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Political Innovation

Innovazione politica
Andrés Jaque
p. 15-20

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DOI: 10.17454/ARDETH05.02

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1With 1.2 billion Google results, innovation is now the omnipresent buzzword used in the domain of advanced capitalism to encapsulate the processes by which environments and societies recombine, evolve, dispute with, and reproduce themselves. Innovation creates a fiction in which problems are resolved, material inflation makes things better, and linear progress is possible. But this doesn’t work. Corporate rhetoric and Silicon Valley-like narratives about the heroism of product development have rendered accounts of how society “innovates” delusional. Schumpeter’s notion of the entrepreneur (1939) as a solo agent who brings invention to the markets through linear innovation is just a distraction. Secluded in a limbo of PR-made identarian-capitalism, innovation has been reduced and weaponized to become the tool to render smooth the promotion of consumerism.

2As often happens with wrong ideas, this rhetoric has deeply influenced architecture, its education, and its myths. As Lydia Kallipoliti explains in On Interferences: designing strange life forms that don’t always listen, Buckminster Fuller’s epiphany, which involved his overcoming a personal crisis by reinventing architecture, is nothing but the combination of two of the most successful neoliberal mantras: to just do it and to think differently. Kallipoliti describes its pernicious pull: “To innovate one must overcome all barriers and initial obstacles against all odds; a vision must be maintained unbroken and it is one’s commitment to a cause unaltered that grants valor and eventually yields results. Propaganda of the Silicon Valley modus operandi, to reach lucrative self-fulfillment”.

3Confronting the effects of advanced capitalism, techno-segregation, and human-and-more-than-human exploitation requires us to rethink the way we think about innovation. This fifth issue of Ardeth gathers architectural thinkers to examine specific cases of architectural innovation in detail, with the mission of situating the term innovation in the terrain of realism and to help rethink how architectural innovation is discussed, imagined, and practiced. The work included here is linked by its intention of conceiving a new collective notion of innovation that exceeds the domain of the human, and that is enacted by/through settings composited by numerous heterogenous entities. Here the idea that innovation is the unfolding of new ideas or the development of eureka moments or individual genius is confronted by accounts of conflicted processes affected by the contingent, the accidental, the environmental, and the non-intentional.

4As Micol Rispoli recounts in her Innovazione: quale miglioramento? Pratiche di costruzione sociale, innovation was entangled with notions of progress that grew out of nineteenth-century Saint-Simonianism. While acknowledged innovation as a form of togetherness by identifying its role in the production of social convergency; Saint-Simonianism did it by introducing an excluding mode of modern normativity that segmented technology from the larger social entanglements in which it participates. In 2002 Madeleine Akrich, Michel Callon, and Bruno Latour of the Centre de Sociologie de l’Innovation sent out a call to complicate received notions on the role designers and entrepreneurs play by approaching innovation as a collective enactment: “The bringing together of market and technology, through which both inventions and the outlets which transform them into innovations are patiently constructed, is more and more a result of a collective activity and no longer the monopoly of an inspired and dedicated individual. The individual qualities of insight, intuition, sense of anticipation, quick reactions, skillfulness, must all be reinvented and reformulated in the language of the organization. They are no longer the property of an individual, but become collective virtues, during the mergence of which the art of governing and managing play a key role” (Akrich et al., 2002).

5This publication is not an attempt to reinvent notions of innovation, but is rather a project to bring such notions back to the larger prerogatives that are detected when innovation in action is observed, something that in different ways the field of architecture is forced to do. If Zaha Hadid’s office and the Fundação Oscar Niemeyer, Camilo Vladimir de Lima Amaral announced the arrival of a post-starchitect, phantasmagorical era in architecture, they did so only after their stars passed away. While Hadid and Neimeyer were living, their agencies supported the fantasy of individual genius and not the ingenuity of the teams, methodologies, and tools in the background of their star’s fame.

6Aldo Rossi’s transatlantic office, which Sebastiano Fabbrini reconstructs in Faxing Architecture, provides evidence of how architecture’s capacity to intervene reality results from specific techno-social settings that gain agency on the definition of architectural action. With the opening of an office space in Manhattan in 1986, Aldo Rossi operated as a bilocated assemblage of objects, humans, and technological devices connected by the constant flow of scrolling thermal paper facsimiles coming out of the noisy mouth of fax machines. Faxes regulated the very status of architecture as multiple, scalable, and composed. Rossi’s key contributions to the field of architecture, such as the notion of “analogy” or the focus of façade design versus floorplan, were coproduced by a more-than-human transatlantic material assemblage.

7This discussion is intended to reformulate the role of agencies in architectural action. It is obvious in many cases that architectural design, being a socially and environmentally integrated activity, is participated by agents external to its offices. Architectural action is not the result of individual architects’ minds and organizations. As Marco Ferrari argues in A Panoptic Cartography of Remote Sensing, the daily practice of pinching-and-zooming in Google Earth, Bing, and Apple Maps, momentous is the development of a big part of human actions now, depends on the performance of planetary-scale infrastructure, resulting in the cooperation of “spacecrafts, sensors, antennas, and fiber-optic cables, owned by nation states and private corporations, and managed through an intricate network of data processing facilities. The different agendas of these institutions are concealed under the smooth, color-corrected surface of commercial imagery, embedded in the metadata of the global digital mosaic like a footnote to the wonders of the contemporary geographic omniscience-while delivering a profitable picture of a borderless world”.

8In the work of Ferrari, innovation comes as an inquiry into the relational dimension of the making of such a ubiquitous and non-scrutinized infrastructure. As a form of intervention on a shared layer of reality intended to render the participation of users critical and capable of trespassing the sense of smoothness and automatism that geographical visualization providers promote. The assemblage of science, technology, product design, and aesthetics composing mapping infrastructures performs politically to favor specific non-universally shared agendas. The endeavor of designing the evolution of such infrastructures therefore inevitably falls into the domain of political action. In order for design to gain access to the actual performance of these geopolitical apparatuses, Ferrari’s work needs to symmetrically operate at the intersection of design and activism. Design comes here as an agency that responds to user experience, in the way it is now designed, blackbox the technological, contractual, aesthetic and political assemblage of geographical visualization platforms, and by providing access to the contentiousness of their users. A focus on visual and spatial literacy by which humans engage in pinch-and-zooming are equipped to exceed a relational model that construct them as consumers, to gain new forms of critical participation.

9As Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli explains in Data (Centers) Controversies, the current development of data centers associated with the growing digitalization of daily interaction shows innovation as a contentious process meant to segregate societies. He highlights the case of AT&T’s buildings, in use since 1985 across the US, that conceal the way communication systems are organized, evidenced by the fact that evolution is often meant to unevenly distribute resources; and that their non-universality inscribes them in arenas where different interests confront each other, rather than in linear processes of shared equal improvement. When examined in detail, digital technology does not bring people together as was first dreamed, but rather heightens the effects of surveillance capitalism and creates an ecosystem of asymmetrical and abusive power dynamics between tech corporations and end-users, as Pestellini puts it. This case shows how innovation is not the result of techno-scientific consensus, were such a thing possible, but a political process where difference is managed and negotiation among agents with different participations and affections is required.

10In Atmospheric Infrastructures to deal with the transition, Nerea Calvillo questions our ideas of air as being something needing to be cleaned. The atmosphere is “the dump of capitalist practices,” and Calvillo asks how we can clean “a global circulating entity, when the economic system that has set up this situation does not seem to be changing soon?” Most innovations developed to address air pollution, in the way they are promoted, end up empowering the power structures responsible for emissions in the first place. At a time when environmental remediation has gained a scale that has made it a priority for large-scale infrastructural service providers, the implementation of solution-oriented atmospheric services allows the selling of remediation products that are ineffective in addressing the transectionality of the air, but that prove to be commercially successful by not questioning the larger order in which emissions happen. Innovation here requires a deliberated process, where the relational extension that the air is constituted by redefines the terms of its interaction. To the common question of What to do?, Calvillo proposes that instead we should think How to do? This immediately shifts thinking about innovation as a solution-finding process into an inquiry for forms to deal with transition. Rather than finding delusional solutions in making so-stated problems disappear, Calvillo explores how the infrastructures that allow us to manage how the terms of transition that alter the complex techno-social assemblages of air can be collectively enunciated.

11In a similar way, facing the growing presence of Abandoned, Lost or otherwise Discarded Fishing Gear (ALDFG) in the ocean, MAP Office in 2017 developed the Ghost Island in Krabi, with 300 kilograms of fishnets rescued by activist diver groups, that is now followed by the construction of a second Ghost Island in Hong Kong, as the places for diverse human players (politicians, environmentalist, scientist, designers) to be convened.

12Reflecting through the experience of her realized project ‘Yellow Dust,’ a mist canopy device that measured, visualized, and partially remediated the quality of Seoul’s air when tested in 2017, Nerea Calvillo calls us to consider the potential of moving from unified forms of association, focused on representation and action (like the Greenpeace campaigns exposing those responsible for environmental damage) to paying “closer attention to what surrounds us and understand what the surrounding requires us to do”. Her device helped assemble a community by promoting a shared engagement in visualizing environmental inequality; it was therefore not merely a performance device, but one that found in the setting of its physical constitution a means for human and more-than-human association. In order to produce a yellow dust out of water, the designers had to train their eyes to differentiate densities of mist, and their skin to sense the difference between “fresh” and “wet.” The possibility for architecture to operate in/with the air, when considered in detail and in the extension of the agents that affect and are affected by it, imposes forms of symmetry between humans and more-than-humans. If innovation has often posed humans as being the subject modifying an external, objectual other, this case shows how from the perspective that Calvillo offers, humans and more-than-humans share a symmetrical status, as actors of an interaction that not only changes the way they relate to each other, but their material constitutions as well.

13Along these lines, Lydia Kallipoliti proposes thinking about architecture through Donna Haraway’s notion of the cyborg that “resists utopia and wholeness as a generic idea” and proposes “biotic components – fragments – that can be interfaced and interconnected in endless ways”. Kallipoliti brings back Robin Evans’s ideas of interference, a “critical design parameter to creatively disrupt the expected turn of events… Interference is not blocking the course of actions, but revealing a path which would have been invisible in the design process otherwise”. According to Kallipoliti, Evan’s work helped derail a system from its normative end goal by unveiling “surrogate goalsthrough deviation. Avoiding linearity, he designed a number of piezoelectric structures that responded to random events. Rather than showing cause and effect-based reactions, these were meant to “energize the artifactual world” by showing architectural entities not as structures in an environment, but rather as environments themselves, and predetermination as obsolete: “Rather that the realization of a single vision, the object of creation could be the crossroad of several different paths”. Architecture for Evans was not an instrument but a form of being itself. “As analogous to an animal, both as an embodiment of organizational principles, as well as architecture’s relationships to climatic and site-related givens” as Caroline O’Donnell argues. This is the case of the Big Dog, the Boston Dynamic’s tumbling robot that US marines rejected in 2015 due to concerns that its noisiness would give away troops’ positions. Architecture as a hysterical unbalanced being, where the linearity of progress is replaced by forms of kinship that challenge the tradition-technology, history-science divide that has shape the way architectural innovation has been founded since Reiner Banham announced in 1960.

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Akrich, M., Callon, M., Latour, B. (2002), The key to success in innovation Part I: The art of interessement, “International Journal of Innovation Management”, vol. 6, n. 2, pp. 187-206.

Schumpeter, J. (1939), Business Cycles: A Theoretical, Historical, and Statistical Analysis of the Capitalist Process, New York, McGraw-Hill.

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Andrés Jaque, « Political Innovation »Ardeth, 5 | 2019, 15-20.

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Andrés Jaque, « Political Innovation »Ardeth [En ligne], 5 | 2019, mis en ligne le 01 mai 2020, consulté le 27 novembre 2021. URL :

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Andrés Jaque

Office for Political Innovation – founder. Columbia University - director of the Advanced Architectural Design Program – office [at] offpolinn [dot] com

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