icm2re logo. icm2:re (I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything) is an  ongoing web column  by Brunella Longo

This column deals with some aspects of change management processes experienced almost in any industry impacted by the digital revolution: how to select, create, gather, manage, interpret, share data and information either because of internal and usually incremental scope - such learning, educational and re-engineering processes - or because of external forces, like mergers and acquisitions, restructuring goals, new regulations or disruptive technologies.

The title - I Changed My Mind Reviewing Everything - is a tribute to authors and scientists from different disciplinary fields that have illuminated my understanding of intentional change and decision making processes during the last thirty years, explaining how we think - or how we think about the way we think. The logo is a bit of a divertissement, from the latin divertere that means turn in separate ways.


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Is there any ideal pace for innovations?

About the grammar of change and the war on plastic

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). Is there any ideal pace for innovations?About the grammar of change and the war on plastic. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Print)], 8.9 (September).

How to cite this article?
Longo, Brunella (2019). Is there any ideal pace for innovations? About the grammar of change and the war on plastic. icm2re [I Changed my Mind Reviewing Everything ISSN 2059-688X (Online)], 8.9 (September).

London, 21 August 2019 - Contrary to what we tend to perceive, scientific knowledge progresses very slowly and with erratic movements: even the most intelligent and curious human beings are reluctant to change their beliefs and quite lazy at handling the process of intentional learning in their adult life.

We all want to be informed and safe but we tend to stick with what we think is right and cosy. At times, both individuals and societies, make a big switch because it suddenly seems the obvious thing to do.

The english historian and media sociologist Raymond Williams, among others who made similar observations, said that most innovations in communication started in a rudimentary technological form which did not survive their first appearance (Williams, 1974).

For this reason, in all sorts of situations, it seems convenient to manage change introducing smooth, little improvements that do not require enormous effort to learn. The rationale of the "keeping simple" philosophy or stepping stones strategy is that it reduces emotional aversion and cognitive efforts.

There are, however, changes that do not come easy, not even in small chunks. This is the case of substances or behaviours considered perfectly safe and socially acceptable until it turns out that they are actually quite bad. The tobacco industry or burning witches are the perfect examples of what I am saying.

The demand for a "paradigm shift" sparks the needs for change in the public perception of a problem that progresses in society through ripples and waves of contagion, emotional and cognitive conversion until a new way of framing issues and solutions is found - usually employing new ideas, tools, scientific discoveries or combinations and variations of alternative technologies.

Nowadays ripples of change are observed in respect of habits like eating meat or sugars and substances like plastic where an adverse public opinion, calling for more regulation and public interventions, is mounting.

How do we recognise when something is ready for a change, before it is really over? One method employed in R&D and competitive intelligence since long is to identify and monitor inventions and inventors that pick up the seeds of change early on.

It is not so easy done as it said, and sometimes forecasts become clear only in retrospect. Everything is obvious when you know the answer, to quote my friend Duncan Watts. I will return on theories about the pace of change in the next article. But first of all, let's look at one of the exemplar case histories of our time, the so called "war on plastic". Unfortunately, nobody has sponsored this article so far but if you are interested in endorsing it, please do get in touch and I will surely manage to disclose your investment and link the websites of your products and services (I do not despair to engage a proper literary or advertising agent sooner or later).

Watch that guy

In the late 1960s the American architect Frank Gehry, who has recently turned 90, made a sculptural chair, the renowned Wiggle side chair, using a cheap and very unusual material, the corrugated paper cardboard.

Gehry demonstrated that layers of cardboard curved glued and laminated together could become strong and resilient enough to be used as an everyday material for the production of furniture, with amazing aesthetic effects as well.

"I discovered that by alternating the direction of layers of corrugations, the finished board had enough strength to support a small car, and a uniform, velvety texture on all four sides - he told "The Christian Science Monitor" in 1972, according to an article I have dug out browsing Architecturaldigest.com.

"I found I could cut these edge-board sections into geometrical forms, or bend them into sculptural, ribbon-candy folds" he continued explaining the way in which he came to the invention.

To the unskilled observer, it looks like he developed an obsession for those curve shapes and edges.

"He designs buildings by scrunching up pieces of paper" wrote a journalist who interviewed Gehry in 2013 and I totally agree: it looks like the funny shapes and the simple strong concept of the Wiggle Side Chair has permeated most of the designs of his spectacular and original buildings.

Featured as an iconic design object today, manufactured and sold since 1986 by a Swiss company for a global and eclectic or luxury niche, Gehry's one was an extraordinary invention in many ways. For sure, it was ahead of his time: the object was seen as a pretty much unmarketable design and it was also carrying an implicit vision of cheap, reusable and yet beautiful and reliable furniture that I guess must have sounded very awkward at that time.

The common narrative around the Wiggle Side Chair says that the young, frustrated Gehry abandoned furniture design after that early 1970s flop and he returned to architecture - for the glory and triumph of innumerable and celebrated innovative buildings he and his team have designed all around the world.

In spite of having given birth to a design masterpiece, the concept of the Wiggle side chair has never become the everyday, mass market object Gehry would have liked to see adopted across the spectrum of furniture manufacturing. So far.

But what if the ripples of the Wiggle Side Chair concept have eventually turned into a major wave of innovation for the packaging industry, also thanks to the winds of the e-commerce demand for more paper boxes that have been seriously and increasingly blowing for the last twenty years?

There are now entrepreneurs all over the world making a living with the design, online sale and delivery of limited on demand productions of objects all made with corrugated cardboard and for all sorts of purposes.

Fully recyclable and biodegradable versus the "locked in" plastic?

Trying to make a definitive assessment of the carbon footprint from manufacture of packaging materials on a global scale seems at present an hazard: both plastic and cardbox producers have their own arguments in favour of sustainability. Apparently everybody has good reasons for different recycling local policies and future long term perspectives, with massive propaganda ongoing online and offline.

Paper produces more gases. But plastic is destroying the oceans and its impact on marine life is devastating. And so on and so forth.

So in some respects it looks like there is a polarisation of choices and the regulator is unable to set clear directions, in spite of all the pressure on climate change.

The extraordinary growth of e-commerce in the last decade has perhaps made the public opinion more keen on recycling eco-friendly brown boxes - the corrugated cardboard packaging solution of choice - and less keen on having plastics all around.

But how did it happen that such solutions have not come around earlier?

Research into the issue would have been very important in order to understand how to reduce cracking of corrugated board for small packages, in addition to and to complement the evidence provided by Gehry's Wiggle side chair production, from the 1970s onwards.

But experiments with the variations in the creasing of corrugated paperboard could not possibly be made due to the socio-technical pressure that for long time barred and prevented academics and corporate researchers to pursue the matter of how to increase a sustainable production of recyclable paperboard, looking for instance to new ways to treat it mechanically and chemically for the food supply chain - preventing oils contaminations or removing them during the recycling process.

NASA, the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration, together with private companies, decided in the early 1970s for a "preventative" policy to be strictly adopted in the whole of the Food Industry, promoting a scheme called "Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points" to prevent food contamination. Noble purpose, but for actually blocking any further research and development and favouring the adoption of plastic all across the packaging and retailing sectors.

Since then, an international Food Safety Alliance for Packaging (FSAP) has been controlling industry standards and in no way suppliers of packaging to food producing companies could have researched the issue or use the material without providing a "certificate of conformance" and a "letter of guarantee". They were, in practice, disengaged from risks of losing their investment and scared of ending up into litigations for damages.

This type of "preventative" denial of research and usage means, in practice, that many would not even attempt to experiment with a new material.

In 2008 a study from the Department of Mechanical Engineering of Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands (weirdly enough published not by an engineering publisher but in a "Philosophical Magazine"!), showed that over time only a limited amount of research has been carried out on experimental creasing of corrugated boards and comparison with numerical analyses (Thakkar, 2008).

And it took over thirty years for researchers all over the world to seriously start looking into the matter: in 2009 the German Federal Ministry of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection (BMELV), triggered a formal R&D process commissioning investigations into the possible options to reduce substance's migration during recycling processes. Better late than never.

Turmoil in and out the paper box

News from the packaging sector reflect the extraordinary level of turmoil, with lobbying pressure on the regulators and exciting or calming forecasts from all the segments of the industry.

Some stakeholders, surprisingly, would like to see the end of the corrugated box, apparently in favour of more sustainable but "hybrid" materials. Fancy enough, in any sector when people do not actually know how to cope with an embarrassing level of disruption, everybody who has vested interests always turn towards the possibility of hybridisation - that is exactly what is going to happen in any case, doing absolutely nothing.

Others have chosen to escape the fight of what is recyclable and what is not and opted for a more elegant solution, for the time being, consisting of boxes designed to be "reusable" by the consumer, such a pack of chocolate becoming a bird's nest or the like.

Members of the UK Parliament have been listening businesses' representations in several occasions leaning on both sides of the spectrum, maintaining the status quo or slowing down the demand and pace of structural and paradigmatic change urged by environmentalists: calls for a "war on plastic" led to ideas of new taxes on plastic packs or so called "single use" packaging.

On the other side, there are experts warning about the alternatives to plastic not being sustainable enough because, in their opinion, biodegradable materials like paper glass or aluminium would actually cause more and not less carbon emissions, more pollution due to increased transports' for instance and more costs due to the need to handle different materials. These increased costs would arise from inefficiencies: there is no ready infrastructure in place, they say, to handle compostable and biodegradable waste truly separately from other recyclable and not recyclable materials.

Against the "plastic demonisation" stands the argument that manufacture of paper based packaging requires lot of water. But sustainable forestry experts say the opposite, demonstrating that paper based packs can be recycled infinitely and safely, making the most convenient use of natural resources in the long term.

Calls for more "collaboration along the supply chain", more lobbying, more research, more acceleration, more delays, and more excuses! seem to have reached their exhaustion point.

The public opinion has been already poisoned in the last century with the "scientific evidence" war: the tobacco industry has adopted a "lazy scientist" strategy to delay change for decades, recruiting opinion leaders all across the academic worlds and the arts. What a shame. Anyhow, smoking has been banned.

All in all, there is a massive amount of evidence that paper-based packs work better even in areas - such as food - where health and safety concerns have instrumentally been exploited to delay research and progress for long time: nowadays, for instance, corrugated trays are considered better than plastic boxes to handle fruit and vegetables and several big and little names in the retailing sectors have understood the time of change is now.

In sum, the industry has now better knowledge and processes in places and it could now manage and avoid the risks of contamination. Nonetheless the packaging sector is facing the typical innovation crossroad: one way leads to extinction, the other to desperation. Nothing can remain the same.

At any rate, the acceleration of consumers towards environmental solutions we have seen spreading in recent years shows they have got a clue in spite of the hesitation of regulators and experts: the attention and sensitiveness of the average educated consumer have shifted. Big brands have understood and overall moved towards paper-based packaging solutions and other sustainable, hybridised, materials.

Conclusions

There is no ideal pace for innovations but change has a grammar that even the most brilliant minds of engineers and technologists, often too fond of their own creatures, tend to ignore or to underestimate. I mentioned in previous articles how the current information overload frustrates genuine learning curves in innumerable situations, preventing people from seeing new technologies and trends coming over.

Change management means noticing, understanding, delaying or accelerating the pace of change with a purpose and without harming others. Shortly, it means adapting in spite of having vested interests and before it is too late to have a say.

What can be done to stop plastic pollution on the planet as soon as possible is undoubtedly a question that afflicts and engages many people at present, and all around the globe.

The "war on plastic" is an exemplar case history of our times, embedding industrial and policy problems, values and possible solutions that characterise the mature, digital, informational rich capitalism we live in.

If it is true that when we deal with complex matters of facts and beliefs - human health, justice or the environment - delaying change is the same as denying it, the "extinction rebellion" activists do have a reason for their extreme forms of disruptive and annoying, and yet essentially pacific, protests.

I like to think Frank Gehry can seat back on one of his chairs of corrugated paperboard and have a laugh.

References

Williams, R.(1974), Television, technology and cultural form.

Thakkar, B K et al (2008), Experimental and numerical investigation of creasing in corrugated paperboard, Philosophical Magazine, vol.88, no.28-29 , p. 3299-310.