November 2009

"In the art of the early Renaissance...the starting point is to be found mostly not in the creative urge, the subjective self-expression and spontaneous inspiration of the artist, but in the task set by the customer."

Arnold Hauser, The Social History of Art

Radical technologies can lead to extreme transformations of their users and even societies. Innovation researchers, archeologists, economic- and technological historians, and other scholars have studied past radical innovations to rationalize how these innovations emerged. This knowledge is indispensible for business and governmental decision makers. However, most research studies lack the human dimensions, such as "what did these innovative people think?" and "what were their personal motivations?". In many instances, we don't even know who the inventors were. In this article, we argue that a better understanding of personal transformations may lead to an increase of co-creation effectiveness and efficiency.

First, this article will explore the nature of the personal transformations taking place among ordinary people as consumers and users of cultural institutions. Such institutions have been created to enable people to learn and grow individually and to create a sense of community and cohesion. Second, we discuss the co-creation aspects of personal transformation processes. This will be seen in two contexts: that of the individual who is transformed, and in terms of the different value contributions to a community of users.


Our main purpose is to use a co-creation perspective to explore how individual personal transformations take place at a micro level and how they may affect structural change at a macro level. Consumer research is mainly concerned about how consumers build on a set of personal and pre-existing criteria, explore existing options, evaluate them and then select the best alternative. Most economic theory assumes the existence of two types of preferences: exogenous and given. What is more interesting is how consumers find their criteria in the first place. Some people dislike a particular food or drink. Others do not want to hear an opera or visit an art gallery. Yet many change from disliking to loving certain forms of food or art. An "acquired taste" can be a painful and emotional process, such as learning to drink coffee or to smoke. Life consists of a large number of personal changes which may be called transformations since there is no change of the person, but there is a new preference that is considered to be part of that same person. The term transformation was discussed by William James in The Varieties of Religious Experience: "To be converted, to be regenerated, to receive grace, to experience religion, to gain an assurance, are so many phrases which denote the process, gradual or sudden, by which a self hitherto divided, and consciously wrong inferior and unhappy, becomes unified, and consciously right superior and happy, in consequence of its firmer hold on religious realities".

Religion does not play a vital role in our exploration, but the experiences provided by modern cultural and scientific institutions may offer experiences like the ones James described. With globalization, exposure to other cultures, and the tremendous aggregate forces seen in a global economy, the nature and processes of personal transformations become increasingly important at both the micro- and the macro-levels.

Historical and Modern Examples of User Transformations

It may seem strange that a major social science like economics almost totally ignores the role of transformations at an individual level, given the fact that economic history is full of examples of such transformations. Transformations have always been part of our human condition.

Hieroglyph and paper transformed information transfer from verbal deliveries and wall inscriptions into a highly mobile information system. Gutenberg's printing technique changed completely the way knowledge was diffused among a population, making schools and literacy affordable to the masses. Modes of transportation emerged through the last two thousand years, only to be replaced by railroads, automobiles and airplanes, completely changing the nature of mobility and the concepts of place and space. Electro-magnetism became the generic condition for all modern communication technology: telegraph, telephone, radio, Internet and television.

While the transformations of the past took place over many generations, a single generation today may experience several transformations. The pace of technological and commercial development may be documented through recent business cases of transforming products. The SONY walkman emerged in the 1980s, to be followed by the Discman. Apple is another salient example with the Personal Computer in the 1970s, the Newton handheld computer device in the 1990s, followed by the iPod and iPhone.

IKEA provides an example of empowerment of the masses in deciding how their homes should be designed. IKEA supplies both the building elements and demos to inspire this personal approach to interior home design.

Nautilus started in the 1990s to offer physical exercise to a population that no longer had to live from physical work, and whose altered metabolism created problems of obesity and heart disease. A body-building culture emerged and good athletic health is now an important transformation for most people, and only possible within a co-creation environment.

A number of organizations are devoted to exploring the role and value of personal user transformations and there is an increasing understanding that the successful management of such transformations will become a factor of growth in the future. In particular, when the "event and experience-culture" becomes less attractive, various forms of transformations will become more attractive. It is increasingly valuable for the decision makers and the multiple actors involved in the creation of future wealth and welfare to explore what the growing body of knowledge about transformations can offer for a highly educated society.

What is a Transformation?

A transformation is a change in the basic set of personal criteria due to a process where the single individual interacts with a cultural system of meaning. An individual may see culture as a set of tools for orientation and criteria for what to like and dislike at a personal level.

In dealing with transformation, the question about the interaction between the subject and object of experience becomes relevant. For example, Reber, Schwarz and Winkielman argue that beauty occurs in the interaction between the active perceiver and the object. The question of beauty becomes dependent on both, and the act of perceiving beauty becomes an act of co-creation. The perceiver adds or creates value in relation to the specific context and the specific object. When we speak of acquired taste, the assumption is that the experience is both demanding and part of a learning process, often requiring learning of new skills.

Taking a university degree has all the elements of a transformation. A person is willing to undergo a long and sometimes painful period of learning, to be tested, and finally graduate under a ceremony to signify that the candidate is now a member of a new constituency and able to take new challenges. Prospective students are willing to sacrifice other interests to follow courses and hard exercises that they have no certainty they will ever use. They are willing to accept the authority and rules set by others. After this transformation, the person is likely to have changed their preferences and interests for life.

Most transformations share some characteristics with education. To become a first class actor or dancer requires intensive training; to become a devoted admirer of such performances can also be characterized as a transformation. Most people, when exposed for the first time to an opera, may dislike the performance. However, after substantial exposure, their preferences may change so that they become devoted admirers.

To summarize, a consumer transformation changes the character of a need. To a large extent, this is due to consumer learning and adaptation due to experiences in which the active presence of people staging the experience and the community of users play a critical role. In this sense, transformations become a co-creational phenomenon.

According to Becker, the concept of transformational participation follows phases. The first is learning, which may require advice from an experienced user. Bodily sensation is the second. Sensation may be unpleasant and require an experienced person to facilitate "sense making". Conversation with other people is often essential to support this sense-making. Had Becker been a marketing scholar, he would have included a first element of market communication or branding.

Consumers may seek transformational gratifications, but the "pleasures of the body" have to turn into "pleasures of the mind" before the transformation is complete. There are three motives that dominate the discussions in research literature. The first is curiosity. Virtuosity is the second motive, which is the ability to excel in whatever one chooses. The satisfaction comes with the fluent experience and only after trials and errors. The third motivation is social gratification. While this may be expressed through association with brands, most people strive for acceptance and respect. A transformation is very often staged and it seems essential that it is an individual experience, although the role of the community is critical.

The experience leading to a transformation may be weak or strong, brief or lengthy. It is possible to remain alone, but usually experiences become deeper if other people are present. An interesting issue is how the anchoring material differs from transformation to transformation. For example, it could be found in the designated space or in the cognitive tools. In every specific case, there seems to be a particular "subject-object relation" which is case-specific.

Co-creation in the Cultural Economy

The providers of cultural products or services must deliver satisfaction at prices that at least cover costs to survive. Profitability and sustainability represent serious issues in the cultural economy where many theatres, clubs, and film producers compete and where outside support, usually from governmental subsidies, enables them to survive. In Scandinavian countries, such support is considered part of government's responsibility and is integral to cultural institutions' business models. The value co-creation aspect of such business models may also imply various forms of shared economic inputs; for instance, different types of cooperation between various arts or companies.

Another aspect of value co-creation in cultural institutions concerns the acceptance of the individual person in a community. When transformations lead to acceptance and wider diffusion and imitation, value is created on a societal scale and has an additional participatory component. For example, after a broadcast performance, people find themes for talk when they meet the next day. Research has shown that people talk about what has happened by identifying themselves with or distancing themselves from various characters. This brings the drama up to a level where it adds to the "big story" that creates cohesion and coherence in a nation. This network value effect is a key component in any value co-creation phenomenon.

Insights about Personal Transformations

We summarize transformations as follows:

  • a transformation is a designed experience for an individual who seeks a sensory experience, an intellectual or virtuous challenge, or an intellectual or artistic insight

  • a transformation releases strong feelings and activates one's identity

  • transformations are materially anchored in objects and artifacts such as LEGO, TV Fiction, or the physical architecture in a theater

  • a transformation has a ritual that marks a transition

  • a transformation means the acquisition of a certain insight, virtuosity, or acceptance in a community

  • a transformation is relatively irreversible, but can be lost or removed by a legitimate authority

  • there is a causal connection between the transformation of the individual and the cohesion and integration in a society

One might ask what this means for current business. It seems likely that transformation is a pattern for substantial innovation. This is understood by companies like Apple whose customers are surprised by what their new products can do for people. Getting the first customers and users to realize this potential is what sets the processes of networks in motion. The trick is getting new users to actually try the innovation and voice their opinions. If this is successful, the next critical step is building the social processes through marketing. By marketing we do not mean advertising, but all the forms of events, happenings and demos that fall under the name of "buzz-marketing". The issue is to involve future users in a tangible experience. Multiple venues and multi-level action are required, because people in one network may be isolated from others.

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