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The Imagination Market
by Cordy Swope

3.31.03 Munich, Germany - I am swimming against the tide and moving to Germany. I swim against people like my ancestors, who came to North America in search of something more than what they had. The current political situation has nothing to do with my decision to move. For me it is simply wanting what I do not have, perhaps a different language, a different culture and a different rhythm of daily life.

And yet, one thing that I will leave behind with bittersweet feelings is the ceaseless chatter of American political punditry. A while ago I heard Tom Friedman of the New York Times speaking on television say something like,  "9.11 was not a failure of security, but of imagination." In these days of color-coded security and runs on duct tape, it is not altogether surprising then to hear rumors that the pentagon has enlisted various creative organizations to help imagine and plan against possible terror scenarios. It is a little less than reassuring to me that the pentagon would look to providers of creative services for help. But I suppose that like in brainstorming, in times of war, no idea--no matter how wacky--is off the table. Perhaps the pentagon had exhausted all of its ideas and was still unsatisfied, and so in that timed-honored American corporate tradition, they called in consultants. And I would imagine that it might be flattering for some to be asked. But given recent decisions by that particular organ of government, I would imagine that others might balk at it.

But they should not be taken aback. There exists a long history of the military being clients of design. During World War II one of my late professors at Pratt Institute designed (in what was a rare instance of life or death depending on the quality of a color study) camouflage. While making lightweight plywood splints for the army, Charles Eames also perfected his techniques for sculpting that material, which he later used in his revolutionary chairs. While the splints have now become expensive fruit baskets for collectors, it is also highly likely that if the rumor of the military's newly found appetite for creative services is true, it--coupled with a monstrous budget--will yield all sorts of new gizmology to the consumer market in times ahead.

Today American creative firms sell their imagination, their points of view and their unique "processes" for innovation. Throughout the nineties, the creative services market became less about making things pretty and more about seeing things differently. It was discovered that innovation arises most frequently when different perspectives are brought together to solve intractable problems. More and more, designers, technologists, strategists, anthropologists, cognitive specialists, filmmakers and advertisers looked into people's motivations, and then attempt to create highly nuanced output that spoke to those motivations. Presumably by asking creative people to look into the motivations and behavior of  "the enemy," the pentagon might wish to gain more insight into how it might plan things.

At my firm, we do a lot of observation of people. We try to use implications drawn from their behavior to create innovative ideas that then affect the business interests of our clients. Understanding consumer motivations by observing how people work, shop, cook meals, drive cars and furnish their homes has always carried with it a sense of espionage. In trying to interpret consumer behavior, we typically encounter unexplained mannerisms and actions that are like codes needing to be cracked.

But this might falsely imply that the consumer is to be viewed as the enemy. Clearly in the product development business she is not. The enemies of clear thought and innovation are more likely to be found in the ranks of middle management in corporations, whose Byzantine politics cannot handle a sudden injection of creativity. Equally, enemies to innovation also take the form of the meglomaniacal, self-indulgent creative, who cannot structure his input to a situation in a useful way.

But who really is the enemy? We know that all societies need them--someone or something to vilify or to exclude. And if they do not have any enemies, most societies are not above manufacturing them themselves. But too few of us today appreciate that it is the differences between people that make them strong in groups--that make them innovative.

War is one of the few situations in human experience that has the ability to radically reorganize whole societies – often in unforeseen and unintended ways. It is sometimes through these shifting relationships that motivations are revealed, innovation occurs and perceptions change. Here in Germany I am not put off by the graffiti I see around me that say things (in English) like, "Fuck the USA." By the same token, I am neither boycotting French wine like some Americans are, nor drinking Mecca cola as some anti-Americans are.  Maybe because I am also doing what is always unnatural to most Americans in learning a second language, I cannot seem to be able to remember the latest terms in American English for example, to now use freedom fries when referring to French fries.

I happen to be moving here, and it's really not about politics. Really.

Cordy Swope is a design strategist and co-founder of normal life a research and product development consulting firm.

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