Innovative Design: creating unknown objects

I had the chance to attend a few weeks ago a lecture on C-K design theory.

It was delivered by brilliant  professors Pascal Le Masson and Benoît Weill, two among the three referents in C-K methodology, the third being the lead professor Armand Hatchuel, Professor of Management Sciences and Design Engineering, Ecole des Mines, Paris.

Let me try to guide you to this formal innovative design approach.

Why do we need a new innovative design approach?

According to Pascal Le Masson, “objects are shifting their identity“. Recent innovations illustrate this point of disruption: Velib, an hybrid of personal bike and public transportation, iPhone, not only a phone, a “smart” phone, Metronisar, combining metro load capacity with low cost bus, hybrid car, GPS, Linux, low-cost car Logan, Dyson, …

All industries are concerned by this identity shift, innovation is deeply impacted as innovators have to create something unknown. New concept is disruptive, unprovable but it doesn’t mean it is impossible: it is undecidable with the existing knowledge, because there is some unknown.

How do we work on unknown, undecidable objects? To achieve this shift “from the unknown to the known” during the creation process,  we need to define a new design approach, an innovative design approach called C-K.

What is C-K methodology, and what are his roots?

Professor Hatchuel defines C-K Theory or Concept-Knowledge Theory as a theory of reasoning in design. Design reasoning is a logic of expansion processes, i.e. a logic that organizes the generation of unknown objects.

What is creativity? “Creativity is resisting to some fixation effect, a set of rules that we have difficulty to change or make evolve.”

How can we achieve this ?Expanding our ideas, give a different meaning to an object or create a new object with design properties.”

How can we make this expansion systematic? This is were C-K finds its roots in in creative power of modern math, leveraging on mathematician Paul Cohen work and his general method for designing infinite sets, “forcing” sets to have the design properties. “Creative things are not the deduction from existing knowledge: we have to force the process. Because the creative innovation is undecidable at the beginning, we have to design it first.”

What does C-K add to this? C-K extends forcing in the real world: “it brings the innovation from the imaginary space, the C-space or conceptual space where new things are appearing, to the K-space or Knowledge space, and provide it with attributes. The new attributes for designed things extend our knowledge that will feed back the conceptual space”.

C-K adresses two exploration spaces C and K, in continuously iterative loop:

  • it starts with expanding partitions in C, adding attributes, refining, choosing, structuring, formulating and expanding Concepts based on personal Knowledge;
  • the concept is further tested, optimized, modelled, generating new Knowledge;
  • This Knowledge in return can be added to the Concept: this iteration goes on until the new object become feasible.

Innovative design is not about going to a desert (unknown), it’s about revealing progressively known territories.


A C-K case study: designing a chair that is not a chair!

Let’s take a pragamatic example and see step by step how C-K approach unfolds:

  1. Creative challenge is designing an unknown object that is cheaper and lighter than a chair but will have similar function, “a chair that is not a chair”; lighter brings us into “undecidable space” because you can always buid a lighter chair…
  2. The concept starts fom knowledge on camping chair where small and light are usual properties; applying expansive partitioning, we branch out the concept according to leg attribute:  a chair can have 1 leg, 2 legs, … or no leg !
  3. Back in K, what does a chair with no leg mean? I need to prototype it, which gives some learnings on sitting equilibrium on the floor!
  4. Back in C: going down the tree structure brings us to assess equilibrium concept: equilibrium can be achieved by man, entity or man + entity. Man performing equilibrium is like Yoga.
  5. I select the combination of man+entity to perform equilibrium and go back to K: it brings me to the knowledge of setting in a swing. The concept becomes feasible, and it actually exists: the chair that is not a chair was designed by Vitra. 

As this example shows clearly,  C-K is about structured creativity: it creates continuous innovation process, and generates new ideas in a systematic way … even if you don’t complete the full process!

One step further

“Designing the unknown” – A Presentation Film of the C-K Theory

In French: Innovation de rupture: comment rechercher l’inimaginable | ParisTech Review.

“All much of a muchness”, benchmark analysis of “problem solving” methods: C-K Theory, CPS and TRIZ.

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