Wellbeing as an ultimate end

In my previous post I wrote about my ambition to help to (better) focus innovation projects on promoting people’s wellbeing. This begs the following questions: What is currently wrong with these projects? And what could be done differently? I will address these questions in the next couple of posts.

Many innovation projects aim to develop technology—a product, a machine, a system, a ‘thing’. Technology, however, cannot be an end in itself. It is always a means towards an end. Therefor, we need to focus on the ends which we want to achieve with the technology we develop. We may aim to realize a sustainable energy system or to promote people’s wellbeing—to name but a few. An explicit focus on a specific and practical end, e.g., to promote healthy dietary choices in teenagers, is likely to improve the quality of decision making in a project and thus the quality of its results. Project team members can then more clearly focus on this end, rather than on the ‘thing’ they work on.

I am inspired by Aristotle’s plea to focus on ultimate ends: to focus our activities—in our case: working in an innovation project—on the ultimate end to enable people to flourish.

Now, how can our innovation projects promote people’s wellbeing? Probably not by on saying ‘thou shalt be happy’. Not by blueprinting exactly what people should do. Not by imposing my ideas on ‘the good life’ on others. But rather by creating enabling and empowering conditions for people to flourish. Each person in her or his unique way.

This is the key idea of the Capability Approach (CA), which was developed by economist Amartya Sen and philosopher Martha Nussbaum. It aims to enable and empower people to expand relevant human capabilities, so they can live lives that they value and have reason to value. Examples of such capabilities are: being able to have good health, to be adequately nourished, or to have adequate shelter (here is a list of 10 central capabilities).

The CA focuses on human development, which reduces the risk of paying too much attention to ‘things’. ‘Things’ receive attention only to the extent that they contribute to promoting wellbeing. A focus on the capability to drink fresh water would entail a focus on building wells, and also on maintenance and on cultural acceptability of new social practices, e.g., of women walking on foot to these wells.

Furthermore, the CA focuses on freedom, on creating conditions in which people can freely choose capabilities to develop so they can live different versions of ‘the good life’. This reduces the risk of prescribing specific behaviours. A focus on the capability to freely move around would entail a focus on creating enabling conditions also for people with different physical or cognitive abilities.

Moreover, the CA will enable people to participate actively and creatively in the project, in problem definition, in solution finding, and also in the adoption and implementation phases—in line with the social innovation approach, which aims to solve social problems by developing social interventions and changing social processes.

So, what would be my proposal to organize innovation projects differently?

I would love to see project managers, team members, project partners and stakeholders discuss the ultimate goals of their project in terms of enabling specific people to develop specific capabilities: ‘Project-P aims to enable an X-amount of people of group-G to develop capability-C, so that it improves with a Factor-F’. This goal can then be monitored during the project’s iterative cycles, and the project can then be steered towards this goal.

Do you work in innovation projects? Do you want to focus your work on promoting people’s wellbeing? What do you think, will it help you to articulate specific goals?