Successful innovations meet “social imaginaries” by Stéphane Hugon, sociologist and managing consultant

Imagination and Innovation

Stéphane Hugon is a reckognized sociologist, researcher, and teacher at both Descartes-Sorbonne Paris University and Paris National Design School (Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs) focusing on linking innovative technology with consumer usages.

Stéphane cofounded consulting agency Eranos, specialized in analyzing relationship between innovative technology and consumer imaginaries.

In this post, Stéphane explains how successful innovations in various areas (Web, Mobile, human-machine interface for vehicle) tackle with social transformation and personal identity, meeting with “social imaginaries”, and reversely, how imaginaries analysis allows to anticipate social adoption of new technologies.

How can we define social imaginaries?

We are living in a world of change, of mutation, which is a great opportunity, as well as being a challenge. It has been often said that our way of life has changed more in the last decade than since the end of the second world war. It is also said that this change manifests itself in the small things, the details, the small gestures that populate everyday life. Indeed, it is the slight and everyday nature of these gestures and ways of living that increases the depth of these mutations, making them more profound, more radical and more deeply rooted.

The mutation is difficult to understand, because it is not simply an economic metric. One way to understand these changes – technological, sociological, organisational – consists of using the resources of the sociology of imagination1.  The imaginary is at first sight a paradoxical notion, because it shares the structures, signs and meanings which give coherence and reality to cultural phenomena. Nevertheless, it is this shared bank of meanings that gives it its interprative strength.

If we were to try and give a definition, we could say that the social imaginary is the corpus of images shared by a particular group, and that give to this group the same references, the same vision of reality, and the reflexive understanding of everything that appears in their environment.

Once given imaginary is a “collective treasury of images, myths, narrative structures”, would you connect it as well to the “prisme” metaphor?

The imaginary is the interprative mechanism for selective filtration and understanding through which people communicate, build confidence and construct society.

The imaginary is culture. The imaginary is in a sense the “hidden treasure” of the public, of society; it is the collective unconscious, that enable understanding, and the discovery of cohesion and coherence.

Collective images and shared beliefs facilitate the global understanding of our environment. In a word, social imaginary creates the experience of the same implicit codes, with no explanation being necessary.

What is the link between imaginaries and innovation?

The imaginary is the unspoken which produces shared conviction. And if the imaginary is specific to different groups that means that we can analyse it, we can store it, we can create imaginary history, and study its sociology.

This is a topic of great contemporary interest in the field of technological innovation, because for a long time the supply of technologies followed a pattern of adoption according to the metric of scarcity of availability. Technology was closely linked to a certain idea of skills and learning, and for this reason preserve of a select group – the educated, the mature, the technicians.

But today the context has changed. Since the industrial revolution, the centres of innovation in usage of technology has been based in companies and professional groups, who have had the monopoly on access to technology, and sole posession of the skills to use and produce tools and technology. The directors of IT at the end of the last century noticed that the function of innovation has since left this specific environment: innovation has migrated from its hitherto corporate haven, and has to build its legitimacy in a broader social imaginary.

Considering technological innovation addresses a larger market, does it pave the way for a new world of co-innovation?

With it, also, has gone the skills and skill processes and the innovative dynamics of appropriation and the transformation of usages. This is one of the most interesting lessons we may learn from the Internet: to have demonstrated that public exposure to technology should result in mutual enlargement and transformation.

Now we have an environment wherein the audience enhances and creates new uses for technology, as well as technology changing the audience.

The figure of the adolescent, expansion in distribution, and the idea of  “DIY”, are key elements for innovation in technology and services today. At this moment, an analysis of the key imaginary structures behind this could be helpful.

What are the implications of the era of “intensive innovation” that we are living in?

In the context of a saturated market-place, the main driver of what constitutes a pertinent technological offer are the aspects of it which make it immediately understandable by the public. Time to market.

Because of that, contemporary users are no longer willing to accept conditions whereby they must undergo a long period of learning, adaptation and self-aclimitisation. For example, it used to be the case that if your work involved use of computers, this was a specialised task which required you to undergo special training for this type of complex, delicate and bulky operation. Now, it is an requisite of most  employees to be “computer literate”.

The time of appropriation could be immediate, so we should tend toward a having a very tight learning curve. This is the design concept of “affordance”, which we may understand in this context as the capacity of an object, a service, interface, economic model to be immediately ingrained in a legitimate way in the mind of the users. Plug and play.

As “immediate meaning” seems required for innovation, what role does design play to shape straightforward and intuitive innovations?

The offering by itself – its form, its verbalisation, its designinduces a promise, technical details, and the way to use it; coextensive understanding with the culture of usage.

One quality of the technological aspect is that it does not challenge the fundamental convictions and perceptions of the users, but rather reveals their unconscious hopes.

This is the capacity of innovation to access the unconscious recognition of need, and memory of usage – the term ‘in’ which has been noted by Michel Maffesoli. When contemporary economists have focused their attention on ‘novation’, they have often forgotten the ‘in’. That means whatever the qualities of the new offering, it will only come to life if it can grow roots in the ‘in’ of usage and social representation. In short, the social imagination.

What tools can we leverage on to build innovations encountering imaginaries?

The most important objective for those seeking to produce innovation, is to do nothing! To take the time to listen and to observe the social and symbolic background which is said to recieve and take part in the offering. This is a phase in the cartography of the social imagination, in other words the map of consumer imaginaries.

In that way, innovation is very close to identification. The manner in which people accept the offer is an index of legitimacy.

Indeed, technology could be considered as a living space, which is realized through the people’s belief in and contribution to it. In order to be activated, to actually come into contact with its audience, the offer must give space to its users – even if they are mass audience.

We have the technology we deserve; this is reflected in the social history of technology.

What is the dynamic of social imaginary?

These images are dynamic, they are manifested in the myths and figures – for example, the myth of the hero, or that of the performance. This mythology of imaginary is a living ecosystem – it lives and it dies. It is transfigured, as with the wellspring metaphor which has been thoroughly analysed by Gilbert Durand.

However, such an innovation is not limited to the fuction of a mirror, it is also a fuction of verbalisation – revealing – the innovation should speak to you.  A relevation, in the photographic sense of the term, that produces images which are latent, unconscious; the real architecture of relationships between persons. Sociology of imagination gives us the ability to create maps of how people share images and structures in the social imagination.

Contemporary usages of technology and innovation are not free from these dynamics. They too share issues which lie at the heart of this problematic. We talked about mutation; the sociology of imagination has identified certain passages and inversion.

This means the end of the functionalist promise of technology by example. For example, the success of Apple does not come from its technical power, neither does the sucess of the recent Nintendo wii platform. The individual subject had been by now thoroughly saturated as an actor, prefiguring profiles, avatars, sessions, users and communities.

Hence, we see the return of analogic and corporal: sensitive interfaces, or the disappearance of interfaces altogether, the emergence of gestures and vocals, the legitimacy of playfulness, of gameplay as a social act. This gives rise to the creation of new spaces – the game as a tool for engagement, a social practice. These are the big trends, but it is also possible to identify elements specific to niche and discreet audiences and publics.

What social trends shall we incorporate, what are the weak signals to decode?

The imaginary is coextensive with social life. This allows the mediation between objects, services and the public. The purpose of the situation we find ourselves in is not simply to submit to all of these representations. It is also an opportunity to access closer proximity to the reality which the user projects upon interfaces.

We have to decode weak signals on 3 levels: psychology, anthropology, history:

  • For example, psychological signals of mutation include new models like  regressive behavior, connectivity, sociability, addiction.
  • Anthropology observation show merger with nature, symbolism, paganism, rituals.
  • Or history filter leads to concepts of  tribes, altruism, mutants, collective creation, opportunistic timing (“hic et nunc”, cairos, interstitial utopia).

More than individual identities and needs, technological innovation have to involve social links.

On the other hand, the way we access and give reality to these phantoms allow us to escape the dynamics of appropriation and usage, and can help us to anticipate and to identify the value given to an offer by the user. In other words, it can allow us to see just beyond the horizon, to the forthcoming offers of technology, and the services of tomorrow.

1 The sociology of imagination is the study of the imaginary structures which run through the entire social body, bearing a huge imfluence on things like trust, meaning and shared understanding.

Wif 2010 conference

Video with English translation


  1. This article is just awesome! It fully resonates with what I have been doing since 1990 (meeting first time students from Dresden while I was studying economics at University Mainz). There stories about the past in the GDR was told in normal narrative form (verbal stories). Over the course of 20 years technology has enabled a fully different foundation on how the stories about the world around, and in us can be told.

    Storytelling across disciplines – interweaving art, science, and technology. That will be the future!!!

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