Innovate Like a Flaneur

by Scott Bowden

Innovate Like a FlaneurI recently wrote about my appreciation of travel writing (Innovation in Lost Japan).  One of my favorite ways to pass time converges in the form of the literary tales of the flaneur.

The French term, which means a person who strolls about, was popularized by Charles Baudelaire in the 19th century, around the time when Baron Haussman was undertaking his dramatic transformation of the city of Paris into the urban work of art that enraptures tourists from around the world. In Baudelaire’s words, the flaneur is a “gentleman stroller of city streets” who functions like a “botanist of the sidewalk.” A flaneur is more than a tourist to the extent that the flaneur is deeply absorbing the essence of city as he or she moves through it, like a botanist moving through a field of plants.

There are few activities that strike me as more enjoyable than spending hours walking the streets of a great city or town and absorbing the views and experiences along the way. Some of my best, most creative thinking occurs during these peripatetic wanderings, and I always relish the chance to travel to a great city, such as New York, because of the chance it offers for inspirational strolls. Although there are many competing theories as to what happens from a neurological standpoint during a stroll that leads to creative thinking, my guess is that the combination of sensory immersion (the sights and sounds and speed of the city) enables the brain to focus even more intensively on a thought process than might happen in a quiet room with blank walls.

As much fun as I have as a flaneur, I also enjoy reading books about flaneurs, and some well-known modern writers of this genre include Paul Theroux , Patrick Leigh Fermor, Tim Parks, and Ryszard Kapuscinski. As innovators we are, in a sense, flaneurs of our companies, organizations, or clients to the extent that we work our way through their environments making subtle observations as we immerse ourselves in their operations.  The sections below contain observations by some of these great authors of the genre that are relevant for those of us pursuing innovation.

“When some people travel they merely contemplate what is before their eyes. When I travel, I contemplate the processes of mutability.”

This quote, provided by Paul Theroux, originates from the Taoist philosopher Lieh Tzu, and highlights an important element of the mindset of the flaneur. Travel is about more than observing what is immediately in front of one’s eyes but, more critically, noticing how things around the traveler are mutable, or changing. This is particularly interesting when observing the remnants of an ancient civilization juxtaposed with a modern society, as one would see in the temples of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. For the innovator, one should pay attention to what aspects of a company or organization are in the process of changing, as those areas provide two potential advantages for the innovator. First, an area undergoing change may be a good candidate for accelerated change to drive further innovation. Conversely, an area that is not undergoing change (and is thus stagnant), may be ripe for an exploration by an innovator.

“Reading and restlessness – dissatisfaction at home, a sourness at being indoors, and a notion that the real world was elsewhere – made me a traveler. If the Internet were everything it is cracked up to be, we would all stay home and be brilliantly witty and insightful. Yet with so much contradictory information available, there is more reason to travel than ever before; to verify, to smell, to touch, to taste, to hear, and sometimes – importantly – to suffer the effects of this curiosity.”

This quote, also from Theroux, highlights the restlessness that drives the flaneur to explore distant places. For the innovator, there is a danger to staying indoors which, in the context of today’s workplace, could mean within a cubicle farm on a corporate campus. Real innovation and new thinking likely exists elsewhere, and Theroux’s comment about the Internet is particularly insightful, as many of us may be tempted to believe that new ideas can come from the infinite variety of information available at our fingertips (other than, of course, the great content on In Theroux’s mind, it is precisely the abundance of information available to us electronically that increases the value of physical travel and observation. Several years ago I led a team that designed a CRM call center application for a client and we were able to situate our development team onsite at one of the call centers that would be using the product, which proved tremendously valuable in terms of helping drive home the concept that what we were doing needed to improve the jobs of the employees in the center working next to us.

“I have always felt that the value of a travel narrative, especially one that detours down back roads, is that it becomes a record of the details of how people lived at a particular time and place: how they spoke, what they said, what they ate, how they behaved. The Soviet Union I saw and wrote about in the 1960s doesn’t exist anymore, nor does the South America I saw in the 1970s, nor the China I traveled through in the 1980s. The way of life on many Pacific islands has changed since I paddled around them in 1990, and I was witnessing on this trip, the Africa of 2001 had undergone significant alterations – a few improvements, many degradations. To console myself, I think: Maybe the incidental details in these narratives will someday be useful for historians.  Preserving the texture of life in a chronicle of travel could help inform the future, just as the diaries of foreign travelers like Smollett or Montaigne helped us understand old Europe.”

This notion of the historical aspect of the flaneur narrative appears in Theroux’s recent narrative of a trip to South Africa, Angola, and Namibia. A travel writer captures a snapshot of a place in time that can be useful for future analysis. For the innovator, the focus on documenting the proceedings of a workshop session tends to revolve around capturing new ideas to pursue and discarding the other content. However, as is the case with Theroux’s writing, all of the observations from the workshop may be useful to the innovator at a later date, particularly if the innovator is sifting through past observations to search for new ideas.

“Christopher Columbus saw an Arawak man puffing on rolled tobacco leaves, a European’s first glimpse of smoking.  Tea arrived in England from Holland in about 1657, and Samuel Pepys drank his first cup of tea on September 25, 1660, so he wrote in his diary. The use of the individual fork at a meal dates from the mid-sixteenth century. Until then, all Europeans ate with their hands from a common trencher. […] Around 1609, and English traveler – one Thomas Coryate, who ate with his hands – saw diners in Italy using forks and ridiculed them.”

The above examples cited in Theroux’s book come from the French historian Fernand Braudel and speak to the power of human observation and the rapidity with which a concept can spread across a population. As an innovator, one should be mindful that even the simplest observations can lead to revolutionary transformation.

“This argument for the importance of trivial observation is obviously self-justifying, but if you’re alone on the road, you need to be bucked up somehow, and even if the observations are illusions, they are illusions necessary to your existence.  And if you aren’t vitalized by fantasies – here I am in this old car speeding through the bush, here I am among tribal people engrossed in a ritual – the experience would be demoralizing.  But the implied vanity bothered me, because being a fantasist in travel is simply self-regarding, and much is lost in translation.”

Theroux’s travels across the planet over several decades strike some of us as more strenuous than we would choose for our own voyages.  Indeed, the French root for the English word “travel” is “travailler,” which means to work or struggle, as travel in anything other than modern times would tend to be a difficult prospect. As such, Theroux notes that the traveler needs to be “bucked up” periodically with the notion that his or her “trivial” observations are more valuable than at first glance. Like the traveler, the innovator needs to be bucked up periodically because the search for new thinking can be so challenging, especially when a reservoir of new ideas seems to run dry.  In these scenarios, the innovator needs to maintain a focus on the notion that simple observations can lead to great revelations, though it is not always immediately apparent which observation will lead to a new finding.

“I am looking for something to write about, because that’s the nature of this travel, and perhaps of most travel: to see something new – a stimulus; to satisfy curiosity – a pleasure; to follow an itinerary – a narrative. But behind it all, and especially fueling the fantasy, is the need for the traveler to be at large in an exotic setting, to be far away, to act out a narrative of discovery and risk, to mimic the modes of the old travelers, to find similarities and differences.”

Theroux is focused here on two pre-eminent themes in travel literature, the value of risk as part of the discovery process and the benefits from following in the paths of previous explorers as a way to identify new discoveries. In the case of the former, risk has always been tied to extreme traveling and discoveries. In the case of the latter, some very interesting work has been done by authors such as Ryszard Kapuscinski and Justin Marozzi in retracing the footsteps of great travelers of the past. For the innovation practitioner, risk is definitely part of the process of driving new thinking, as more conservative thoughts may not lead to the type of transformation needed by an organization. Following in the path of a previous great innovator may be a counter-intuitive way to derive new insights into a particular product or service. Replicating the pathways that led to the initial discovery may lead the innovator to other creative thoughts or inspiration.

“My ideal traveler is the person who goes the old, laborious way into the unknown, and it is this belief that lies behind my travel, and drives me.  I want to see things as they are, to see myself as I am.”

This final quote from Theroux focuses on the self-reflective nature of travel and the realization that in exploring the people and places far from home, we learn more about ourselves than we do about the foreign land. Perhaps our work as innovators is ultimately self-reflective as well, as we are looking inside ourselves to find our sources of inspiration. The output from our sessions reflects what we ultimately believe because we subconsciously may drive the conversation to a point that is familiar to us. In the end, by working on new ideas we may ultimately be revealing much about ourselves in our innovation work.

Sources: Paul Theroux, The Last Train to Zona Verde (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) Fernand Braudel, The Structures of Everyday Life (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992) Jerry Saltz, “Modern Machinery,” New York Magazine (September 7, 2008) Tim Parks, Italian Ways: On and Off the Rails from Milan to Palermo (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2013). Ryszard Kapuscinski, Travels with Herodotus (New York: Vintage, 2008), Justin Marozzi, The Way of Herodotus: Travels with the Man Who Invented History (New York: Da Capo Press, 2008) image credit: man strolling image from bigstock

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

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