People-Centered Innovation, book review and reflexions

OliveiraCoverWebWhat can anthropologists do outside the academia, especially in the private sector? It is a tricky question to which this book offers answers, exemplified by detailed cases the author faced as a professional anthropologist. Halfway between biography and an anthropology essay, Oliveira presents his professional career within the last five years, as he switched from being a clinical psychologist to a practitioner in innovation research. Over the pages, we follow the evolution of his thoughts as he conducts different ethnographical researches and eventually co-creation workshops: from crisps consumption to wine, going through cryopreservation to promotions in shopping center to achieve in the technology sector.

The narrative strategy used not only makes this book a page-turner, but provides a good frame to understand his thoughts in progress. Being a clinical psychologist at the beginning, the author demonstrates how his discipline, normally seen as the most individual-centered one, is in fact disconnected from their very needs.

The system is system-centered rather than people-centered and there isn’t much that I can do about it. I can no longer contribute to this. I’m going to business research (p.17)

Wanting to do a more people-centered practice, he will chose to return to anthropology (discipline in which he has a Ph.D). Thereafter we will follow him through his different experiences and learning, from his first position as a consumer research anthropologist to his later.

This is an appealing reading for the aspiring applied anthropologist (as I am) since the transition from the academy to market can be difficult and arise questions. The book offers good reflections about this matter in a very reflexive and inspiring way; I could easily relate to the author since I am facing to a similar situation.

All over the book, Oliveira demonstrates the huge potential of ethnography in consumer research. For example, to study crisp consumption, he made participant observation within families around the dinner experience and asked questions about their habits and perception of different aspects surrounding alimentation. He will then show the usefulness of co-creation, a nowadays trendy practice involving exchanges between different agents (consumers, product makers, clerks, etc.) to obtain a more exhaustive and representative view of a phenomenon. Co-creation, he said, needs to be informed by ethnography (or other empirical data), otherwise, the experience would not be fruitful. His study of wine, as another example, resulted in new insights about the perception of different products. They (as a team) thereafter used the gathered data to create personas of consumers. This way, they could present concrete examples of wine perception to their client leading to an effective co-creation workshop so they could relate to these same personas.

Moreover, all these cases reflects the full deployment of anthropology knowledge within different situations. Oliveira clearly shows that anthropology in business is not only about methods, but also about intuition and knowledge. The practitioner needs to adapt to different situations and learn from them: he cannot solely base on one-way given solutions/explanations. All presented cases were different and the author clearly reflected his adaption through the different phenomena he had to make sense of. Unlike academic works, where you often have to stick to a unique approach and endorse it, he argues that the business anthropologist has to benefit from all the available tools he has. Oliveira named this process “epistemic transfer”: transfer being the most valuable skill anthropologist has so he can adapt to various situation and find compelling insights.

[…] by ‘epistemic transfer’, I mean a mode of knowing the world that doesn’t belong to inherently to the anthropologist but that emerges in the anthropologist as a function of hanging out with research participants, noting their words, observing their practices, participating in them and learning all the way through. (p.152)

Returning to our initial question, People-Centered Innovation clearly enlightens what anthropologists can bring to business when it comes to understand consumers. Organizations tend to enforce their own vision of innovation and what should be done inherently: Oliveira name this process defensive thinking. Ethnography has the potential to break this pattern by introducing other perspectives since consumers also have solutions, based on their own needs. This way, ethnography-based co-creation can put forward an intersection where different visions of the same object can dialogue, leading to more people-centered decisions.


Co-creation is often seen as the new panacea here in Montreal: almost every consultants now offer co-creation/co-design services. The problem, and Oliveira perfectly shown it, is that co-creation must be informed by empirical data and should not be considered as an end itself. Co-creation is a tool (a mean) to put into perspective different visions of the same object. However, the presented examples shown that the anthropologist must bring out those different visions since marketers and other businessmen do not (or cannot) have the same proximity with consumers.

I profoundly believe in collective intelligence and think that significant innovations in organizations are more likely to emerge if they rely on people. As cultural anthropologists, we base our studies on people and what they have to say on their practices and beliefs. However, basing our studies on people does not mean only transmuting what they say. We are not credulous: a work of translation and sensemaking is needed to extract meaningful information.

Moreover, we cannot only rely on the sharing process: it is important to take account of the structure and play with it, to create a propitious context for sharing. Putting people in a same room while telling them to “exchange” on a given idea, as in brainstorming, is not a proper way to do so and this is why an empirically informed co-creation has a better potential.

Finally, this was a really inspiring reading and I suggest it to any anthropologist who wants to join the applied anthropology field in business or any practitioner interested by the amalgam of anthropology and design.

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