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The Design Thinking Movement is Absurd – Lee Vinsel – Medium
"A couple of years ago, I saw a presentation from a group known as the University Innovation Fellows at a conference in Washington, DC. The presentation was one of the weirder and more disturbing things I’ve witnessed in an academic setting.

The University Innovation Fellows, its webpage states, “empowers students to become leaders of change in higher education. Fellows are creating a global movement to ensure that all students gain the necessary attitudes, skills, and knowledge to compete in the economy of the future.” You’ll notice this statement presumes that students aren’t getting the “attitudes, skills, and knowledge” they need and that, more magically, the students know what “attitudes, skills, and knowledge” they themselves need for . . . the future.

The UIF was originally funded by the National Science Foundation and led by VentureWell, a non-profit organization that “funds and trains faculty and student innovators to create successful, socially beneficial businesses.” VentureWell was founded by Jerome Lemelson, who some people call “one of the most prolific American inventors of all time” but who really is most famous for virtually inventing patent trolling. Could you imagine a more beautiful metaphor for how Design Thinkers see innovation? Socially beneficial, indeed.

Eventually, the UIF came to find a home in . . . you guessed it, the d.school.

It’s not at all clear what the UIF change agents do on their campuses . . . beyond recruiting other people to the “movement.” A blog post titled, “Only Students Could Have This Kind of Impact,” describes how in 2012 the TEDx student representatives at Wake Forest University had done a great job recruiting students to their event. It was such a good job that it was hard to see other would match it the next year. But, good news, the 2013 students were “killing it!” Then comes this line (bolding and capitalization in the original):

*THIS* is Why We Believe Students Can Change the World

Because they can fill audiences for TED talks, apparently. The post goes on, “Students are customers of the educational experiences colleges and universities are providing them. They know what other students need to hear and who they need to hear it from. . . . Students can leverage their peer-to-peer marketing abilities to create a movement on campus.”

Meanwhile, the UIF blog posts with titles like, “Columbia University — Biomedical Engineering Faculty Contribute to Global Health,” that examine the creation of potentially important new things mostly focus on individuals with the abbreviation “Dr.” before their names, which is what you’d expect given that making noteworthy contributions to science and engineering typically takes years of hard work.

At its gatherings, the UIF inducts students into all kinds of innovation-speak and paraphernalia. They stand around in circles, filling whiteboards with Post-It Notes. Unsurprisingly, the gatherings including sessions on topics like “lean startups” and Design Thinking. The students learn crucial skills during these Design Thinking sessions. As one participant recounted, “I just learned how to host my own TEDx event in literally 15 minutes from one of the other fellows.”

The UIF has many aspects of classic cult indoctrination, including periods of intense emotional highs, giving individuals a special lingo barely recognizable to outsiders, and telling its members that they are different and better than ordinary others — they are part of a “movement.” Whether the UIF also keeps its fellows from getting decent sleep and feeds them only peanut butter sandwiches is unknown.

This UIF publicity video contains many of the ideas and trappings so far described in this essay. Watch for all the Post-It notes, whiteboards, hoodies, look-alike black t-shirts, and jargon, like change agents.

When I showed a friend this video, after nearly falling out of his chair, he exclaimed, “My God, it’s the Hitlerjugend of contemporary bullshit!”

Tough but fair? Personally, I think that’s a little strong. A much better analogy to my mind is Chairman Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

When I saw the University Innovation Fellows speak in Washington, DC, a group of college students got up in front of the room and told all of us that they were change agents bringing innovation and entrepreneurship to their respective universities. One of the students, a spritely slip of a man, said something like, “Usually professors are kind of like this,” and then he made a little mocking weeny voice — wee, wee, wee, wee. The message was that college faculty and administrators are backwards thinking barriers that get in the way of this troop of thought leaders.

After the presentation, a female economist who was sitting next to me told the UIFers that she had been a professor for nearly two decades, had worked on the topic of innovation that entire time, and had done a great deal to nurture and advance the careers of her students. She found the UIF’s presentation presumptuous and offensive. When the Q&A period was over, one of UIF’s founders and co-directors, Humera Fasihuddin, and the students came running over to insist that they didn’t mean faculty members were sluggards and stragglers. But those of us sitting at the table were like, “Well then, why did you say it?”

You might think that this student’s antics were a result of being overly enthusiastic and getting carried away, but you would be wrong. This cultivated disrespect is what the UIF teaches its fellows. That young man was just parroting what he’d been taught to say.

A UIF blog post titled “Appealing to Your University’s Faculty and Staff” lays it all out. The author refers to Fasihuddin as a kind of guru figure, “If you participated in the Fall 2013 cohort, you may recall Humera repeating a common statement throughout session 5, ‘By connecting to other campuses that have been successful, and borrowing from those ideas you hear from your UIF peers, it removes the fear of the unknown for the faculty.”

Where does the faculty’s fear come from? The blog post explains, “The unfortunate truth in [Humera’s] statement is that universities are laggards (i.e. extremely slow adopters). The ironic part is universities shouldn’t be, and we as University Innovation Fellows, understand this.”

Now, on the one hand, this is just Millennial entitlement all hopped up on crystal meth. But on the other hand, there is something deeper and more troubling going on here. The early innovation studies thinker Everett Rogers used the term “laggard” in this way to refer to the last individuals to adopt new technologies. But in the UIF, Rogers’ vision becomes connected to the more potent ideology of neoliberalism: through bodies of thought like Chicago School economics and public choice theory, neoliberalism sees established actors as self-serving agents who only look to maintain their turf and, thus, resist change.

This mindset is quite widespread among Silicon Valley leaders. It’s what led billionaire Ayn Rand fan Peter Thiel to put $1.7 million into The Seasteading Institute, an organization that, it says, “empowers people to build floating startup societies with innovative governance models.” Seasteaders want to build cities that would float around oceans, so they can escape existing governments and live in libertarian, free market paradise. It’s the same notion undergirding the Silicon Valley “startup accelerator” YCombinator’s plan to build entire cities from scratch because old ones are too hard to fix. Elon Musk pushes this view when he tweets things, like “Permits are harder than technology,” implying that the only thing in the way of his genius inventions are other human beings — laggards, no doubt. Individuals celebrated this ideological vision, which holds that existing organizations and rules are mere barriers to entrepreneurial action, when Uber-leader Travis Kalanick used a piece of software to break city laws. And then they were shocked, shocked, shocked when Kalanick turned out to be a total creep.

Now, if you have never been frustrated by bureaucracy, you have not lived.Moreover, when I was young, I often believed my elders were old and in the way. But once you grow up and start getting over yourself, you come to realize that other people have a lot to teach you, even when — especially when — they disagree with you.

This isn’t how the UIF sees things. The blog post “Appealing to Your University’s Faculty and Staff” advises fellows to watch faculty members’ body language and tone of voice. If these signs hint that the faculty member isn’t into what you’re saying — or if he or she speaks as if you are not an “equal” or “down at you” — the UIF tells you to move on and find a more receptive audience. The important thing is to build the movement. “So I close with the same recurring statement,” the blog post ends, “By connecting to other campuses that have been successful . . . it removes the fear of the unknown for faculty.”

Is there any possibility that the students themselves could just be off-base? Sure, if while you are talking someone’s body tightens up or her head looks like it’s going to explode or her voice changes or she talks down to you and doesn’t treat you as an equal, it could be because she is a demonic, laggard-y enemy of progress, or it could be because you are being a fucking moron — an always-embarrassing realization that I have about myself far more often than I’d like to admit. Design Thinkers and the UIF teach a thoroughly adolescent conception of culture.

Edmund Burke once wrote, “You had all of these advantages . . . but you chose to act as if you had never been molded into civil society, and had everything to begin anew. You began ill, because you began by despising everything that belonged to you.” The brain-rotting … [more]
leevinsel  designthinking  2018  d.school  tedtalks  tedx  cults  innovation  daveevans  design  d.life  humerafasihuddin  edmundburke  natashajen  herbertsimon  peterrowe  robertmckim  petermiller  liberalarts  newage  humanpotentialmovement  esaleninstitute  stanford  hassoplattner  davidkelly  johnhennessy  business  education  crit  post-its  siliconvalley  architecture  art  learning  elitism  designimperialism  ideo  playpump  openideo  thommoran  colonialism  imperialism  swiffer  andrewrussell  empathy  problemsolving  delusion  johnleary  stem  steam  margaretbrindle  peterstearns  christophermckenna  georgeorwell  thinking  howwwethink  highered  highereducation  tomkelly  nathanrosenberg  davidmowery  stevenklepper  davidhounshell  patrickmccray  marianamazzucato  commercialization  civilrightsmovement  criticism  bullshit  jeromelemelson  venturewell  maintenance  themaintainers  maintainers  cbt  psychology  hucksterism  novelty  ruthschwartzcowan  davidedgerton 
may 2019 by robertogreco
Innovation is overvalued. Maintenance often matters more | Aeon Essays
"Capitalism excels at innovation but is failing at maintenance, and for most lives it is maintenance that matters more"



"At the turn of the millennium, in the world of business and technology, innovation had transformed into an erotic fetish. Armies of young tech wizards aspired to become disrupters. The ambition to disrupt in pursuit of innovation transcended politics, enlisting liberals and conservatives alike. Conservative politicians could gut government and cut taxes in the name of spurring entrepreneurship, while liberals could create new programmes aimed at fostering research. The idea was vague enough to do nearly anything in its name without feeling the slightest conflict, just as long as you repeated the mantra: INNOVATION!! ENTREPRENEURSHIP!!

A few years later, however, one could detect tremors of dissent. In a biting essay titled ‘Innovation is the New Black’, Michael Bierut, writing in Design Observer in 2005, lamented the ‘mania for innovation, or at least for endlessly repeating the word “innovation”’. Soon, even business publications began to raise the question of inherent worth. In 2006, The Economist noted that Chinese officials had made innovation into a ‘national buzzword’, even as it smugly reported that China’s educational system ‘stresses conformity and does little to foster independent thinking’, and that the Communist Party’s new catchphrases ‘mostly end up fizzling out in puddles of rhetoric’. Later that year, Businessweek warned: ‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword. We’re doing our part at Businessweek.’ Again in Businessweek, on the last day of 2008, the design critic Bruce Nussbaum returned to the theme, declaring that innovation ‘died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

In 2012, even the Wall Street Journal got into innovation-bashing act, noting ‘the Term Has Begun to Lose Meaning’. At the time, it counted ‘more than 250 books with “innovation” in the title… published in the last three months’. A professional innovation consultant it interviewed advised his clients to ban the word at their companies. He said it was just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’."



"Nixon, wrong about so many things, also was wrong to point to household appliances as self-evident indicators of American progress. Ironically, Cowan’s work first met with scepticism among male scholars working in the history of technology, whose focus was a male pantheon of inventors: Bell, Morse, Edison, Tesla, Diesel, Shockley, and so on. A renewed focus on maintenance and repair also has implications beyond the gender politics that More Work for Mother brought to light. When they set innovation-obsession to the side, scholars can confront various kinds of low-wage labour performed by many African-Americans, Latinos, and other racial and ethnic minorities. From this perspective, recent struggles over increasing the minimum wage, including for fast food workers, can be seen as arguments for the dignity of being a maintainer.

We organised a conference to bring the work of the maintainers into clearer focus. More than 40 scholars answered a call for papers asking, ‘What is at stake if we move scholarship away from innovation and toward maintenance?’ Historians, social scientists, economists, business scholars, artists, and activists responded. They all want to talk about technology outside of innovation’s shadow.

One important topic of conversation is the danger of moving too triumphantly from innovation to maintenance. There is no point in keeping the practice of hero-worship that merely changes the cast of heroes without confronting some of the deeper problems underlying the innovation obsession. One of the most significant problems is the male-dominated culture of technology, manifest in recent embarrassments such as the flagrant misogyny in the ‘#GamerGate’ row a couple of years ago, as well as the persistent pay gap between men and women doing the same work.

There is an urgent need to reckon more squarely and honestly with our machines and ourselves. Ultimately, emphasising maintenance involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends. In formal economic terms, ‘innovation’ involves the diffusion of new things and practices. The term is completely agnostic about whether these things and practices are good. Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s, which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue. Innovation! Entrepreneurship! Perhaps this point is cynical, but it draws our attention to a perverse reality: contemporary discourse treats innovation as a positive value in itself, when it is not.

Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer. Our increasingly unequal and fearful world would be grateful."
leevinsel  andrewrussell  maintenance  infrastructure  innovation  technology  2016  capitalism  repair  growth  robertgordon  siliconvalley  creativeclass  economics  claytonchristensen  entrepreneurship  business  michaelbierut  inequality  love  fraternity  courage  beauty  dignity  responsibility  change  society  maintainers  labor  care  repairing  themaintainers 
april 2016 by robertogreco

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