Kantian Innovation

by Scott Bowden

Kantian InnovationOn a bike ride through a nearby university campus I noticed a sign in a recently re-planted area asking students to stay off the new grass. Elsewhere on campus and, indeed across any area with regular pedestrian traffic, one can see worn paths in grassy areas indicating that people had elected to take a shortcut to reach a destination rather than staying on the sidewalk or pavement. When landscapers see these paths through their previously immaculate turf, they groan. When I see these paths, I think of Immanuel Kant and innovation.

Immanuel Kant was a great German philosopher of the late 18th century. Kant is perhaps best known for the Categorical Imperative, which is a philosophical approach to moral duty presented in Kant’s 1785 essay titled “The Metaphysical Foundations of Morals.” Kant expressed the Categorical Imperative using the following statement: “I am never to act in any way other than so I could want my maxim also to become a general law.” In other words, the true test of the morality of a given action can be determined by assuming that particular action were to be carried out by all individuals in similar situations, then assessing the impact of that action. For example, a person in a grocery store who picks a fresh grape from the produce display to try a sample may think that such an action is harmless because of its insignificance. After all, there are hundreds and hundreds of grapes on the display table and one missing grape will not be noticed. Kant’s Categorical Imperative suggests that one should consider the action of taking a grape from the context of assuming every person walking into the store takes a grape. Instead of one or two missing grapes, there would be hundreds of missing grapes and a bare produce display at the store. Thus the individual action of taking a single grape is immoral (and, indeed, is typically viewed as theft), beyond the more practical issue of the pesticides or bacteria that could be on the unwashed fruit.

Another practical demonstration of the Categorical Imperative in action is the footpath worn through a grassy area that previously was untouched turf. If one person cuts across a courtyard to save a few seconds traversing an area, then the damage is minimal and, in fact, one might praise the pedestrian for creativity in moving from point A to point B in the shortest path possible. However, once that single action becomes a universal action and hundreds of people are crossing via the shortest path possible, the damage becomes readily apparent and thus the action is less praiseworthy.

Kantian Innovation

This concept appears as an architectural innovation concerning how to lay out pedestrian areas in landscaped areas, as documented by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein in their classic treatise on architectural design, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. Faced with the realization that an elegant design with geometric shapes could end up trampled under the feet of shortcut-seeking pedestrians, architects are faced with the choice of putting up obstacles (such as ornamental fences, which reduce the utility of the area), or trying the innovative approach of not defining footpaths upfront but installing some of the features then letting people define the footpaths by their actions over a period of time, followed by formalizing those footpaths with pavement or brickwork. In recent years we have a new tool to do this in terms of tracking cell phone devices using GPS signals or using cameras to track the motion of individuals across a given area. However, there is still value to thinking about how to translate universal behavior into innovative design.

In some ways, the notion of using unintentional behavior to identify innovative approaches to problem solving is similar to the current trend of crowdsourcing, though the actions of the crowd are inadvertent rather than intentional. In other words, a crowdsourcing innovation results from the collective intelligence of a set of individuals knowingly attacking a problem, whereas the approach inspired by the pedestrian footpaths suggests innovation can be derived from the unintentional actions of a crowd. A good example is application design, particularly in the field of website or IVR design. By looking at traffic patterns for old applications (or by running a pilot of a new application to a subset of users), a developer can come up with a new design that aligns with the paths of highest frequency user as defined by the users themselves, as opposed to trying to build around a company’s organizational structure. The users do not know that their behavior is being used to devise a better menu structure for their successors, but the net result of their actions is often a better application for all users.

This concept can be used for any project where innovative ideas are needed. When facing a problem, the innovator should think in terms of the categorical imperative. If everyone were to follow the same steps, would the outcome be significantly different than would be the case if only one or two individuals followed those steps? In some cases, this can yield insights that could not be gained if the innovator remained focus on the smaller scale usage of a product or service, even if the product or service is never intended for large-scale use. In its simplest terms, a landscape design for a courtyard at a private house should be different than a quadrangle on a campus between buildings, but the designer in each case can benefit from thinking about the smaller-scale and larger-scale design. The next time you cut across the grass to shave a few seconds off your overall trip time, you can assuage your temporary pang of guilt by knowing that you might be contributing a data point to an architect preparing an innovative design for an outdoor space.

Sources: Carl J. Friedrich, The Philosophy of Kant (New York: The Modern Library, 1993), pp. 164-165. Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, and Murray Silverstein, A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).image credit: footpath image from bigstock

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden works on Innovation Programs for IBM Global Services.

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