A Holistic Innovation System: Fractal, Recursive and Complex

The world is becoming VUCA at an ever increasing pace as the result of human agency. Humans create the VUCA world they live in and then respond to it in ways that make it more VUCA. The promise of technology is that it can somehow tame this VUCA world for us. Occasionally, we see glimmers of this promise in elegant designs that simplify our lives rather than making them more complex and uncertain. Take the Automated Teller Machine (ATM). We appreciate it because it makes it easier to access our money any time and any place and it transformed the banking business. At the same time we are annoyed by the poor user interfaces, we are worried about security and having to manage cards and PINs, we must be diligent about continually tracking our funds on-line etc. It provides both convenience and complexity.

Many of the things we look to as great advancements and indispensable tools have this contradictory duality. They make our lives simpler in many ways and more complex in others. They enable new behaviors and, at the same time, require us to accommodate those behaviors into our already busy lives. We do more things in the same amount of time. We have more interactions with people and machines, we receive more and diverse inputs, and respond in more and diverse ways. Our attention is carved up into smaller and smaller units allocated across more areas.

One of the effects of this dynamic is that the skill of design, the ability to hide underlying complexity of a system behind an elegant interface[i], is increasingly valued. Another effect is that more intelligence is being built into our complex devices and systems because without it they would be impossible to monitor and control. The ‘Internet of Everything’[ii] is an inevitable evolutionary adaptation to the complexity of the systems, both human and machine, we are creating and our interaction with them.

The Future Innovation System

A future innovation framework and system will need to match the world in its increasing ‘VUCAness’. It will be both a cause and a response to this future world. It will have the following attributes.

  • Fractal, recursive, non-linear and complex – It will be applicable to the large and the small, to the sustaining and the strategic, to the demand and the design realms recursively and it will contain a myriad of components organized into complex systems with elegant interfaces.
  • Networked, global and sensing – Information and signals will flow from a global network of information sensors and be available in real time to the innovator
  • Intelligent, automated and knowledgeable – Intelligent virtual assistants will augment and expand the capabilities of the human innovator.
  • Empathetic, personal and responsive – Focus on the individual, understanding individual situations, motivations and behaviors and responding to these individually and collectively.
  • Fast, agile and experimental – Coming up with solutions quickly, trying them out, adapting to the results and continually adjusting and enhancing.
  • Future aware – A continuously updated view of plausible futures, going out 10 to 15 years, that informs where to pay attention, what to look for and when to act
  • Thinking and feeling – Turning organizations into effective thinking and feeling entities. Being able to harness the analytic and the emotional for maximum insight and creativity.

This is certainly not an exhaustive list but it’s a good start for those of us concerned about enhancing the process of innovation itself. Work on improving the innovation process in these key attributes will serve organizations well.

The Infinite, Recursive Cycle

People organize themselves to create new artifacts which they then use. This use drives new experiences and modes of behavior which, in turn, creates new demands that are satisfied through the creation of new artifacts. Over time, this is done at ever finer levels of detail and specificity until a paradigm shift (or less drastically a new dominant design) creates a whole new way of behaving and experiencing. Think about the introduction of the smartphone with the ability to run applications. Its introduction created a whole new realm of usage and modes of experience. Subsequent releases have enhanced and refined the experience along a trajectory that virtually every significant new artifact follows[iii]. Entire industries are created, grow and mature around the new modes of behavior.

The following figure illustrates this self-perpetuating cycle of influence and adaptation, enhancement and refinement that occurs through the interaction of People, the Organizations they form and the Artifacts they create and use.

Infinite Recursive Cycles

Figure 1 – A Dynamic Innovation System

The engine driving this dynamic is us. The person who is both an individual and part of multiple communities, who is both an adopter and a creator, causes the change we often complain about. Our behaviors and motivations cause an infinite cycle of progress. People create new organizations that create new artifacts that influence people (the cycles) and these are constantly refined and enhanced as they become embedded within our individual and collective experiences (the cycles within cycles).

Innovators of the Future

In this series on the Future of Innovation we have examined the increasing VUCAness of the world we engage in[iv], we have looked into the Minds of the new Machines we create that will affect how and why we innovate[v], we have discussed the changing nature of the organization[vi] and people[vii] as both creators and adopters and we have looked at what this means for a future innovation system. So what does all this mean to the future innovator?

Perhaps most importantly is to realize that the innovator is the instigator of this change. The innovator disrupts the status quo and they are the causal force of the future being created. The innovator is as much an influencer of this future as one who is influenced by it. As such, we need to recognize and accept our influence. When we create complexity, we need to make it usable. When we create intelligence, we need to make it humane. When we create consumption, we need to make it sustainable. When we create organizations, we need to make them responsive and resilient. It is ultimately up to the innovator, and this means all of us, to ensure that our future is one that we fully embrace.


[i]   Maeda, John; The Laws of Simplicity; The MIT Press; Third Impression edition; August , 2006

[ii]   Danova, Tony; The Internet of Everything; Business Insider; September, 2014

[iii] Arthur, B.; The Nature of Technology; Free Press; Reprint edition; August, 2009

[iv] Schmitt, L.; It’s a Fast VUCA World; Innovate Innovation Blog; August 2014

[v]   Schmitt, L.; What Artifacts Want: The Minds of New Machines; Innovate Innovation Blog; August 2014

[vi] Schmitt, L.; From Menlo Park to Paramount Pictures: Our Organizations Evolve

[vii] Schmitt, L.; Post-millennial Demands; Innovate Innovation Blog; September 2014

Related Posts

Get a free strategic innovation infographic when you join 10,000 professionals who get our newsletter.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.

Access through Inovo’s Innovation Asset Repository

You currently have access to the repository, please download below.

Contact Us

Call us at 1-888-464-6686 or email us at info@theinovogroup.com

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.