Language, Innovation and the First Nations

Like many in Quebec, and abroad, I watched the 2nd debate of the Québec party leaders last week. The discussions centred on a number of issues of which one was the protection of the French language in this sea (ocean) of English speaking people.

Personally, I am firmly in agreement with Bill 101. This bill has contributed protecting the French language in Quebec. Having stated that, it is difficult for me to assess whether Bill 101 has to be strengthened as it is not my Mother tongue (which is Polish) that is in need of protection. If it was, I am sure that I would be a bit more sensitive to the subtleties of any threats to it.

On the other hand, I also believe that across Canada, the development of French immersion classes have contributed to helping protect the French language in Canada and maybe even contributed in increasing our collective abilities in creativity and potentially in innovation.

OK. That is a bit of a stretch. Sorry about that.

But bear with me a bit.

As mentioned in the “About“, I came to Quebec for a summer French language immersion program some 30 years ago after completing a BASc in mechanical engineering. Completing graduate studies in engineering and in French, I had this growing feeling that having learnt a 2nd (actually a 3rd) language increased my abilities in looking at problems from different angles. Although, I had no empirical data, I truly felt that learning a 2nd and 3rd language contributed in increasing my abilities to perform in engineering design especially with respect to exploring and developing alternative solutions to a particular problem.

It is only recently that I came upon an article (Ghonsooly, Showqi, 2012, The Effects of Foreign Language Learning on Creativity) that provides some data to support what was only a feeling. Essentially, the article “investigates the possible influence of foreign language learning on individuals’ divergent thinking abilities”. “Divergent thinking” is an expression of creativity. It is of course the contrary to “convergent thinking”.

An example of convergent thinking is what Scott, Parsons & Seat (2002) observe: “…the predominant engineering student wants his instructor to work examples and give exams that look like those examples. The students have been successful by learning a set of rules and want to repeat that experience.”

However, in the context of design, creative problem solving and even innovation, every problem is different and therefore requires “divergent thinking” abilities and skills to meet that particular design challenge. There are of course tools such as functional decomposition, concept maps and morphological charts that can help to expand the design space.

As a result of the work of Ghonsooly and Showqi, I am comfortable in suggesting that learning a foreign language should be added to any design and innovation tool box.

Having stated that, it is important to understand that design and innovation is not limited to engineers, architects, animation programmers, etc. All of us practice to some extent design and innovation in our lives although we probably describe it differently. As an example, the mere act of verbalising an idea is a creative design activity where the need is the desire to express that idea. The alternative means (result of divergent thought process) to expressing that idea are the different ways one can assemble words, verbs, adjectives as well as applying rules of grammar, intonation, body language, etc. The different alternatives are evaluated in an instant, selected and implemented.

If one accepts this observation, one would need then to consider that learning a foreign language would also help us all in developing greater skill in design and innovation by whatever name you wish to call it (“What’s in a name?”).

Let’s take a step back and consider that over the years or rather decades, research and development, creation and innovation has been the center of a number of different reports, policies and programs to stimulate and support Canada’s economic development. These programs have helped the development of centre of excellence and technology across the country. However, today we are still looking to further improve our economic competitively as can be illustrated by the Innovation Canada initiative and a number of recent articles (Chakma, 2014, Hirsch, 2013, Hodgkinson, 2014).

Most if not all of these initiatives aim to engage Canadian industry and bring it together with academia. Few, if any, of these initiatives suggest that there might be a wider initiative that can support the development of a climate supporting design and innovation in the general population.

However, as illustrated, adding the pursuit of a second language to the list of innovation initiatives can increase the general level of creativity of our population. Such a measure has the potential to touch all Canadians and engage all of us in innovation.

Technically, one such measure, the Explore program, has already to a large extent been initiated and has been running for over 40 years. The Explore program, previously known as the Summer Language Bursary Program, has promoted and supported learning our two Founder’s Nation languages (French to Anglophones; English to Francophones).

I guess now, the appropriately named Explore program could be considered as a means to increase our collective creativity. The graduates of this program could also be the focus of a survey to explore if their creativity skills increase after taking such a program. This could be an interesting study.

However, why, today, do we limit the Explore program to just the languages of the Founding Nations?

Why not see if we could extend the Explore program (or create a separate program) to address language immersion in First Nations’ languages and culture as a means to increase our collective creativity and support innovation?

A thought…

Design, is it not merely politics?

The association between “design” and “politics” is not a straight forward one.

Typically those working in the design field (engineering, architecture, software, systems, etc.) do not necessarily see the link with politics. And those working in politics do not necessarily see the same link with design.

However, in researching (web search – Thank you Google!), one can find that the topic of “design and politics” is indeed being addressed at the philosophical level through the works of people like Tony Fry, Niklas Luhmann (1927-1998) as well as students like Marcel Münch along with many others.

Ton Fry focuses on sustainability and the role of scientists in politics in his book “Design as Politics”. His point of view is well described in his book which is a heavy read and one that I can only really take  in bits and bites. Honestly, I am currently still digesting this particular work. However, it should be noted that there are at least two points of view being expressed on the web with respect to Fry’s “Design as Politics” work.  One review (Keith Owens) suggests that  “The book packs a wallop and extends the thinking Fry voiced in two earlier works,  A New Design Philosophy (1999) and Design Futuring (2009)” and underlines that “Fry argues that designers should answer this challenge by transforming themselves into politicized change agents who will confront blinkered forms of ecological thinking and who can overturn many long established and deeply entrenched political, economic, ideological and technological foundations upon which rest human’s current self-negating ways. ”.  On the other hand, another review (Mohsen Shahmanesh) underlines the need for humanity to pursue sustainability as described by Fry as well as highlights that Fry’s point of view on democracy  as “…But when Fry goes into providing what he sees as a road to solution he goes badly wrong…   …Moreover, despite his repeated assertion that his solution is the only one that is not utopian, the world of Design as Politics is essentially built on a series of unsupportable assumptions.”.

Luhmann is credited as being a pioneer in developing and applying a “systems” point of view for the design of social systems which comprises systems theory as societal theory, communication theory and evolution theory.

With respect to Marcel Münch, I should note that his blog post “Systems theory for design thinkers” pointed to Luhmann. Münch’s blog treats many interesting subjects. However, the point that I found the most interesting was found at the end of the Luhmann post. There Münch underlines that “Ultimately this (systems theory) leads us to the question if design itself could be a system, in line with Luhmann’s theory…   … Design seems to be omnipresent and intrinsic to every system. One could even interpret it in a way and say the binary code of a system is design”.

However, design is indeed a system.

There are a number of different definitions and points of view on what is design especially when referring to technological development and innovation. Further, the range of such definitions can be multiplied by a few magnitudes if the point of view of different practitioners were to be included. I am no different.

For me, design is a system that is composed of a number of interactive and interdepend components that work together to accomplish some desired task (see “Why Rock n Roll?” post). The design system components can be defined as “recognizing a need”, defining the problem, gathering information, developing alternative solutions, evaluating those solutions, detailing the design and implementing it.

Recognition of need and phrasing it in so many words often constitutes a highly creative act because the need may only a vague discontent, a feeling of uneasiness, or a sensing that something is not right.

Joseph E. Shigley, the Later Emeritus Professor of Mechanical Engineering, “Mechanical Engineering Design”

One way to illustrate the interactive and interdependent relationships between these design system components is through the development of a concept map.

Figure 1 Creative Tension

Figure 1 Creative Tension

Consider a desired yet undefined state (fig 1). As time moves forward the distance between where one is and the desired yet undefined state increases creating a form of “discontent”, “uneasiness” or some form of creative tension. At some point, this forces one to start to recognise what is the source of this tension or need. At that point the design process starts (fig 2), followed by problem definition, information gathering, etc. and finishes with the implementation of the design and hopefully meeting the desired state.

Figure 2 The Design Process

Figure 2 The Design Process

The process is driven by a design environment which in turn is driven by a client which can be an organization or society at large and a designer “master” of the design process and associated tools and methodologies.

Considering that the design process as described is a dynamic between people (designers) living in society (client), is not design merely politics as defined as “the total complex of relations between people living in society”?

Why “rock n roll”?

Why “”?

Well, “Rock n Roll” was taken. So why not go to the Latin root: “petra et volvo”(according to Google translate)?

So, why “Rock n Roll”?

“Rock n’ Roll” describes ofcourse a form of music. It also describes just that: a rock and a roll.

A “rock” is an element or a component while a “roll” is an interaction of a rock with another element or component.

This describes a system.

A system is a set of interactive and interdependent elements that work together to accomplish some desired goal.

Break down the system into its elements and components, describe and model those elements and components, investigate the interactions and interdependencies and model them, simulate how they behave and contribute to accomplishing the desired goal. Validate that indeed the system behaves as simulated. Ultimately, investigate if the path to reach this desired goal can be quantified by time, energy, mass and strength and determine if it can be optimized. If so, apply it.

So, what do you get when you have many rocks and many rolls?

Yes, the Rolling Stones and It’s Only Rock n’ Roll (but I like it)!