Innovate to change the frame

Making any genuine change in life calls for innovation. Sure, you can throw yourself into the cut and thrust of changing circumstance, see what happens. But the play of events can only change you so much. There comes a point where you have to take an active role — re-imagining life and acting to redefine it. That’s a moment of personal innovation.

At the same time, innovation implies change. The great innovators are powerful agents of change — they aspire to change the world. Even if one only intends to transform the order of practice in a restricted domain, the same rule applies. Innovation is an aspirational pursuit. The will to innovation says: ‘Aspire to change the frame’.

I’m developing a perspective on innovation as an aspirational pursuit. By ‘aspirational’, I mean that innovation can be more than just a tool of entrepreneurship but a dynamic catalyst for personal empowerment and elevation. The following theses indicate the direction that the ideas are taking. These theses aren’t intended to describe every act of innovation. They are provocative ideals intended as spurs to thought.

Thesis #1: The logic of innovation is: change the part to change the whole. Innovate to change the frame.

Innovation bears upon a specific aspect of the whole. But it should aspire to transform the whole as such. The initial thing is to develop a conception of the whole that you intend to transform. Perhaps this is the set of styles, approaches and techniques employed in your creative discipline. Perhaps it is a restricted set of techniques comprising a creative method. Perhaps it is a commercial market, or the order of practice in a institution or a business unit. It could be a traffic system, a military strategy, or a political culture. Whatever the whole, an aspirational innovation should seek to transform the frame of reference on this context completely. Innovate to change the frame.

Thesis #2: Identify what’s empowering about transforming the whole.

Challenging the order of things is hard. Our thinking is couched within habits and rituals that stifle creative thought. Innovation requires you to break out of all that. It is usually necessary to prepare yourself first.

Think about how the innovation stands to empower you. How might it boost your spirit, kindle new energies, heighten your capacities to act and exist? How might it open up new time-lines and existential possibilities, freeing space on the horizon and reinvigorating life? You’ll need to be fired up and hungry for change to take that soaring leap of imagination beyond the limits of convention. Innovation shouldn’t only transform the whole — it should transform you in the process.

From this I get a third aspirational thesis:

Thesis #3: Innovate to transform your life as a whole.

Commit your person to the process of innovation. Step into the fires of creation — emerge renewed. Innovators shouldn’t lack for ambition.


  1. Joe Rasmussen says:

    Hi Tim,

    I’m signed up to attend Philosophy for Change on Tuesday nights from June 30. I’m reading your stuff in the blog here and wondering if it’s a stretch to go from the areas you are exploring to the debate I want to have. If it is a stretch … well, then maybe I’ll just have to aspire to change the frame.

    In his recent-ish Quarterly Essay, Now Or Never, Tim Flannery gave voice to an idea I’ve been tooling around with for a bit: What if the community that is the internet plus it’s users is in the process of evolving into the thinking organ of Gaia? Flannery mentions this idea and moves on. I want to take it to it’s logical, (maybe crackpot?) extreme.

    Have you noticed that there’s only one computer? Fifteen years ago there were hundreds of millions, now there’s one. And it’s alive, conscious and very smart. Watch this – it passes the Turing test:


    The people and programs are processors and the network and hyperlinks are the nervous system. One brain on one planet.

    OK this is a VERY GOOD THING because the big problem is a tragedy of the commons: When I drive my car to work I get all the benefit – but the car spews carbon dioxide out into the commons, and I only bear one six-billionth of the carbon cost. So I keep driving my car and my bike rusts.

    Now the big computer might have something to say about that. The big computer gets all the benefit (I work in telecommunications infrastructure – so I help build and repair the brain) but it also gets ALL the cost. So the big computer might just reach out and let down the tyres of my car. Question is, how?

    Have you noticed how well-behaved people are in a community like Wikipedia? When I write in a wiki, EVERY time I press save I lay down records to which I can be held accountable. If I flame another editor, or vandalise someone’s work, other users can track back and look at EVERY edit I have made. Was I just having a bad day, or am I always and arsehole? And if I AM always an arsehole – there are community consequences.

    So here is a potential mechanism – the big computer CAN let down my tyres – or rather it can shun me socially – which is many times worse.

    Looking forward to the course,


    Joe Rasmussen.

    • Hi Joe

      The topic that you outline here is one that’s close to my heart. As you may have picked up from the blog, I’m currently working on a short film with an animator friend about how we might use the internet to combat climate change – though Simon and I see the internet as a medium for facilitating grassroots action as opposed to cybernetic control. What you outline here sounds to me like a high-tech Hobbesian solution to the problem of a divided planet, with the big computer taking the place of the sovereign, or becoming sovereign. I favor a more Lockean or Spinozian-flavored approach, where sovereignty resides with the people, who retain the power to kick out the sovereign when the sovereign acts in violation of natural or moral law. My first question to you, then, would be: aren’t you worried that this big computer might become a totalitarian dictator that we couldn’t overthrow? Yes, it’s a totalitarianism that could save the planet – but at what cost? Perhaps, in your view, it’s worth the risk, given what is at stake. I’m not sure… but I’m looking forward to taking to you more about this.

      Regarding how this stuff fits into the P4C course – tangentially at best. In putting this course together, I’ve tried to avoid beating people over the head with my own obsessions and crackpot visions, and to focus instead on the very general issue of how philosophical ideas can have practical application in times of change, helping you become more resilient, future-focused, optimistic, entrepreneurial, and so on. I’m mainly interested in how philosophy can function as a transformative exercise, as it was for philosophers in ancient times. The closest I come to discussing the kinds of ideas expressed in the film is in class six, where we look at Spinoza on friendship and collaboration. But as I say, I’m very interested in the ideas you’ve outlined here, so even if they turn out to be somewhat outside the central realm of concerns in the course, I’d be happy to chew things over with you before or after class, or during coffee breaks.

      I think the P4C website offers a much clearer perspective on the content of the course than the blog itself (which is really just a forum for my occasional ramblings). You’ll find a link on the ‘What is P4C?’ page, if you haven’t already.

      Looking forward to meeting you in June.


      • Joe Rasmussen says:

        Hi Tim,

        You say, “aren’t you worried that this big computer might become a totalitarian dictator that we couldn’t overthrow?” Your comment is in the tradition that runs from Mary Shelly through to the Terminator and Matrix movies. The dystopia is always: “What happens when our creations become more powerful than we are?” The question presupposes a ‘we’ that is separable from our creations. I’d argue there’s a false duality here: We are the big computer.

        … but you are right – I’m certainly proposing a different kind of sovereignty – I have not found another option that allows me to maintain my optimism in the face of the environmental problem. Nation states have the same ‘tragedy of the commons’ problem that afflicts individuals:


        This behavior is both:

        A. Exactly the prediction of game theory in response to probable violence caused by climate change,

        … and,

        B. Nearly guaranteed to destroy us, when aggregated over many nation states.

        I come to a fork in my argument. I might go briefly down one path; then backtrack and explore the other in slightly more space.

        LEFT PATH: Rather than a Matrix-Terminator model of the big computer, I’d like to put up the moment in natural history when single-celled organisms coalesced to form multi-celled organisms. The event shows that an entity that acts as a single unit can evolve from components with disparate ambitions.

        Douglas Hofstadter explores some areas like this in ‘Godel, Escher, Bach’ (also E. O. Wilson) but I aint got space.

        RIGHT PATH: I want to make a typology of government with only two categories. ONE: the government structure that is typical of small village or nomadic groups. This structure occupies a space in a continuum running from humans to the other social animals. Key features are kinship, ‘big-man’ politics, near total mutual knowledge of behavior and group sizes not greater than 150. TWO: All other systems of government. Key features are taxation, a subset of members that is not tied to food production and groups sizes that are not limited to 150.

        What’s with the 150? It turns out that 150 people is about the limit of our ability to monitor the social contract. In traditional groups, when the group size nears or exceeds 150, individual ambitions cannot be governed, and groups tend to fission.

        We come to the funky bit: Traditional groups are outrageously good at managing common property. If you look at actual English commons managed by actual mediaeval English villages, they really weren’t all that tragic. Communities with total knowledge of each other, and deep multi-generational knowledge of their environment, successfully managed property rights to their common property through constantly evolving common law.

        The bugger is that it does not work for groups bigger than 150, except …

        The technology has changed. When you write in a wiki you CAN have total knowledge of the behavior of the editors that you are interacting with – even when the whole community runs into the tens of thousands of members, as it does in Wikipedia.

        My thesis is that governance in a wiki does not fit into either of the categories in the typology of government above,

        … and my utopia is that maybe, maybe, the governance architecture of a wiki might offer the shadow of a mechanism, a way out, a get out of jail card for the environmental problem.



        PS Hey can I make hyperlinks in this editor? Text without hyperlinks is dead. Text WITH hyperlinks is the living tissue of the big computer 🙂

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