Play. Learn. Innovate: Grasping the Social Dynamics of Participatory Innovation

Henrik Sproedt

Research output: ThesisPh.D. thesis


„Play. Learn. Innovate. – Grasping the Social Dynamics of Participatory Innovation“ the title of this thesis describes how the complex interplay of unexpected events led to some burning questions and eventually to this thesis, which one could call an innovation*1*. During several years as a communication designer, a manager in retail, and a consultant I have been involved in several innovation projects from different perspectives. After experiencing that a major factor for success or failure of innovation processes – which always entail change – were people and how they relate to each other, I became curious to understand this from a management perspective. When I did not find any satisfying answers in the world of practice, I decided to return to the world of theory hoping to find answers there. However, I did not. After extensive literature studies mainly in the fields of social capital, organizations, complexity, and knowledge – but also drawing on psychology, sociology, and philosophy – I did not find any satisfying approach that resonated with my complex experiences in innovation practice where in the messy everyday of projects the only thing I knew for sure was that my role and function was interdependent with other people‘s roles and functions and that uncertainty was omnipresent. While I found many interesting and enlightening studies with brilliant concepts, methods and implications in each respective field, they typically either addressed the individual, or the group level, or the institutional level and they often were ignoring or excluding other disciplines and perspectives – in short they seemed unconnected. My impression was – in order to understand why this was the case – I had to go to the very foundations of management thinking – the research philosophy of management.
The aims of my study were to better understand the theoretical foundations and practical implications of complex social interaction in organizational innovation settings. As I did not find any existing models or hypotheses that I was interested in testing I set out to discover how I could grasp complex social interaction across different units of analysis. Drawing on explorative projects I had the opportunity to conduct with students – we involved firms and used interviews and video analysis – I explored different theoretical perspectives in relation to practice. In further workshops and experiments I found evidence that play and games could be interesting perspectives to take in order to understand complex social interaction.
I come to the conclusion that – in innovation settings – the social dynamics that affect the process are essentially about transformation of knowledge across boundaries. I propose a multi-level conceptual framework to understand and analyze social dynamics of participatory innovation in organizations – complementing research on knowledge transformation when facing novelty (Carlile, 2004) and participatory innovation (Buur and Matthews, 2008; Buur and Larsen, 2010). Further, based on this I carve out theoretical and practical links between innovation as a social process across boundaries, play and games, learning, and design in organizational settings. Thus, confirming and complement work in the field of play (e.g. Kaark, 2011; Sandelands, 2010; Mainemelis and Ronson, 2006;), learning and play (e.g. Brown and Vaughaun, 2010; Thomas and Brown, 2011; Kolb and Kolb, 2010), games (e.g. McGonigal, 2011; Mäyrä, 2008), and innovation across knowledge boundaries (e.g. Carlile, 2004; Nicolini et al, 2011; Buur and Matthews, 2008). I clarify how the proposed approach differs from system thinking and game theory – and I provide first evidence for that playful games are promising as a tool, a method, and a process to grasp and research social dynamics of participatory innovation theoretically and practically. I believe that the idea to use playful games in the proposed way is new and can provide new insights in participatory innovation. Further, I argue that this approach opens up promising ways of interdisciplinary research between design and management. Generally, I hope that my playful approach helps to understand social dynamics of participatory innovation and to embrace a new culture of learning as proposed by Thomas and Brown (2011). I see playful games as objects that can help researchers and practitioners to learn together across boundaries and discover new aspects of innovation. The way games can enable that is surprisingly simple – because they can provide shared experiences in a fearless context that allows conversations about innovation to change – thus changing the way we think (and act) about challenges, process, and ourselves.

*1*I think of a modest interpretation of the word – i.e. that in order to be an innovation something does not need to be new to the world but to the context in which it happens.
Original languageEnglish
  • Buur, Jacob, Principal supervisor
Publication statusPublished - 14. May 2012


  • Participatory Innovation
  • Play
  • Knolwegde and Learning
  • Social Capital


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