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We tend to spend some of our time in contemplation around the turn of the year, especially this year. Before we begin our innovation plans for 2022, I’d like to talk about the role that hands play in innovation.

Just as people like to look at real estate property sites like Funda when they are not looking for a house, I like to look at job vacancies when I am not necessarily looking for a job. Vacancies about innovation are almost always accompanied by the word ‘digital’. For me, that’s the moment to switch off. I want to create for, and with, physical reality, not virtual reality.

We do more and more with our heads and less and less with our hands. Our hearts fluctuate a bit in between. Why is that?

The head

Since the Enlightenment, the importance of the rationale, the head, has become increasingly central. Although innovating is not only (or merely not?) a rational activity, we go about innovating in a fairly rational way.

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Even as a trainer of creative thinking – which doesn’t really exist, but that’s another story – I teach others how to tap into their creativity in a conscious way, which also means being rational, using reason. That comes in handy, because then you can use it when it’s needed. Nowadays, we use it to innovate.

The heart

In Romanticism, there was resistance to the head. It fought for the value of emotion, the heart. However, the heart could not win against the tremendous power of the head.

Head and heart

In the meantime, we are able to show with empirical science (reason) that humans are also irrational beings. We can declare that it is logical to be illogical. An awesome paradox!

Likewise, in the world of innovation, the heart is regaining its place. After all, we innovate out of empathy. We create experiences. Those experiences have to be lived with head and heart. Within the design world, there is a movement called Design for Emotion:: how can we make people experience a certain emotion? It does, however, lean towards being a manipulative form of innovation.

While we are being so wonderfully dual with head and heart, I am just thinking: what about our hands?

Experiencing material reality, literally

While on vacation in the desert, our car got stuck in the sand. A real tourist mistake. All of us had to push the car to get it loose. We then drove on as proud as peacocks. We had ‘ticked’ that off nicely Then we bumped into that certain rock, you know, the one with the donkey. This time pushing did not help.

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A nice Arab told us that it happened more often. He also had all the tools in his 4×4 to pull our Sedan out of the sand. How did we end up there in the first place? he asked. That’s when finally noticed that there were only all-terrain vehicles driving there.

Digging away the sand in front of the wheels with your hands. Pushing against a car that is just a bit too hot. The wind whipping around like a bully. No one can tell me that such an experience would have been the same if it was digital …

The nostalgia of hands

Everyone knows those irritating store assistants in the toy store, who will tell you as a child: “Look with your eyes.” Ugh. Blah. You can look with your eyes, but experiencing something is done with your hands. I needed to pick up a new craft set. Pretty obvious.

At the faculty where I now work and also used to study, the workbenches have been replaced with computer tables. To understand how a design functions in material reality, we had to design and make a crosscut saw from start to finish. That included designing and soldering an electronic circuit. We first made the molds out of MDF on the lathe and using the milling machine, and then we vacuum-molded and semi-professionally injection-molded them.

When you were almost finished, we then found out that we had made it in the mirror image. It was a semester of toiling from 7:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening in the workshop. But then that moment came, when you had a power tool. That you could touch, that really worked. That was so cool.

2022: Creating with the use of hands

Reports come out one after another about the loss of autonomy and empathy due to our screen addiction. We tell our children that they are gaming too much, tik-tokking too much or doing I don’t know what behind a screen: “Experience something in the real world! Go DO something!” we tell them.

But what are we doing ourselves?

We are innovating primarily for that virtual world, while we ourselves are stuck behind a screen as well (as I am myself right now).

In 2022 I would like to see job vacancies for innovation where hands are involved in material reality, and without the addition of the term ‘digital’ to the text. Thank you very much! 

About this column:

In a weekly column, alternately written by Willemijn Brouwer, Eveline van Zeeland, Eugène Franken, Helen Kardan, Katleen Gabriels, Carina Weijma, Bernd Maier-Leppla and Colinda de Beer, Innovation Origins tries to figure out what the future will look like. These columnists, sometimes joined by guest bloggers, are all working in their own way to find solutions to the problems of our time. So tomorrow will be good. Here are all the previous articles.

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About the author

Author profile picture Willemijn Brouwer's mission is to unmask all facets of creativity and design. She writes with the credo: who wants to design the future must know the history. Willemijn works as a lecturer at TU Delft and as an independent trainer/consultant.