— Cultural Sources of Newness

On innovation, cities and office chairs

I think the new innovations will happen at a city scale.’ Daan Roosegaarde’s statement made me sit up and listen. The young Dutch designer gave his keynote speech ‘Innovation as a Dutch experience’ during LUCI City under Microscope conference last week in Rotterdam. In his presentation, just like in his work, he adressed well-known problems in poetic and witty ways. In his keynote, he presented his projects and design products wrapped in interesting, surprising and funny stories.


Daan Roosegaarde speaking at the LUCI City under Microscope conference Rotterdam

But back to the ‘innovation at a city scale’ thesis: We have heard a lot about ‘creative’ and ‘innovative’ cities from social scientists (my colleagues Janet Merkel and Maria Oppen offer more insights). But how and why does the designer look at cities as a site for generating new ideas and innovation?

The urban site of innovation

Roosegaarde gave two answers.First he considers the public domain as a space where ‘everything comes together. It’s where we meet, where we fight, where we exchange.’ The city as pars pro toto, a site were problems occur and concerns turn into matter. This is also why the designer has always enjoyed working in and on public spaces. I suppose, one of the key challenges of designing for urban spaces and citizens is to understand who or what ‘we’ or ‘they’ are, what we or they fight for and against and why we exchange—and how. This is also, why culture matters. Working in Istanbul is completely different from working here, says Roosegaarde.

However, being innovative is not the first municipal duty. The Rotterdam spirit of providing social welfare by innovating seems rather exceptional in this respect. So how can urban governments contribute to city-scale innovaiton? They can loosen their rules, explains Roosegaarde, and suggests a public private cooperation: Artists and designers generate new ideas, municipalities, create rule-free spaces and entrepreneurs take over to make innovation happen.

To be honest, I was a little disappointed by the role Roosegaarde attributes to municipal actors. Can they not also raise challenging design problems, have  novel ideas themselves or realise projects? Apparently, such attitudes and activities are rather unusual.

The office seat of innovation

‘What is the most frequent answer to a new idea?’  the designer asks his audience of mostly municipal actors and can tell by their answers that they are very familiar with the problem: ‘Yes, but…’ is the standard response to innovation. ‘We restrict ourselves’, concludes the designer. To avoid killing innovation already in its embryonic stage Roosegaarde and his team have developed the interactive ‘yes but’ chair for their meeting room. It is equipped with a voice recognition device that will recognise any ‘yes, but…’ phrase and punish it with a light but effective electro shock.

The chair is not for sale. Maybe because its conditioning effect offers the office an important advantage over its competitors. Maybe because the ‘yes but’ chair only exists in the form of a story that illustrates an innovative office culture and creative work climate. However it may be, the chair—real or ideal—is a device meant to cultivate openness towards the new. It is the materialisation of an innovation imperative. Manufactured and/or made-up as it is, I consider the yes but chair as an office-scale cultural source of newness.