copernicus as Outlined by Kuhn:

Tycho Brahe:

Tycho Brahe was famed as the last and all-time best astronomer using the naked eye method. After Copernicus’ death he explore the stars in this way and delivered a staggering amount of new astronomical data that was much more exact than the observations of the antiquity. However, Brahe was not a Copernican; he used some of Copernicus’s mathematical models, but rejected the heliocentric view of the world.

Johannes Kepler:

Kepler, on the other hand, was a Copernican from the beginning. Still, he was happy to make use of Brahe’s data to further develop Copernicus’ model. In doing so, he established universal rules for planetary motions and abandoned the idea of concentric orbits. Instead, Kepler’s laws of planetary motion postulate elliptical orbits and show how to calculate the speed of the planets. They are still fundamental for astronomy today.

Galileo Galilei:

In 1609, the Italian scholar was the first to look at the universe with the help of a telescope. This enabled him to see far more celestial bodies than with the naked eye. Among other things, he found out that the sun is not the only star and that other planets besides the earth also have moons. The enormous database he produced provided plenty of evidence that confirmed assumptions about the heliocentric model. Last but not least, Galileo’s observations suggested for the first time that space is indeed infinite.

A Paradigm Shift Reconfigures Human Thought

What Do We Learn From This Story?

What Kuhn observed on the basis of Copernicus’ innovation, he later called a “paradigm shift”. He proposes that we can observe how scientific revolutions emerge in general from this. Kuhn says that there are different phases in science: “normal” and “extraordinary” science. He characterizes normal science as an inventory of facts from books, accepted theory, and known problems that need to be solved. On the basis of this, scientists conduct research within an existing thought structure. However, when irregularities occur that can no longer be dealt with using accepted assumptions, a surge of complexity occurs. And this makes the work in the old system more difficult, or even impossible.

The problem of the planets is an example of this as nobody could solve it within the constraints of the geocentric worldview. Astronomers and mathematicians needed more and more contradictory explanations for their models and at some point it was too complex to work within the existing system. Only with Copernicus’ heliocentric worldview did a new understanding take hold that made predictions possible again and research projects meaningful. For example, Newton’s insights into the role of gravity or the investigation of atoms and other particles were questions that could only be asked at all because of the new perspective. The system change thus led to a productive phase of extraordinary science, in which “certainties” and path dependency were replaced by creativity, experimentation and openness, resulting in new, goal-oriented activities.


Characteristics of Transformation

In a complex world, guiding paradigms are necessary because they focus our thinking and make it possible to classify and structure things. However, it is precisely the “normal” knowledge apparatus that narrows our view and leads to contradictions when the framework conditions change. An already existing system does not have to justify itself as status quo for a long time. People try to meet new developments with old explanatory patterns. However, when conditions change, the change leads to the fact that less and less simple, contradiction-free and generally accepted solutions are possible with the old system.

But saying goodbye to the old remains difficult. On the one hand, this is because established practices are based on it: Even Copernicus largely adhered to the two-sphere model and merely changed the position of the Earth and the Sun. But beyond that, entire belief systems and social contexts are also based on the old knowledge. When Galileo, for example, popularized the Copernican worldview, it was no longer a scientific problem, but he was accused by the church and relevant writings were put on its index. Despite signs that Copernicus’ new system promised less complexity and better solutions, its adoption remained a controversial process that lasted for centuries.

Somehow, in the century after Copernicus’ death, all novelties of astronomical observation and theory, whether or not provided by Copernicans, turned themselves into evidence for the Copernican theory.Thomas S. Kuhn, The Copernican Revolution, p. 208

Business and Transformation

The Surge of Complexity in Our Economy

The departure from the Ptolemaic view of the world not only placed the sun at the center of the planetary system. Through science and the Enlightenment, humans were increasingly seen as the central element of creation. The Anthropocene took hold as an epoch and new narratives set the cornerstones of societies and economies. However, we are now in a phase where the stability or generality of the resulting narratives, e.g. of liberalism or the free market economy, are beginning to falter. In our eyes, these are signs of a paradigm shift.

Currently, we are in the midst of a surge in complexity. Developments in AI, biotechnology, and robotics pose major challenges to the global population, while at the same time demands for climate justice, socioeconomic equality, and ideas of the circular economy are spreading. Interactions between the economic and other systems are increasingly in focus, but like Ptolemy many of us still seek answers to new problems within old explanatory patterns. However, a one-dimensional view of the economy that emphasizes purely economic thinking now often produces solutions with a short half-life that create further problems and are difficult to justify. This begs the question: What if our current perspective turns out to be “old” and it is precisely the driver of our increasingly chaotic world?

Considering a New Perspective
Purely economic objectives no longer do justice to the complex problems of our world. These emerge in the interplay of issues from tech, economics, human needs and sustainability – and require equally complex solutions. With the methods of Strategic Design, we can start to systematically search for solutions.


The Challenge of Transformation

The transformation we are now moving into is putting great pressure on companies, but it is also an opportunity. Like Copernicus once did with the position of the planets in the universe, we now need to redefine the position of people on the planet. What would happen, for example, if we viewed ourselves as part of an ecosystem rather than as its dominant force? How would that change our thinking and how would we deal with this new “world”? There is already growing evidence that this paradigm shift is taking place, and circular economy related activities are already showing that transforming the way we do business can create immense stability.

A system, once established, triggers further change and dissolves former thought blockages. The new perspective creates a new logic of economic activity, for example in cooperation, human interaction and the use of resources. Our current problem, however, is that an existing knowledge apparatus has led our economy into a phase of path dependency analogous to Kuhn’s “normal” science. Processes and thought patterns have become established according to which we deploy resources and define strategies. Against this backdrop, radical innovation tends to be the exception rather than the rule, and usually only incremental improvements are made. So how does a company manage to embark on this journey, to adopt a completely new perspective?


Meaningful Innovation: Designing Change

As designers, we are currently also looking at these phenomena, exploring their mechanisms, impact, and the tasks that arise from them. In response to this, we at Iconstorm have developed the guiding principle of Meaningful Innovation. With it, we want to contribute to the systematic design of modern product-service-systems free of contradictions. This means to link their benefits transparently in the field of tension between economy, technology and human context with the dimension of sustainability.

We have developed methods for this difficult work in recent years and are now using them for the first exploratory walks into a new paradigm. Using Strategic Design as a platform, we bring together different stakeholders to work on problems holistically and purposefully in a creative process. The integration of methods that help to explore multidimensional problem spaces and develop solutions, the joint finding of purpose, i.e. the deeper meaning and the identification moment behind a project, as well as an innovation process that meets complex questions with efficient prototyping and testing, all play a role. Starting on a small scale, companies can thus find a new perspective for joint action and, in Kuhn’s words, enter a phase of “extraordinary” economic activity in which completely new ideas emerge and transformation becomes an opportunity.

Iconstorm White Paper
Sustainable Business Design

Shape a future-ready business with Strategic Design

  • Use proven Business Design methods to develop sustainable business models.
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