Seeing the familiar in a new light

By Elisabeth Ginsberg, edited by Filip Lau

In the early Nineties, Bacardi added soda to their rum and poured it into—surprise—soda bottles. While “alco pops” are now taken for granted, the invention of this new category represented a breakthrough at the time and the industry still considers it a radical innovation. Innovation is often contrasted with “old wine in new bottles” solutions. However, the commercial sensation Bacardi Breezer serves as an example of a highly successful invention that is exactly that: the reuse of available materials in order to meet new demands. We believe this type of innovation, what we refer to as bricolage, has been overlooked for too long. The term “bricolage,” borrowed from the French, originally refers to makeshift handiwork: something that is put together using whatever materials are readily at hand. In the 1960s, it became a term in the social sciences, denoting a way of being productive opposed to the “cult of the new” that so characterized modernity. Perhaps better than anyone else, the Futurist art movement of the early twentieth century, expresses the attitude that only the new holds value. Here are the three first dogmas of their manifesto:

1) Destroy the cult of the past[...]

2) Totally invalidate all kinds of imitation.

3) Elevate all attempts at originality, however daring, however violent.

This quintessentially modern way of thinking has been thoroughly questioned within academia. Yet the idea that for something to be original it has to be radically new still permeates business conversations about innovation. Thinking instead of innovation as bricolage makes it legitimate to look back when planning for the future and to make use of existing knowledge, technology, and ideas to create original solutions. After all, as a whole, something can easily be experienced as new, even if its parts are old and familiar.

Philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche argued this more than a century ago:

“Original minds are not distinguished by being the first to see a new thing, but instead by seeing the old, familiar thing that is overlooked as something new.”

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