Curiousity: A Key to Innovation

Why companies need to dream

In the Studio Ghibli film The Wind Rises, Jiro Horikoshi – a Japanese aerospace engineer – has a dream, in which he meets the Italian aircraft designer, Giovanni Caproni. (Caproni designed the World War II fighter the Ghibli – or ‘desert wind’ – that gave the animation studio its name.) Over these realms – from Japan to Italy, from one time period to another, from real life to dreams to cinema – Caproni acts as a mentor to Horikoshi. Their discussions, in Horikoshi’s dreams, circle around the question of intent in innovation.

Both inventors are motivated by the desire to make beautiful things, and both find beauty in flight. Then they watch their inventions take on life beyond their aesthetic, including for war.  For Horikoshi, this is a very uncomfortable reality, and it prompts him to reach out for guidance. What should the relationship be between the act of creation and its real-life outcomes?

This is a question all companies that want to be innovative have to grapple with. They are used to developing particular products for particular outcomes. They journey down predefined paths to pre-desired outcomes: they are unlikely to end up somewhere disruptive or transformative. The realm of dreams is an apt analogy for the reality of game-changing innovation. In dreams, events rarely play up to our notions of cause and effect: their sequences are beyond guesswork and often weird.

Companies can break into the realm of innovation by embracing the spirit of dreams: creating for creation’s sake – not because they can foresee the outcome. The realm of dreams is apt. When we dream we see beyond things as they are or seem: we are free to explore how they could be. In dreams, events rarely play up to our notions of cause and effect: their possibilities are wide and often weird. This is the reality of innovation that Horikoshi grapples with. There is no way of knowing how a new approach will change the whole living context in which it’s applied: you can run models, but any change will have outcomes that are beyond anticipation.

In my last post, I talked about the importance of psychological safety to a culture primed for innovation: people have to feel able to take risks, admit mistakes, start over and learn as they go. The fear of failure keeps companies on linear paths – which are ultimately more likely to lead to failure due to a lack of ingenuity and agility. Dreams open up new paths, and we go down them like Alice down the rabbit hole: just because we can.

But where to begin?

The consulting corporation Capgemini wanted help with the design of a new office space in Paris. They wanted to give clients and other visitors a strong signal – as soon as they emerged from the lift – that their experience here would be unlike anything they might have expected. They worked with a design thinking agency called wheretofromhere?, which took a group of consultants and clients on a series of field trips around Paris to explore what might work. Philippe Coullomb of wheretofromhere? recalls:

“We sent one group to the main stadium, Stade de France, to study the mechanisms and logistics behind a space flexible enough to put on a concert by Madonna one day, a rugby game the next, and then stage an agricultural fair. Another group went to a spa to reflect on how the space created an instant feeling of wellbeing and relaxation. Another went to a prototype McDonald’s store – a concept created in the business district, La Defense, to counter all the negative perceptions about McDonald’s as a fast food chain, and instead imbue visitors with the impression of quality with strong connections to the community and the local land…”

When they came back, instead of sharing their insights in a standard office they were taken to the restaurant In The Dark, which is run by people who are visually impaired and aims to enhance guests’ experience by stimulating their senses beyond sight. All light-emitting devices and mobiles were left at the door, and each group sat in utter darkness. For Coullomb, the quality of listening was beyond anything he’d experienced:

“As it was dark, there was nothing else to listen to, to drift to… We were there to imagine a new space, and absolute darkness amplified not just our ability to listen, but our capacity to vision, to see things differently.”

He recalls how important delegates felt it was to pick colourful words and describe their field trip impressions accurately, enabling others to experience through imagination what they themselves had felt. The group also shared the sentiment that the first impression of a space is very important, so they decided to spend a significant proportion of their budget on what guests would experience when the lift doors opened. Concepts began to emerge… If they entered into a cave, with the walls transformed into organic shapes, they would know immediately that they were not in a standard corporate space. Some carpet tiles would change colour when they stepped on them, challenging their assumptions as they moved through the environment. A wooden wall, green two-tone carpet and living stone cushions would create the impression of being outside. I asked Coullomb why the group felt this last point was important:

“It’s difficult to inspire people if you’re underground”, he replies. “Some researchers remark that when you try to imagine something, your lift your eyes to the sky…”

From Paris to Tokyo. . .

The CEO of one of Japan’s largest recruitment agencies, Pasona, had a dream. He imagined his employees working not in an office, but on a farm. “When I came up with this idea, everybody said no, but I treasured my feeling of hope and the courage to act upon my thoughts.”

The scope of his vision wasn’t just for a futuristic office space: it was for the future of Japanese society. He was aware that the agricultural population was declining very fast, with a combination of ageing and urbanization, and saw that this presented a challenge for the nation’s food security and rural economies. He knew green fingers weren’t just a skill, but a mindset: an openness to life. So he brought the farm into the office. A rice paddy field swamps the reception. Lemon and passionfruit trees divide meeting booths. Vegetable patches break up the breakout spaces. Pumpkins trail over banisters, tomatoes dangle above the desks…

The outcome? Besides better air quality and healthier meals in the cafeteria, workers loosen up and show more informal curiosity about the life around them.

Recently, at the entrepreneurs’ community space Metta in Hong Kong, I had the chance to challenge a room of professionals to prototype a creative working environment: one in which they’d feel safe to dream up something out of the ordinary. One group came up with a world kitchen, a literal mixing pot of ideas… In my next post, we’ll see why diversity is innovation’s most crucial ingredient.

Anna Simpson is a futurist and innovation coach working to help organisations and individuals build resilience in the face of complex, rapid change. She’s the author of two books, most recently The Innovation-Friendly Organization, in which she asks how organisations can develop a culture that enables them to embrace change. This article contains edited extracts from that book. She also curates the Futures Centre, an online hub tracking change to accelerate sustainability, and has her own innovation coaching company, Flux Compass.