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Sonne (c) Elke Barbara Bachler

Innovation. Balance. Meaning. Culture.

Sonne (c) Elke Barbara Bachler

In 2011, I was invited to participate in the Kaleidoscope Project by Engage by Design, a Sustainable Design Research Studio.

The studio was co-founded by Zoë Olivia John and Rodrigo Bautista. The invitation was made possible because of my social media contact Ignacio Urbina Polo, Industrial Designer and assistant professor at Pratt University, New York and Venezuela (see footnotes 1-5).

What is the Kaleidoscope Project?

Interviews and conversations with experts on sustainability, design and innovation, reflecting theory and generating actions between a diverse range of disciplines including design [product, fashion, graphic, web, architects and interiors], science, art, activists, business, psychology and academia. This project tackles these conversations with two supporting outcomes.

The first is the 5 Kaleidoscope Videos, split into four different values; Balance, Meaning, Innovation and Culture. During each interview we asked how each value is seen and practised today and how they should be practiced in order to move towards a better future. The last video focuses on the tools and skills that we need to get to that better future, acting as a call to arms for designers and professionals about the need for rethink the way we practice our disciplines.

You will find these most interesting videos on the website » – I dearly recommend to take some time and watch them. When it comes to usage, please mind the Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported CC License.

Unfortunately, I was not well enough equipped to submit a video. Therefore I submitted my statements in written form; as you can read below. Behold – the text was not meant for the internet;  it is quite a lot to read. Hope you like to read it nonetheless ;)

Here are my answers to 4 questions on innovation, balance, meaning and culture (2011-08-23).

Question Design Culture

How do I see these practises – innovation, balance, meaning and culture – in today’s design culture?

As an innovation project manager one is always looking for fresh ideas and upcoming trends. And it is just like Marty Neumeier [6] stated: „If you wanna innovate, you gotta design.“

What I do recognize while doing research or listening to friends of mine, who are into industrial, web and graphic design, is a certain longing for meaning. Not fame or fortune, but meaning.

To be honest, this perception might be a kind of reflection, because I am choosing my projects using similar criteria: “Change the system when someone or something is suffering, establish stability if the system allows for well-being.”

Easily said, difficult to do – and I guess that is where balance, culture and innovation come into play.  Because to accomplish well-being a certain mindset, creativity, wholistic thinking and most excellent design are needed.

I guess one additional reason for this longing is the development of capitalism. The value of our work is measured in money, and money became a very insecure currency.  Sure, you can still buy groceries and pay your rent with money, but it does not reflect real values anymore. Money became a most virtual good, with rules which seem to be completely decoupled from our biological, physical and finite world.

Take also into account that we do not only need food for our body, but also for our mind and soul. It might be spirituality, religion, beauty, justice, knowledge …  whatever you prefer, it is still most evident: We have a craving for meaning and values.

So the question arises: Which values do we regard as important, and why?

I guess the Cradle 2 Cradle [7] approach by Braungart and McDonough is a perfect example for today’s design culture – or rather where we are heading: Within intelligent processes, nothing is wasted, everything is useful.

Don’t castigate, innovate!


Question Ideal Future

How do I imagine these practises (my ideal) to be in the future?

Most of my friends who are into design see the world with their eyes wide open. They recognize patterns, live and consume very consciously, enjoy beauty and fairness  – they thrive on ethics, sustainability, troubleshooting and yes, on lust for life. But a mutual lust, not an exploiting one – that’s the point of us hedonistic LOHAS.

That is why I wish for our governments to look more closely into the creative industries. Not only because it is trendy and good for public relations – there is simply much to be learned.

Creative people – meaning especially the ones who are into generating added value – are able to excogitate new systems and processes, which might do us some good, looking at hot spots like education, social framework, demographic development, energy demand and  shortage of resources.

We are going to need new systems. The way I see it we have got two possibilities: Wait until “the sky falls onto our heads” or start the change right now. Consciously. Even if change hurts (it always does). Because a system crash will hurt way more, no matter whether it is a financial, social or environmental crash.

One reason why I am into biomimetics (learning from biological systems) is because my ideal image of our future is to use what we have got, as a worthwhile, life-enhancing part of our natural, finite world.

In my opinion, diversity is the key – allow for many solutions, depending on the ambient system. Just like nature does it (aka biodiversity).

We are intelligent, empathic living beings – why not use that? At the moment, too many things are done “quick & dirty”. We can do better than that. Moreover, we will have to.

Visions of a world without starvation, poverty and cruelty are no phantasm, they are objectives.  And the way to get there, the strategy to success, is excellent product, process,  communication and service design.


Question Way to Design Future

How can we get there?

As mentioned before:  The strategy to success is excellent design. Especially communication design (not that much in terms of advertising and promotion, but rather in terms of information and knowledge management) seems to be important – we talk so much, but we say so little. It is Paul Watzlawick [8] all over again!

Let us look at two trends/ approaches /philosophies – Open Innovation and Design Thinking.  What if governments used such approaches to solve today’s problems? Not only consultants, but an open think tank of politicians, civil servants, citizens and designers?

Combine all target groups into one think tank, get an experienced facilitator and let the people know what is worked upon, e. g. using social media channels. Make the process transparent, let people know what can be done and what not (or not now) and why not. Use “key accounts” to generate ideas and disseminate information. Just like a bee swarm uses honest (!) scouts to find the most promising flower fields.

True, it is not possible to solve all problems for all people and living beings at once. Compromises have to be made on the way, but if people know why, compromises  become more acceptable. It is a question of understanding and respect.  And yes, there are always those who do not want to accept or respect, who prefer to exploit. I call them parasites. But if a system is well designed, a certain amount of parasites is acceptable (just like in all healthy living beings).

Most important for governments: Let people take responsibility, let them think, create and work. There is a tendency towards more control, more supervision – that will only speed up the system crash. Provide for a prolific framework, give people a chance to make a good living for and by themselves. That way we are also able to care for those who cannot help themselves.

Sounds too altruistic, too idealistic? It is not. It is pure pragmatism. And it is hard work to get there. Failure is part of such a development process, that is for sure – and it is crucial to allow for mistakes. Include lessons learned, adapt and optimize proceedings. Avoid “claim management”, where looking for the guilty one is more important than looking for solutions (here in Austria we do that way too often).

Conclusion: Provide for a prolific framework top-down, start the developing process bottom-up. Allow for transparency, allow for failure.  Design the development process stable enough to cope with “parasites”.  Use innovation to aim for adaptive fitness and well-being.


Question Professional Skills

What are the skills or characteristics that the professionals need to help them get there?

All upcoming approaches – biomimetics, Open Innovation, Design Thinking and even new technologies like nanotechnology – have one thing in common: The need for diverse areas of expertise, and multidisciplinary teams.

The forming of inter- and multidisciplinary teams is comparable to putting people from different countries with different languages and different cultural background together into one room and hoping for them to work together in a productive way – even if they do not share a common language or  the same priorities.

At the moment it will be most important to look for adequate translators – people who are at home in biology and technology, in controlling and design, in R&D and promotion. The next step will be to change our education system and allow for more conjunction, a more wholistic way of teaching and sharing knowledge. Social media are a very nice tool to do so, especially in combination with creative commons.

I often work with interdisciplinary teams and promote the usage of the “POACH-Principle”. It is an acronym for Politeness, Openness, Autocracy, Composure and Humor.

Politeness … respect others, their opinion, their know-how. Listen actively. Allow for the necessary space so that all team members are able to contribute. Openness … use creativity. Look  for solutions off the beaten track. Allow for serendipity. Autocracy … ideas have to be implemented. Decisions have to be made. Take the necessary responsibility. Composure … do not let personal conflicts, constrains and pressure get the best of you. Stay focused. Humor … wit is connected with intelligence and creativity. Make use of it. Plus: It is allowed to enjoy working – it results in good design.

P, O and A are based on the cognitions of Clare W. Graves [9] (The Emergent Cyclical Levels of Existence Theory).  C is my part, inspired by a German business consultant, Sabine Asgodom [10]. H is part of the cognitions of Helmut Schlicksupp (a German author, he wrote a book about innovation, creativity and the positive effects of humor) [11].

Reading my answers, 4 years later … yes, it still rings true. It might take some time to get there, but some of us are on the way.


  1. The Kaleidoscope Project »
  2. Engage by Design @ Twitter
  3. Zoë Olivia John @ Twitter
  4. Rodrigo Bautista @ Twitter
  5. Design weblog » di-conexiones (en Espaniol)
  6. Marty Neumeier »
  7. Cradle to Cradle design »
  8. Paul Watzlawick »
  9. Clare W. Graves »
  10. Sabine Asgodom » (in German)
  11. Helmut Schlicksupp » (in German)


  1. Start with innovation itself. Next time you are in a group meeting, ask everyone to write down how they define innovation. Odds are you will have as many different definitions as meeting attendees. Having everyone understand what innovation is and what it is not is critical for culture change.

  2. Elke Barbara Bachler

    We most definitely have a different understanding of words in general, depending on personal context – to do such an exercise is a good idea for sure.

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