By Lauren Parater

Lauren Parater leads strategic communication and storytelling initiatives at the UN Refugee Agency’s Innovation Service. Her current professional and personal explorations focus on the intersections of narrative change, displacement, climate justice, social innovation and design. She has spent her career exploring how creativity and radical imagination can be used to communicate complex issues and spur alternative ways of seeing and being in the world.

The slow violence of innovation

What narratives, stories and imaginaries shape how we see and value the world in a time of remarkable transformation? Where might these ways of seeing the world originate, and how do they influence our entanglements with each other; our histories, our presents and our futures? How do these narratives control our creativity and understanding of what is possible? Ultimately, narrative holds a subtle power in our imaginaries. And naturally, power asks for virtue.

For people working in the humanitarian and social innovation context, these entanglements don’t surface merely as ghosts but as active participants in how we create and sustain worlds and work alongside communities. It’s not a new story that our wellbeing is dependent on the wellbeing of others, or as author and scientist Robin Wall Kimmerer observes, “All flourishing is mutual.”

We witness our mutual dependence in the slow violence of climate displacement, in the exhaust of natural resource extraction that has forcibly removed people from places and pasts, through the in-between identities and liminal moments of belonging everywhere and belonging nowhere. This story of interconnection is one worth re-membering and re-imagining as we create and innovate in times of unravelling, turning, and transition. Interdependence is a complicated web of lines, never straight and rarely direct, within a constellation of opportunities to rethink what creativity means today, situated alongside loss and possibility.

In the article The Snarled Lines of Justice, the authors argue that knowing the crises we are living through:

“Requires attention to historically created assemblages in which violence, displacement, and dispossession have been critical to landscapes of livability and unlivability. Listening to the stories of all our relations is a central element of learning about these landscapes. The stories open doors of connection and disconnection through which we might both persist and resist.”

I want to understand how we can be better listeners, better neighbours, better connectors, through reframing our narratives on possibility and bringing attention to the fault lines in the language we use to navigate our work, our lives and our worlds. Could arts-based explorations open new windows to reframe these narratives when language fails? The natural starting place for me is how we think about the narrative of innovation, creativity and design that is weaved through our personal and professional endeavours, the histories and harm it currently carries with it, and how we might reframe innovation as a critical, disassembled tool for renewal, imagination and care.

Today, even in the midst of so much upheaval, the imaginary of progress or innovation is still bound up with the imaginary of putting something new into the world; without giving attention to the destruction, removal, and defuturing — or the reduction of possible futures — it creates in its wake. Is this innovation imaginary not manifestly unfit for today? Our current construction of innovation does not give attention to the histories of displacement and replacement – of systems, models, people, and place – on which the pursuit of the novel and new is built.

All of this begs the question of whether we are called to reframe our understanding of innovation and move toward a narrative that emphasises an endless interweaving of continuity, change and interconnection. A new narrative and a new way of seeing the world can catalyse a new way of valuing it.

If we shift innovation from the novel, the new, the destructive, the shackled techno-utopian visions, to a way of designing that ensures all flourishing is mutual – what borders and boundaries could be expanded? What else would we dream? What could nature teach us about innovation, designing for collaboration and scale, as imagined and practised by other species? What might we learn from this renewed landscape of creativity? What might be lost? What might be saved?

Innovation for what? Innovation for whom?

Many people understand that innovation, or a creative process more broadly, is non-linear. And yet, the myths surrounding innovation are mired in teleological dreams of technology, profit and limitless growth. We are hell-bent on the story that human ingenuity will move through a series of linear steps, where everyone will be better off, the world will “develop”, we will be bigger, richer, smarter, so much so that we’ll finally start blasting ourselves to new worlds to continue the unending search for paradise. As we’ve soaked our planet in chemicals, as we do our disposable film, the clear vision arising from this “development” is one fixed on unmaking our world and stripping it of our responsibility towards others.

When you think of the word innovation, what pops into your head? Is it the sleek and shiny phone you hold in your hand whilst you move through the latest digital newsletter that has landed in your stuffed inbox? Perhaps your mind wanders to the novelty of the typewriter or the invention of the world’s first assembly line? Maybe, just maybe, a community-based solution to conflict joins the imagined innovation parade. Does it look like the repair and restoration of some of our most exploited ecosystems? Might we be surprised by witnessing innovation turn itself inside-out by moving beyond the logic of “bigger is better” to being draped in an idea of scale that is fractal, not linear.

Could we embrace nature’s logic of emergence and shift from scaling to seeding change? Would something novel still be innovative if it was built slowly, over many generations and was decorated with our values rather than the capitalist logic of simply moving fast and breaking things? Would you give up efficiency and ease for mutual flourishing? No, really, would you?

I think it’s important to give attention to what the word innovation conjures for most people. These questions are invitations to help us rethink whether innovation is even of use in building new worlds and new understandings of belonging. If I was to take a bet on how you might relate to the word, I think you would land on some moonshot, technological shift or product with a white man’s name hovering over it. At least that’s what it is for most people, including myself when I conjure the word in my mind, even if we don’t truly believe that is what seeding innovation looks like in practice.

Why is it that our imaginaries of creativity, design, innovation and possibility are so locked into these techno-heroic archetypes? And when we begin to unpack the imaginaries of innovation’s pasts, presents, and futures – I think we need to start critically asking ourselves, who is innovation really for in most cases and whose lives might be sacrificed in its current mission into the unknown?

Bootstrap billionaire blasts himself into space on the backs of the poor, calls it progress

Many people across the world watched as bootstrap billionaires blasted themselves into space successively. One even wore – I kid you not – a very large, bright tan cowboy hat to truly embody the neoliberal capitalism driving his wealth as he buckled up for his inane flight. It was also widely reported that these billionaire space ventures received more media coverage in one day than climate change had all last year. While taking their joyrides to the edge of the atmosphere, warehouses were simultaneously filled with successive lines of people stripped of labour rights, numbed into mirroring mechanical drones, retrieving products at inhuman speeds, broken bodies littered in pursuit of material wealth. Are these broken bodies and dreams worth such theatre?

Despite the world witnessing boundless devastation from everlasting humanitarian disasters, unceasing wildfires, relentless flooding and the hissing consequences of ecological collapse, these billionaires stole the gaze of many under wall-to-wall coverage. And in the midst of these vanity space flights, I couldn’t help but ask myself, “Is this it? Is this mutual flourishing? Is this the apex of human ingenuity? Is our imagination truly this limited, sad and boring?” And if it is, I don’t want much to do with the story of innovation and ingenuity we’re telling ourselves anymore.

Surrounding the ongoing theatrics of billionaires taking joyrides into space, the 1970 song written by Gil Scott-Heron, titled aptly, “Whitey on the Moon”, began percolating through the networks of people outraged by the endeavour. The lyrics cry:

I can’t pay no doctor bill.

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

Ten years from now I’ll be payin’ still.

(while Whitey’s on the moon)

The man jus’ upped my rent las’ night.

(’cause Whitey’s on the moon)

No hot water, no toilets, no lights.

(but Whitey’s on the moon)

I wonder why he’s uppi’ me?

(’cause Whitey’s on the moon?)

I was already payin’ ‘im fifty a week.

(with Whitey on the moon)

Taxes takin’ my whole damn check,

Junkies makin’ me a nervous wreck,

The price of food is goin’ up,

An’ as if all that shit wasn’t enough

What I appreciate most about Scott-Heron’s catchy tune is the unravelling his words do for this type of moonshot innovation and understanding of progress. Could this actually be progress when it is held up by so much hardship and harm? Scott-Heron’s song also importantly acknowledges the intersection between race and class, and the unending convergence of injustices that impact marginalised communities. Those who continue to lack basic rights, access to water, energy and food, become but a mere dot, unseens and forgotten below, as the one-percenters of the world blast themselves towards another planet; refusing to acknowledge what was destroyed and left behind.

How might innovation be defined by the many unseen and made invisible? How might our narratives shift if we did weave in human rights, principles and intergenerational thinking into what we valued as “creative” or “novel” or “good”? What do you think? Do you even care?

And in the end, if we can’t take care of our own children, our own communities, our own planet, our very own home, with care and intention, how dare we move our gaze to the stars? As if we were decent enough to place ourselves among them and call it innovation.

Our innovation imaginaries are killing us

The linear narrative of innovation and progress has such an intense grip on our imagination and narratives surrounding creativity that the oppression, extraction, and destruction of people and planet that holds up this imaginary barely even registers as problematic. Is stripping the life systems of our world, denying the livable futures of generations to come, and our relationality with each other and the planet a price worth paying?

Innovation is also historically difficult to nail down with a general definition of what it could be and what it could serve across contexts. How can we even start reimagining innovation and the design process that supports it, if we can’t agree on what it is? As Dr. Pierce Gordon, Ph.D, explains in his article, “How to Define Innovation”, the confusion around what innovation looks like in practice, and the values it carries, have allowed it to evolve into a buzzword. Through the lenses of economics, business, design, and indigenous worldviews, Gordan outlines how each archetype holds innovation uniquely in how they create, disrupt and imagine their work and worlds. Through his research alongside the Naro and San people in Botswana, and larger innovation conversations across Africa, Gordan observes that many cultures don’t have a direct translation for innovation. During his research, he engaged with a University of Botswana Professor who notes, “The reason why the term is so difficult to translate, is because a Motswana don’t train to innovate, they train to preserve…. In this, traditional is seen as authentic. If something is innovated it won’t be as authentic, and thus won’t be as valuable.” And the definition the Naro people use to describe this type of creativity? Gordan introduces us to the term “Sonkori,” which means dreams. Sonkori moves us beyond visions of Silicon Valley innovation and allows our imaginaries to dip into the linkages between the past, present and future. It enables us to see innovation through different lenses, intimately revealing the values that underwrite the pervasive and narrow version that currently dominates.

What’s clear is that innovation can be interpreted as a process for many things, in many different ways, across many understandings and perspectives. I’ve found the technology and solution-focused archetypes to be particularly harmful and limited in how we think about novelty and possibility in the making of new worlds and in serving others. The current rhetoric on design and innovation may well be unfit for the complex challenges in our systems. The common interpretations of modern innovation and design practices today are, in many ways, the tools being used to extract, destroy, and marginalise within our societies and territories. Below are a few of the imaginaries to which our innovation worlds are contributing.

Innovation as destruction and extraction

When we reflect on much of the story of “progress” and “innovation” that coincided with the industrial revolution and the creation of the markets we operate in today, it is also important to recognise this story as a story of destruction – the destruction of ecological systems, the destruction of indigenous people’s worlds, the destruction of relationships, of knowledge, and more.  Many of the latest inventions in our societies – a mobile phone, the latest version of the Tesla, or Bitcoin – rely on the levelling of ecologies, systems and often knowledge and communities.

Throughout my career of exploring and collaborating around design and innovation as methods to reimagine the humanitarian sector, I’ve never once heard the provocation of “What are we replacing or destroying through this solution or process?” or even “What has been lost through this invention?”

In many ways, innovation as we currently conceptualise it values a willful forgetting of the past, something that cosigns “pre-innovation” to a binary of “bad,” “inefficient” or even “primitive”. This is assuming there is even a pre-innovation moment, when in reality, of course, there is no such thing. This again highlights how our current innovation imaginaries are in service of particular values, interests and markets. It also eliminates space in which we can see the friction and removal of knowledge, place, and what came before that results from innovation.

As artist and author Jenny Odell outlines in How To Do Nothing:

“There is a deeper contradiction of destruction (e.g., of ecosystems) framed as construction (e.g., of dams). Nineteenth-century views of progress in the United States, of production, and innovation, relied on an image of the land as a blank slate where its current inhabitants and systems were like weeds in what was destined to become an American lawn. But if we sincerely recognise all that was already here, both culturally and ecologically, we start to understand that anything framed as construction was actually also destruction.”

Odell highlights the curious tension that through creating the new, the past is banished as a mere shadow; ravaged and forgotten. Are we so ready to swallow our values and visions of just futures in the guise of innovation, while numbing our senses to destruction? I would argue that moving outside the capitalistic lens of progress and innovation, the myth of endless growth, will not only expand our space of care and attention to what we are putting into the world, but open up a space for emergence and other ways of being with and in service to each other.

Questions to consider to avoid this logic:

  1. What are we replacing, destroying, disrupting or removing through our innovation process?
  2. Who or what might be harmed today — or in the future — by what I am putting out into the world?
  3. What unintended destruction may manifest through my design, and how do I proactively mitigate it through a values-based design practice?

Lauren Parater (2021), UNHCR Innovation Service

Innovation as defuturing

If destruction is left in the wake of many innovation projects and design processes, what would that mean for those witnessing the impact of such endeavours on present or future lives? In Becoming Human by Design, the design theorist and philosopher Tony Fry states, “We underestimate the extent to which we impose – that is, stamp – our self on virtually everything. The trace of our presence, the scars of our actions, the heritage of our neglect can be seen in every extant environment on the planet.”

Through examining our actions and decisions on what we plan to put out into the world, we can better understand what possible futures we may also be stripping away, even through so-called “social good” or social innovation practices. We can also discern that much of what we design contributes to the unsustainability of our worlds. Therefore, it’s important to recognise that design and the innovations that may be produced through it – from products to policies and norms – not only act as a “futuring” activity that extends the opportunities for prosperity on earth, but also as a “defuturing” activity that limits the possibilities for life, enacting extensive environmental and social damage.

In telling a new story of innovation, we can unearth an original understanding of how we can relate to making the worlds, while also giving critical consideration to the harm and short-term decision-making that comes with purely human or user-centred approaches to innovation. These concepts require us to direct attention to what we are designing and creating, and how what we design continues to go on and design without us. What might our work look like if we relied on practices that also centred the futures of generations to come and non-human/more-than-human species in our decision making?

Questions to consider to avoid this logic:

  1. Whose future may I be removing through the process of innovation — including human, non-human/more-than-human species and ecosystems?
  2. What might be the negative consequences of this design for the next seven generations?
  3. What other perspectives or collaborations could I bring into my design process to better understand the many possible futures at stake?

Innovation as problem-solving

The innovation imaginary that frames the design process as one grounded in solving problems and developing solutions, while well-intentioned, has long been linked to the corporate sector, parked alongside patriarchal undertones and market-oriented approaches. The myth that design “for good” makes people’s lives better through expert-driven solutions is still pervasive across governments, companies and even the humanitarian and development sectors. This orientation upholds precisely the colonial, patriarchal, and neoliberal approaches that can lead to destruction, defuturing and the flattening of plurality.

Specifically, the notion that designers frame their relationship with communities as “users” or “clients” to deliver a solution, service or product is particularly problematic and narrow in its framing of our innovation practices and relationships with communities. This framework not only exacerbates power relations, white-saviour narratives, and practices aligned to market-driven approaches to creativity, but risks further injustices, harm and negative consequences. Even the most genuine and well-intentioned designers and innovators are often representing firmly ingrained colonial and development agendas that deny the plurality of practices, knowledges, experiences of the world, which no amount of empathy or design thinking exercises can replace.

In the book Design Struggles: Intersecting Histories, Pedagogies, and Perspectives, editors Claudia Mareis and Nina Paim eloquently outline the need to reflect on the historical discourses, pedagogies and practices of design that are complicit in current global crises and “its role as a motor of extractive capitalism, mass-industrialisation, and waste production.” Recognising the tension between design thinking and problem-solving methods and the pursuit of the common good, they write:

“In particular, the idea of design as a method for dealing with intricate, “wicked problems” (problems for which there are no standard solutions due to their uniqueness) gained momentum far beyond the previous bounds of the field. Today, supposedly universal “design thinking” methods are not only applied in management and business consulting, but also in the field of humanitarian aid, prompting the US-based author and professor Bruce Nussbaum to provocatively ask: “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?” Somewhat more cautiously and optimistically, but pointing in the same direction, this concern was formulated as follows by Arturo Escobar: “is design not always about human projects and goal-oriented change, about an analytics and ethics of improvement and an inescapable ideology of the novum, that is, of development, progress, and the new?”

Design Struggles by Mareis and Paim is an urgent call to action to “think, teach, and practice design otherwise” with newfound portals to how we can reimagine and reframe design for the twenty-first century. The current legacies of design for problem-solving cannot unhinge itself from its origins of simplicity, efficiency, “best practices”, destruction and loss. Problems are the consequence of an existing system, and through hastily plastering solutions onto these problems, we can recklessly reinforce the very systems we are trying to deconstruct or remake.

Through focusing design and innovation practices on problems and user needs, rather than desires or dreams, we are often reproducing the world as we know it, in all its faults and failures. While these attempts in addressing “needs” bid themselves as a pathway to reduce harm within communities, reducing this damage is not the same as creating opportunities for mutual flourishing.

The problem-solving paradigm carries with it an imaginary that denies the political nature of design and in that, posits a particular politics, despite an apparently neutral facade.  It also refuses components of complexity theory and systems thinking that emphasise newness or possibility through emergence rather than objective-focused or goal-oriented creation. One of the most innovative behaviours we can practice today is to move beyond problem-solving and understand design as a means to reorient how we relate to each other and build new worlds in the pursuit of justice, autonomy and mutual liberation.

Questions to consider to avoid this logic:

  1. What if you weren’t trying to solve a problem but aiming to build a new world? What might change about how you approach your design practice?
  2. Is it possible to move your innovation process from focusing on defining a problem orneed to an exploration of desires or dreams?
  3. If the “problem” you are designing for is not your own, can you radically de-centre your “expertise” and steward a space for others to creatively approach their own autonomy, liberation and justice?

Innovation as technological disruption

Innovation as only technology. Technology as disruption. Disruption as progress. This technological imaginary besieges almost every conversation on innovation and is weaponised as the quick-fix answer on how to solve those very “wicked problems”: the climate crisis, inequality, xenophobia, racism. You name it and someone has probably produced an Op-Ed on how technology can solve it. The problem is not the lens of technology as a means to create value, it’s that technology is situated as a saviour, often rejecting the intersectionality of the world’s complex challenges, and obscuring who (or what) is truly at fault for these rooted systemic problems. The narrative on technology and innovation is not neutral or without its wave of biases. We must change our relationship with technology and its relationship to innovation. Sure, technology is part of the solution, but it is also very much part of the problem.

This logic regurgitates the need for solutions almost constantly and denies the political nature of what we are designing into the world. This concept of “solutionism” was developed by Evgeny Morozov who writes that the solutions ideology holds because “there is no alternative (or time or funding), the best we can do is to apply digital plasters to the damage. Solutionists deploy technology to avoid politics; they advocate ‘post-ideological’ measures that keep the wheels of global capitalism turning.” For example, the geoengineering schemes that are often put forward as technological innovations in response to the climate crisis are, in reality, solving for the maintenance of the fossil fuel industry and the status quo, rather than solving for the exploitation of our current living systems and the systemic inequality it perpetuates.

While there is an immense opportunity to rethink our narratives and relationship with technology, and how that can be used in efforts to serve communities, decolonise our work, or restore what has been broken, positioning innovation as a technological pursuit limits the possibilities for how we understand creativity and how we design in complex systems.

The recently inherited features of Western political thought and Silicon Valley logic encourage band-aid approaches aligned with a modern, capitalistic model of creativity, rather than a method that opens up the questions and definitions of what is truly desirable or valuable, and by whom/for whom. Techno-fixes to the world’s problems don’t exemplify human ingenuity, but rather a failure of imagination and a fantasy shackled to simplification, an extractive economy, and the myth of progress. We must move our collective imagination beyond the ideas that have delivered us, in many ways, to the cusp of catastrophe and perpetuate systems of harm and oppression.

Questions to consider to avoid this logic:

  1. What if innovation was slow and nurtured at a pace that allowed for care and responsibility?
  2. What if technology wasn’t available, what else could you utilise to reimagine the situation, challenge or desire? What would be the same? What would be different?
  3. How might local knowledge or indigenous innovations be utilised instead of modern technology?

The nestedness of our crises and the entanglements of our challenges

In understanding many of our global crises, as crises of justice, solidarity and responsibility, we can begin to comprehend precisely why technological solutions and corporate innovation methodologies are not the right fit for navigating these challenges and the uncertainty it carries. Those most vulnerable to the impacts of the climate and ecological crisis are those who have contributed least to the very problem. The modern world lies at the feet of communities, cultures and lands all over the world that are suffering from its fragments of unending waste, harm and disquietude. A wave of colonial mechanisms such as constant political interference, the disruption of human relationships to place and environment, and the strategic abuse of development aid creates unsettledness and a hierarchy of bodies.

It’s not hard to see there are common factors responsible for challenges such as the ecological crisis, inequality, and conflict – where people are not only forced to leave their homes but are often faced with the immobility of their lives. People are slowly waking up to their own nestedness with one another and the entanglement of crises that colonial, racist, and patriarchal systems of oppression have fueled.  We must grasp and lead fully with the concept that “No one is safe, unless everyone is safe” and ask ourselves where and how we are investing our resources and creativity.

Professor Anne McClintock animates the interconnectedness of our many crises today in the stunning article, “Monster: A Fugue in Fire and Ice.” While unpacking the converging and accelerating crises of our time, she discusses the present unravelling, arguing:

“How do we record a history of forgetting?

This essay enfolds, fugue-like, three great crises of our time: climate chaos, global militarization, and the mass displacement of people and other species. The established circuits that connect these crises have been ghosted. Origins are never originary. Something has always gone before. How can we account for the planetary upheavals of the Anthropocene unless we illuminate the long arc of their beginnings in the military geographies of European imperialism—the foundational violences of slavery, genocides of Indigenous peoples, and the centuries of ecocides and onslaughts on the environment that shaped—and are now undoing—the world? At the same time, how can we animate alternative histories of the past and thereby imagine alternative futures?“

McClintock’s essay emphasises the interdependence of our current crises cannot be locked into the present or into one wicked challenge. The many crises we hope to “solve” operate as consequences of the long term oppression of people, land and place and the entangled histories they are situated within. Innovating our way out of such complex entanglements is impossible while we continue to conceal and deny the violence our world has been built on. Could innovation assist in making the invisible visible? The unseen seen? The unthinkable real?

Elsewhere is here.” McClintock states. “The future is now. But the future has arrived at different times for different people.”

Has the future arrived for you already?

Lauren Parater (2021), UNHCR Innovation Service

Innovation as the old and the new

…Everything unpreventable and excited like

mornings in the unknown future. Who shall repair this now. And how the future

takes shape

too quickly. The permanent is ebbing. Is  leaving…

—Jorie Graham, “Sea Change”

What, then, might innovation look like for our times? How could it be driven by socio-ecological imaginaries and values? What awaits beyond the lurking destruction and disruption? A starting place is the discussion philosopher Bayo Akomolafe had on staying with grief without overwhelming ourselves and his acknowledgement that through worldbuilding, we will always be touching our histories and futures concurrently.

“It’s a simple one for me.” Akomolafe remarks when reflecting on how we live in a time crisis. “Experimentation, which we’re always at the edge of. Invention is the frothing edge of the future. Work is always a matter of dancing between the supposedly old and the supposedly new, right? There is nothing that is old, that is not already infected by the new, and there is nothing that is new, that is not already invaded by the old. As we’re pressing towards the new it’s easy to forget the historical instances around us. History is replete with stories about people who thought they were doing something new but were actually just moving around pieces that iterated the familiar.”

In this sense, our understanding of innovation must never be without a gaze into the present and future, but also in the past. In light of this, how might our understanding of creativity and possibility evolve temporally? If the past and future should be at the heart of design practice, so too should the speed at which we navigate innovation’s temporality.

Would it really be that bizarre for people to seek approval for innovations that would allow us to move at a slower pace? Can’t innovation be patient, ecological, purposeful and counter rat-race ideologies – even when responding to emergencies and crises? Progress and alternative futures should be imagined beyond their bondage to speed, efficiency and time. In reality, there are a multiplicity of times, simultaneously active — the time of crisis, planetary time, ancestral time, experiential time, bureaucratic and political time, and many more.

Questions to intentionally direct this practice and framing:

  • How can innovation respond to multiple temporalities? And what would that look like in your practice? What if your design practice embraced ancestrality and futurality at the same time?

Innovation as maintenance

In offering and facilitating a different type of innovation, conscious of histories and temporalities, design can help make known what needs to be discontinued and maintained. Maintenance, alongside innovation, can act as an ultimate act of resistance and possibility. Maintenance, care and even rest in the context of creativity can shift our imaginaries to being more intentional and aware of what we are creating and also preserving. An ethos of innovation that prioritises such nourishing values, behaviours and principles can begin to make room for what we are striving for and dreaming of rather than just what we are against.

 In the article, Hail the maintainers, authors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel argue that while capitalism may excel at invention, it fails in the worlds of maintenance, and for most lives, maintenance, not invention, is what counts. They argue that there is an urgent need to reckon with innovation as an ideology, and its “perverse reality”, in a way that gives critical attention to whether a design or its practices are good. They elaborate:

“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.”

 Understanding if innovation is a desirable value is still to be determined. But in attempting to reframe the narrative of innovation to strategically serve a larger purpose, we can complement our inquiry into destruction by also asking what we hope to maintain and develop essential preservation practices around. Through the collective kaleidoscope of maintenance, there is an opportunity to bring the results of change and innovation in line with our visions, purposes and societal values.

Questions to intentionally direct this practice and framing:

  • What are your design and life practices maintaining? Who benefits from what you are maintaining and why? Who might be harmed by what you are maintaining? What do you really care about? What would you fight to preserve?

Innovation as renewal and a collaborative process to mend our world

Anthropologist Arturo Escobar emphasises the possibility for design to bring about social and ecological justice. His understanding of the pluriverse, described as a “world where many worlds fit”, a phrase borrowed from the Zapatista social movement, is a critical anchor for better locating the value of design and innovation in the context of our interconnected crises. The pluriverse refuses the “one-world world” of neoliberalism, globalisation, and colonialism, and favours the opening up of autonomy, agency, and liberation across communities.

In Escobar’s design praxis, design is not solely about the novel, the shiny, and the new, but acts as a collaborative practice of healing, renewing, and mending, inviting everyone to become “weavers and repairers of the mesh of life.” It also requires those of us who are acting as facilitators to move from a “needs-based” to a “desire-based” narrative of innovation and worldbuilding. In a world where many worlds fit, those who have been oppressed or suppressed by modernity or colonial mechanisms, have the opportunity to flourish, with each new centre contributing to this mesh of life and slowly renewing and reweaving what has been lost or damaged.  The practice described by Escobar demands that we centre other types of world-making and reconsider what innovation truly means.

Ultimately the climate and ecological crisis, the crisis of conflicts, the crisis of inequality and the crises of displacement are all related to each other – individual threads of a knitted problem.  Settler colonialism processes and extractive economies have continued to increase the vulnerability of humans and more-than-human species, displacing them into unfamiliar territories and ways of being in the world. If we think about the need for innovation in the times we are living, it must carry qualities of autonomous design, repair, responsibility, and world-making but also redressing and unravelling so many of the unsustainable worlds that have been built.

Innovation then becomes a means for designing otherwise in the face of our entanglement, a pursuit to renew and reimagine what is broken, and collaboratively explore and build towards more just futures. Today, almost everything is up to be redone, repealed, rethought and reinvented.

Questions to intentionally direct this practice and framing:

  • How might you contribute to a world calling out for mending? If you can only build futures based on what you know and what you’ve experienced, how can you intentionally bring plurality into your practice of worldbuilding? Who (or what) are the co-designers in your process and how might you expand them beyond who (or what) you know?

Innovation as healing and repair

Innovation as repair is a portal to mend, to nurture, to heal, to redesign, and reweave anew, whilst orchestrating attention to the oppressive structures that must also be dismantled. Innovation as repair invites the gaze to move away from the separation to the web of interconnectedness and entanglement in which the world moves. Opening up creativity and innovation beyond the subjugation of modernity and welcoming space to design alongside the dreams of communities.

Repair as innovation and innovation as repair can reveal practices of healing and sustainability and focus our attention on whose voices we’re elevating when we engage in social innovation activities. To repair our world, we must find envision other ways to live and be together, seeded by imagination, possibility and novel ways of being in relationship with each other (wouldn’t that be innovative?). As adrienne maree brown notes, “We are all the protagonists of what might be called the great turning, the change, the new economy, the new world. And I think it is healing behaviour, to look at something so broken and see the possibility and wholeness in it. That’s how I work as a healer: when a body is between my hands, I let wholeness pour through. We are all healers too—we are creating possibilities, because we are seeing a future full of wholeness.”

At the moment, the connected forms of oppression and ecological devastation have proven themselves over and over to be unsustainable practices, thus nearly every aspect of our lives is up to be renewed, repealed, redesigned and repaired. We can further question if we are failing to meet the needs and desires of others, who is responsible and what should we do about it? Even more critically we can unravel conversations about how we distribute responsibilities, resources, reparations and novel forms of care through giving critical attention to healing the brokenness of the world.

Lauren Parater (2021), UNHCR Innovation Service

Steven. J. Jackson attempts to reconcile contradictions between maintenance, brokenness, and repair in his book chapter Rethinking repair. For Jackson, addressing repair in society is key to how we understand innovation, particularly in the case of technologies, however, his assertions are profoundly relevant for cultural and social innovation as well:

“At first glance, nothing could seem farther apart than the apparently separate questions of innovation and repair. Innovation, in the dominant coding, comes first: at the start of the technology chain, in moments of quasi-mythical origination, a creature of garage-turned-corporate engineers, operating with or without the benefits of market research and user experience operations. Repair comes later, when screens and buttons fail, firmware is corrupted, and the iPhone gets shipped back to wherever iPhones come from…In scientific computation and collaboration, the language of innovation is generally reserved for new and computationally intensive “bright and shiny tools,” while repair tends to disappear altogether, or at best is relegated to the mostly neglected story of people (researchers, information managers, beleaguered field technicians) working to fit such artefacts to the sticky realities of field-level practices and needs. In both cases, dominant productivist imaginings of technology locate innovation, with its unassailable standing, cultural cachet, and valorised economic value, at the top of some change or process, while repair lies somewhere else: lower, later, or after innovation in process and worth. But this is a false and partial representation of how worlds of technology actually work, when they work.”

Jackson advocates for a shift in perspectives from a modernist ideology to one he calls “broken world thinking” which asserts that breakdown, dissolution, and change are the critical challenges in the face of political, societal, ecological and planetary crises we are living through. The idea of “broken world thinking” implies that designing and innovating otherwise is required to ensure that just and equitable futures are possible, and that repair, healing, and recombinations must be recognised as creative pathways, centred in care, for necessary change.

This type of ethos also opens up space for bridging the past and future, where Jackson acknowledges, “repair inherits an old and laid world, making history but not in the circumstances of its choosing.” Through inheriting these histories, repair stands at the aftermath, the crossroads where new worlds are built, and “order, value, and meaning gets woven, one tenuous thread at a time. And it does all this quietly, humbly, and all the time.” And it is ultimately through the breaking, composting and the humble art of repair, that much that is generative and productive can be birthed into the world. Through the lens of repair, conversations around concepts such as reparations also are given more direct representation as a possible avenue for creative reconciliation and direct acknowledgement of the historical assemblages that haunt present moments.

In Repair: The Impulse to Restore in a Fragile World, Elizabeth V. Spelman argues that, “Repair is the creative destruction of brokenness”. Could this “creative destruction of our brokenness” be a humble extension of creativity bending the arc towards justice? Innovation as repair offers a holistic and renewed sense of how novelty might be molded in the face of societal breakdown. Innovation as repair is about creating conditions for a good life, removing the brokenness that is perpetuating harm to people and the planet, and manifesting different types of realities.

Questions to intentionally direct this practice and framing:

  • How might we creatively nurture the brokenness in our world? How might we compost that brokenness into something else? Where does the humble act of repair fit into your practice? What if all the truly transformative solutions had to start with healing?

Innovation as the unmaking of old [unjust] worlds

If innovation as repair can assist in remaking and mending of our worlds then creativity is not only orchestrating attention on the present or futures; but is firmly grounded in the past. In directing our innovation gaze towards an ethics of responsibility, we must recognise the relationships between the systems of harm we are trying to repair and the ramifications of their design.

Philosopher and professor Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò acknowledges this responsibility and ethics of care through distinguishing between harm-based repair and relationship repair, particularly in the case of climate reparations. He argues that relationship repair allows us to avoid some of the tricky questions surrounding harm-based repair which is focused more on restitution or retribution. By contrast, relationship repair focuses on reparations as a project “in the service of reconciliatory justice” and mending injustice through our ongoing moral relationships with each other. Táíwò offers reparations as a worldbuilding project, rooted in questions such as “How do we distribute the benefits and burdens of a new world? Who do we make do the hard things? Who do we make take on the sacrifices? Who gets the benefits of that transition?.”

Innovation as reparations can be understood as a future-oriented practice engaged in building a better world (via unmaking another); that also ensures that the costs associated with building a just world are taken on by those who have “inherited the moral liabilities of past injustices.” Particularly for those in the Global North who have assumed such injustices, innovation as reparations can be viewed as a creative process to not only take responsibility for wrongdoings and harm but to take a holistic approach to being in community and solidarity with those who have historically been marginalised and dispossessed. It allows us to acknowledge the many decisions and designs from that past still inhabit our present and continue to inflict pain and trauma, whilst recognising there is no “before” we can return to that is not touched by these harms.

Through projects that support reparations and relationship repair between people and planet, innovation can birth more just worlds and fix injustice in terms of our ongoing moral relationships with each other; while requiring an innate responsibility and distributive justice. Táíwò attests to the “incredibly messy and imperfect world of navigating reparations for world-making processes” but it offers itself as a critical provocation and shift in the definition of creativity. Innovation then would not operate without putting responsibility towards others at its centre.

This moral responsibility would manifest itself in an obligation to, for example, redistribute burdens and compensation for those displaced by climate change due to the collective failure of those at fault for the majority of damage that greenhouse gas emissions have created. In particular, innovation would benefit significantly from a subtle reframing to emphasise the creativity required to repair injustices of the past. This shift in creativity must be embedded in an expanded ethics of care for generations still to come, igniting innovative policies around our responsibility towards each other and the remaking and unmaking of our present worlds.

Questions to intentionally direct this practice and framing

  • How would your practice shift if it was focused on the unmaking of unjust worlds rather than building new ones? What new protections and rights can we imagine that work towards relationship repair? What are some non-dominant ways of worlding that promote responsibility towards each other and the planet?

Liminality and creating the conditions for a better world

As we continue to move into a crisis of crises and destruction continues to touch each human and other forms of kin on earth, innovation will continue to find its way into the conversation of solutions and possibilities.

Innovation could rest perpetually in the in-between, in the liminality, in the pursuit of carnage for some and justice for others. Or perhaps we can choose another path. Innovation will continue to be used in a myriad of different ways, based on damage and desire and, yes, technology too. Today, there still exists a possibility for its faults to be redressed and for us to embrace it with new understandings of creativity. And perhaps in this alterity, we can find ways to use innovative practices to help us lay to rest the parts of systems that are no longer serving us. As Arturo Escobar so eloquently articulates, “Only strategies aiming to recreate and strengthen local and regional capabilities to heal and sustain the web of life seem to make any sense. It is imperative that humans regain their ability to see and make otherwise, so as to make plural futures again possible.”

If we hope to reframe the narrative of innovation and creativity for our times, we will have to sit with the loss of what it has destroyed. We have to bear witness, remember and foster awareness of the consequences of erasing the futures of so many and put our resources and efforts into creative opportunities that not only make these crises more visible but orchestrate attention to the people and places displaced in the margins and the in-between. It will require that we change ourselves to recognise innovation in healing the ruptures we’ve created and mending the fabric of our societies and ecologies.

The conjoining of loss and repair, intertwined with the possibility of new worlds to come, births pathways for resurgence, regeneration and renewed obligations to future generations and the earth. There is the opportunity to better understand how our work locks people into future indebtedness, and in understanding that, we must not turn away. New design and innovation orientations take on a new urgency, harnessing the speculative imagination, a rousing humility, and intergenerational activism required to lay down the outdated conditions of our societies and discover new ways of valuing the world. Through reimagining and reframing the narrative of innovation, I’m called back to Silvia Federici, Italian and American scholar and activist, who so beautifully stated:

“We must also broaden our conception of what it means to be creative. At its best, one of the most creative activities is being involved in a struggle with other people, breaking out of our isolation, seeing our relations with others change, discovering new dimensions in our lives.”

Perhaps it is that simple, that obvious, that we merely look up and out to each other again and observe our relations with others’ change.

Could that be the most creative act of all?

And in recognising and remembering each other, perhaps we will land on a new vision for innovating and imagining better days to come, seeded in the incorruptible awe of our interconnectedness and responsibility towards others.

About the artwork:

This artwork attempts to reimagine the narrative of innovation as one of renewal. Using the shape of the socio-ecological adaptive cycle as a base, realised through different charcoals, the images allude to how we might design for emergence. The mix of wild flowers, water colours and natural elements attempt to represent renewal thriving in cycles of transition, creating portals of possibility, beauty, and, of course, innovation. It is meant to bring to attention the natural patterns of change in ecosystems and how we might better work alongside those in the pursuit of innovation for social good.

Lauren Parater (2021), UNHCR Innovation Service

This page is part of UNHCR’s Project Unsung collection and portfolio. Project Unsung is a speculative storytelling project that brings together creative collaborators from around the world to help reimagine the humanitarian sector. To discover move about the initiative and other contributions in the collection, you can go to the project website here.