or Culture Evolution?
Experientia | firstname.lastname@example.org
[ 1] Cavalli-Sforza,
L.L., and Feldman, M.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press, 1981.
November + December 2009
[ 2] Cavalli-Sforza,
L.L. L’evoluzione della
cultura. Milan: Codice
We very much like stories of
products and services that
show the advantages of people-centered innovation approaches
over pure technological innovation. In our community it is
widely recognized that those
companies who take on a people-centered approach are more
successful on the market.
But what really differentiates
approaches from technology-centered innovation models?
This is an ongoing debate
that has so far produced useful reflections and insightful
in our practices, but not a lot of
I would like to add my own
observations to this debate by
looking at how the theory of
biological evolution can aid the
understanding of the evolution
of culture and therefore better
mark the possible paths that
Inspired by the work of geneticist Cavalli Sforza, who shows
how biological evolution can be
used to explain cultural evolution [ 1, 2], I have developed a
conceptual framework to explain
how human-centered innovation
occurs within cultures.
I hope that my analysis will
contribute to the understanding that innovation normally
requires more than just a group
of innovators who transform
previous conditions. Biological
evolution shows us the many
evolutionary variations on
innovation that a given culture
can manifest, besides those initiated by smart innovators.
In order to frame innovation
strategies, we need to investigate
the evolution of cultures. When
we pursue people-centered
innovation strategies, we do in
fact determine possible directions of cultural evolution. This
is the key differentiating factor
between technology- and people-centered innovation cycles.
In the former case, either
there is no vision of the possible evolutionary forms that the
innovation strategy can shape,
or the vision is too simplified.
The Homo economicus is one of
the dominant rationales of the
approaches, and it contrasts
with the Homo biologicus vision
of the people-centered ones.
In the first, human behaviors
and choices are simply driven
by the expectation to get more.
Innovation for the Homo economicus is based on the desire
to reach a more advantageous
In the people-centered vision,
however, human behaviors are
driven by actions and routines
that sustain people’s aspirations to improve their living
conditions and to reduce pos-
sible loss in their daily lives.
Yet user-centered design
(UCD) strategies can also fail
cultures, either by missing
opportunities or by embracing untested assumptions.
Therefore, the most difficult
challenge for any innovation
strategy is to understand cultures so that it can bring about
There are two polar
approaches to people-centered
innovation. On the one side,
there are those people-centered processes that build on
an understanding of existing
cultural values and belief systems to provide the conditions
for positive emotions and for
behaviors to grow more tuned
to given contexts of use. Here,
innovation is incremental and
corresponds to evolution paths
that select “natural” directions
for a large user base.
Examples of this process are
the Apple’s iPod and iPhone,
which were introduced as
incremental innovations within
existing categories of products.
Some more radical innovations
from the same company, like
the Lisa computer in the early
1980s and the Newton PDA in
the early 1990s, were not so
successful, even though they
too targeted a large base of customers. Why Apple could not
find the right innovation path
by following a radical approach