The crisis: innovation’s inflection point
They said “move fast and break things” was the best way to innovate. We bought it, and they broke things, alright. The unintended consequences of a short-sighted, devil-may-care approach to innovation has led to genocide, a suicide epidemic, and has threatened to upend our democratic institutions and civil order.
We’re collectively paying the price for companies once heralded as quintessential innovators – the tech giants, startup unicorns, and a VC-funded ecosystem – taking the philosophy of “move fast and break things” far too literally. We’ve seen the repercussions of social media companies getting drawn into crises of their own making and technology companies racing to launch the next revolution in artificial intelligence without a full understanding of the downstream impacts of their revolutionary applications. Converging, emerging, exponential technologies are at a point of puncturing the equilibrium and are catalyzing a Cambrian explosion of innovation, all guided by the tenets of an anthropocentric human-centered design (HCD) philosophy, exposing its myopic blind spot.
How we got here: the HCD revolution
The IT revolution featured a “Procrustes bed” approach to innovation, creating technologies that forced us to adapt to the way they worked until HCD flipped the paradigm to focus first and foremost on human needs and desires. HCD was a huge leap forward, paving the way for a generation of amazing designers who are now part of some of the leading companies and startups which are helping design and build our world. Putting people at the center of our innovations created technologies, services, and companies that changed the world and our lives, mostly for the better, but the tech-fueled Anthropocene age of exponential technologies is revealing the exponential implications of our human-centric hubris.
What we need: a Copernican Revolution in design
Human-centered design was never supposed to be the end: HCD’s pioneers knew that putting humans at the center of the universe could have far-reaching implications. Just as Copernicus showed the world the folly of thinking and acting as if the Earth is the center of the solar system, humanity needs to acknowledge that we are not the center of the universe. Remaking the world in our image is a dangerous affair. “We are as gods,” Stewart Brand wrote in a 1969 mission statement, “and might as well get good at it.” So how do we get good at being gods? We need to start by innovating with a new set of paradigms and tools that enable us to design based on the inherent, interconnected and interdependent relationship we have with the rest of the universe. We are the first lifeforms we know of which have not only walked this earth and shaped it to fit us better, but also understand the unintended consequences and downstream implications of our creations and terraforming. We care far more about life, the universe, and everything than HCD would have you believe. The time has come to cast off our anthropocentric blinders and add a holistic, systems thinking approach to design.
How we get there: humane holistic design
We need a new design paradigm: one that evolves from human-centered to humane holistic design (HHD), doubling down on the best of human nature and our unique ability to think and act beyond our own species’ interest. There’s more to being humane than rescuing and caring for animals. Humanity understands our impact on this planet, the environment, and the implications for future generations of all life on this planet and in this universe. Over the last hundred years, humans have developed advanced sciences and methods of thinking, like systems thinking, which help us better understand the implications of our actions. The scientific revolution of the last 250+ years radically accelerated our knowledge. We’ve started to understand how the universe works, moving from the overly simplistic clockwork universe to a complex systems view of the universe, and we finally have the tools and knowledge to understand what our human-centricity has wrought. We need to use those tools and knowledge, along with our hearts and minds to stop leaving a dent in the universe and start making the universe better.
We need to think beyond removing friction from customer journeys to the first-, second-, and third-order impacts of the products we build, the services we deliver, the businesses we operate, and what it means to be alive. Now, more than any time in our history, we need to bring that paradigm into how we start designing. Innovators can no longer hide behind the excuse that it is too hard to think about or understand the possible implications of our inventions.
What’s next: the HHD toolset
Paradigms don’t shift themselves.
We need to equip innovators with the right tools to not only keep innovating, solving complex problems, and finding the infinite in our finite universe, but do so responsibly and build with Purpose.
We need to start preemptively thinking a few steps ahead in this game of design.
We need to move from linear thinking to systems thinking and understanding ecosystems.
We need to break our mental “chains” and think more about webs and the interconnected and interdependent nature of life and matter.
Humane holistic design is a set of tools which builds upon everything that makes human-centered design so powerful and taps into what it means to be truly humane: to think beyond us as individuals and see our role as another life form in the complex web of matter in this universe. Working together, we can tame our Paleolithic emotions, reinvent our medieval institutions, and start creating and wielding our godlike technologies for the greater good… not just for humankind.
Kes Sampanthar is a globally recognized innovator at the intersection of human experience and technology. He spearheads BCG Brighthouse’s Purpose-driven innovation practice. His career spans three decades through the worlds of technology, business, and innovation strategy. He is an award-winning innovator, whose research has been honored and cited by Gartner and Forrester. Recognized as a strategic leader, Sampanthar has spearheaded digital transformation projects for some of the biggest names in government and the FORTUNE 50.
Scott Wolfson is a curious human who turns FUD into fun. He helps organizations leverage the power of Purpose and curiosity to catalyze change and navigate complexity. As a two-time Emmy Award-winning videojournalist, retired street performer, and professional creative problem solver, Wolfson brings a uniquely dynamic skillset and energy to helping clients discover how Purpose-driven innovation can engage the hearts and minds of employees, customers, and investors; transform the ways they think and work; and predict the future by inventing it.
Lowman Harley has spent over half a decade as a digital and social strategist for Fortune 500 companies. As an Associate Strategy Director at BCG BrightHouse, he has worked on purpose transformation, design thinking, innovation strategy, brand strategy, brand identity, and research initiatives for clients in consumer healthcare, banking, and sustainability-focused non-profits. His insatiable curiosity, passion for learning, and persistence drive him to deliver insightful work and continue to grow as a leader in the business world.