I’m a passionate technologist who believes that tech alone will never solve our ills. And while the fashion is currently to claim that “[insert whiz-bang jargon] is the new literacy” (see “Code is the new literacy” from Alex Peake or “Creativity is the new literacy” from SXSW speaker Chase Jarvis), I would posit that good old-fashioned empathy is the only literacy that matters.  Without the ability to grasp the deeply human mechanics behind how and why we engage with the world and others in it, and understand context and constraints apart from those we know first-hand, not even the best innovator can cook up a solution to create positive impact – and with megacities on the rise, swelling middle-class populations demanding the same comforts other industrialized cultures have enjoyed, and limited resources being transformed into unruly stocks of waste, a true human-centered approach is required.

If you’re even a bit skeptical about this, consider the classic consulting lament that the worst thing you can do is spend your time coming up with a brilliant solution to the wrong problem.  How often do innovation efforts focus on developing skills around finding the crux of the matter rather than applying a well-packaged process to solving whatever the client may present? No matter how facile we are at devising solutions, if we don’t know how to FIND (or ask) the right questions and understand the relevant context, we won’t find a solution that sticks – or, I’d argue, is worth wasting time even pursuing. As is too often the case in cutting-edge technology innovation, we become fixated on the capabilities.  But just because we can, does not mean we should - as beautifully illustrated recently with the use of an Oculus Rift for chickens as a way to redefine free-range living.

It begs a short discussion of how we view “empathy” here at Curious Catalyst.  Merriam-Webster defines it as “the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner; also:  the capacity for this.”  We go a bit further and view it as a discipline that requires practice and can indeed be learned.  It’s almost a “Spidey sense” that harnesses intuition in the midst of critical observation – so that mere seeing is transmuted into knowing when something is ripe for disruption.  Often, the simplest innovations are the most profound precisely because they address a real pain point. 


An inspired practitioner of this kind of empathy is Wendy McNaughton, who is known as a “graphic journalist” in addition to a delightful illustrator.  In Meanwhile in San Francisco: the City in Its Own Words, she offers unbiased observation that leads to keen insight around individuals and their complex social patterns.  The book reminds me of a more whimsical version of Thoughtless Acts, the formative visual guide from IDEO’s Jane Fulton Suri – a master of turning empathy into innovation.

Curious Catalyst was founded in part as the result of asking how experience in emerging technologies could be put to better use for our collective good.  And, much as IDEO was the first consulting organization to make anthropologists and ethnographers a central part of cross-functional innovation teams, we need to bring this approach to bear in all of our urban planning and civic decision-making.  Our global village now contains too many different flavors of needs, cultures, and humans co-existing to devise solutions without this critical context.  And this brings us back into the increasingly important realm of systems dynamics and complexity science, which we discussed a bit previously here.

Years ago, I met Monica Rosenthal, a visionary behind the theater built at Inner City Arts in Los Angeles - and what I learned on that site visit has stuck with me.  This unique campus has developed programming that proves the value of different kinds of arts pursuits for some of our most at-risk populations.  According to The Arts and Education: New Opportunities for Research report (Washington, D.C.: Arts Education Partnership, 2004), dramatic arts are particularly effective in strengthening reading, writing, self-confidence, empathy, and tolerance.  Inner City Arts proffers, “in high-poverty communities, empathy can be transformative. If you can act your way into someone else’s skin during a theater production, you can imagine yourself in another world, another life—a life that includes achievement and belonging.”

So, the great news about developing empathy is that anyone can do it, and it’s never too late to start.  It just requires focus and a bit of practice.  What are you waiting for?

AuthorKaz Brecher