— Cultural Sources of Newness

Academic rituals as cultural sources of newness

There are at least three potential sources of newness offered by attending a PhD defence ritual abroad: you get to read a brand new thesis, you get to experience sparks of dissonance in the interaction, and you get to observe a (for you as a foreigner) new academic ritual. By accepting Ulla Johansson Sköldberg’s invitation to attend the defence of one of her PhD students, Marcus Jahnke, on Friday afternoon September 20th at the HDK – School of Design and Crafts, University of Gothenburg I had the great fortune to reap value from all three sources—and more: I witnessed the emergence of a new twist to the academic ritual.

PhD thesis Marcus Jahnke 2013

PhD thesis Marcus Jahnke 2013

My week in Gothenburg was too full of research interviews and conversations with co-authors to allow me to finish reading the entire thesis (377 pages) with the title “Meaning in the Making: Introducing a Hermeneutic Perspective on the Contribution of Design Practice to Innovation.” But, I will—the material is fascinating and the writing style flows well. The empirical basis is the observation of “experimental” processes in which 5 designers worked with a small group of employees in 5 different companies over 12-18 months. The idea was to see “how each company would engage in a journey of experiencing design practice hands-on.” (pp. 107-108) I use quotation marks around the term “experimental” to signal to readers that the term is being used in a looser sense than the natural science model. Here it is simply about creating situations that social scientists can observe and analyse.

Instead of discussing the thesis here, I want to focus on the newness that Robert Verganti from the Politecnico di Milano, the invited external “opponent”, highlighted so brilliantly in the fully packed hall at the university. Recognizing that the Swedish PhD rituals may contain elements of newness for foreigners, particularly the designated “opponent”, the University of Gothenburg has provided online instructions.

Roberto captivated his audience immediately with his opening gambits, which I tried to capture in my computer (apologies in advance to Roberto for not retaining all the elegance of his style, nor all the fine dimensions of his lines of argument):

“The bad news: this is not a thesis.

The good news: This is the most inspiring book I have read this year.”

“The bad news: 2 days I flew here and Linate lost my luggage with all my notes.

The good news: I liked the thesis so much, I had scanned all my notes into my computer.

And now we start to have fun, I want to learn even more. This is a moment of learning, it is not an exam. There is a lot to learn here.


Roberto Verganti & Marcus Jahnke (photo ABA)

Roberto Verganti & Marcus Jahnke (photo ABA)

He continued to explain:

“What I find very inspiring here: it is a totally new perspective on innovation. I like this idea of moving from looking at innovation as problem solving, which is the typical engineering perspective, to finding new interpretations. Redefining the problem. This brings the meaning, the sensemaking. There is a lot of literature on sensemaking in management, here it is about the search for new meaning. You bring the perspective of new sensemaking, this is why you bring in Ricoeur.”

Innovation as problem solving is a very negative view of things. When you look at innovation as meaning-making, it is very positive. It is about finding something new that you did not even know you were looking for. It is about moving innovation from a need to a gift.”

“This is the merit of this work, totally turning the direction.”

Of course, given the centrality of the terms “defence” and “opponent” in this academic ritual, we were all waiting for the next move, the one in which the opponent puts the candidate under pressure to defend his work:

“This was the merit, now I have a few questions:

Regarding the framework: is it really design practice? If an engineer or organizational consultant were there, would it be different? What do you mean by design practice? Imagine we go back to the 5 case studies without knowing it was design practice: Is it only design practice because you involved people trained as designers? Or is there something in it that makes it design practice?”

I choose to leave my readers in suspense.

Rather than providing answers to this crucial question, I move on to other points Roberto made.

After posing several additional challenging questions there was a moment when Roberto moved away from praising and questioning to explicitly disagreeing with Marcus:

“There is one thing I don’t agree that you say designers bring almost always, and I say almost never, is what you call “sociable expertise.” Designers do not say “I enable you to find the solution” but rather “I give you the solution.” They are not trained to teach others to do design, they are trained to do design. They will do it themselves. One of the things I think designers are weak at is taking into consideration the perspectives of different people and bringing them together. Managers and policymakers learn that, but designers are not really trained for that. With design thinking we say they do, but this is not the typical expertise of designers. That is the job of the manager. As a designer, I have my vision. And I don’t see an incentive for designers to teach the others to do it, for economic reasons. Unless your profession is to be a coach, like an innovation consultant, but not as a designer, that makes my value as a designer go down.”

To this challenge, Marcus responded that under the experimental conditions he had created in his study the designers “had to develop their sociable expertise (a term he attributed to Richard Sennett) to do what they did. They were challenged by the experimental workshops to share their largely embodied, tacit knowledge. That was their assignment, with groups of non-designers. They were a bit out of their comfort zones also, because as you say, they were not trained as that. So I argue that if designers want to go into this type of practice, they necessarily have to develop this sociable expertise. In these workshops, we show that it took a lot of effort to do it.

Roberto closed by highlighting three key points he learned from Marcus’ use of the hermeneutic perspective to analyse the interactions between the designers and the employees in the case studies:

I learned: pre-understanding is positive. In theories of innovation path-dependency is treated as a problem, it is what makes it difficult for organizations to do something new. But you say, this path that is there, is there. Innovation consultants say forget about the past! But when people go back to work after a workshop with those consultants, of course they go back to it. Actually, design thinking is making a mistake today by saying forget the past. You are saying: make the pre-understanding explicit, the only way to change is to start with who you are, rather than pretending to forget it.

“The second one I liked a lot: from communication to conversation. It has become popular in science to do network analysis, e.g. measuring how people communicate through emails. Network analysis treats innovation as a process of exchanging information. And in organization theory communication is the basis of everything! Because communication reduces uncertainty. But YOU don’t say that, you say you have to activate conversation, Conversation creates more uncertainty! It is not to solve problems but to open up further reflections. By using hermeneutics you understand that it is not about reducing uncertainty through communication but about opening the space through conversation.

“The third one is about aesthetics. You make the move with hermeneutics from visualization to aesthetics. The thing I like that you maybe did not catch totally: if you open the books about design thinking, they say we are good at visualization, but that has nothing to do with beauty. Visualization is about communication. Through hermeneutics you bring in aesthetics, and aesthetics is a judgement of value, this is beautiful or good. There is a cultural act behind aesthetics. It is not just about visualizing things. If it is just about visualization, then the heart, the soul is gone. Design thinking is not aesthetic, it is just visual. If you don’t talk about culture and values, you are not critical.

Lastly, Roberto welcomed Marcus to a small circle, saying “not many people are daring to say what you say! Few are daring to be critical of design thinking.

The discussion was then opened to the internal examiners of the university and to the floor. I found one question and Marcus’ response particularly interesting.

Q: As designers we have a tendency to deal with conflicts by moving on, saying let’s try something else, hoping conflict will disappear. So I am curious about the sociable skills. What were the sociable skills that helped the designers deal with conflicts? Besides proposing to do something new, I mean.

MJ: “When conflicts happened, the designers rarely proposed something new. I have not studied the conflicts that occurred in my cases that much, but my sense is that there is not “one way” of engaging. What did happen there, where there were difficulties to start to think about gender issues in workwear, for example, the tactic was to keep working with it, maybe by working with a different medium. I need to look more closely. They did not try to avoid it. Trying to understand the product in different ways, in critical ways. When it became critical, it became interesting, then they had something to work with!

Pia Areblad of TILLT asked one of the questions that remains to be studied in future: what are the differences in process and outcome between interventions of this kind that are led by designers and by artists? 

The next step in the ritual: we, the audience went downstairs for food, while the committee and the opponent withdrew upstairs to deliberate whether or not Marcus had passed his defence successfully.

When the experts joined us a while later, we were shocked to see Robert Verganti appear with a bandage on his head. The committee chairperson explained that their discussion had been heated, pointing from Roberto’s head to Ulla’s walking stick.

She carefully removed the bandage to show us the evidence:


Removing the bandage from Roberto's head (photo ABA)

Removing the bandage from Roberto’s head (photo ABA)


A new way of revealing the result (photo ABA)

A new way of revealing the result (photo ABA)

She then inspected the bandage and revealed that it contained a message:

Grattis Marcus Jahnke!

A new twist on an academic ritual.