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Creativity on Demand

The Dilemmas of Innovation in an Accelerated Age

Creativity on Demand

The Dilemmas of Innovation in an Accelerated Age

Business consultants everywhere preach the benefits of innovation—and promise to help businesses reap them. A trendy industry, this type of consulting generates courses, workshops, books, and conferences that all claim to hold the secrets of success. But what promises does the notion of innovation entail? What is it about the ideology and practice of business innovation that has made these firms so successful at selling their services to everyone from small start-ups to Fortune 500 companies? And most important, what does business innovation actually mean for work and our economy today?
In Creativity on Demand, cultural anthropologist Eitan Wilf seeks to answer these questions by returning to the fundamental and pervasive expectation of continual innovation. Wilf focuses a keen eye on how our obsession with ceaseless innovation stems from the long-standing value of acceleration in capitalist society. Based on ethnographic work with innovation consultants in the United States, he reveals, among other surprises, how routine the culture of innovation actually is. Procedures and strategies are repeated in a formulaic way, and imagination is harnessed as a new professional ethos, not always to generate genuinely new thinking, but to produce predictable signs of continual change. A masterful look at the contradictions of our capitalist age, Creativity on Demand is a model for the anthropological study of our cultures of work.

240 pages | 6 halftones | 6 x 9 | © 2019

Anthropology: Cultural and Social Anthropology

Sociology: Occupations, Professions, Work, Theory and Sociology of Knowledge


"Wilf opens the vast world of innovation consulting in today's capitalism to anthropological analysis. Rather than simply repeat, for instance, the common story of how 3M accidentally invented the wildly successful Post-it Note, Wilf explores a world in which consulting firms use the Post-it example, along with dozens of actual Post-its of various shapes and sizes, in their attempts to foster intentional, routine creativity among their corporate clients. By carefully unpacking workshop interactions, how-to guides, and much more, Wilf shows that innovation consulting has become a central cultural logic of contemporary capitalism, a practice that firms often believe they cannot survive without, even as they just as often doubt its efficacy. While the analysis is sophisticated throughout, ranging widely through theories of cultural change, commodity fetishism, language practices, and more, the main points will be quite understandable to less theoretically inclined readers interested in the actual practice (as opposed to insistent ideologies) of 21st-century capitalism. Creativity on Demand is a useful addition to scholarship and courses in a number of fields beyond anthropology, including design, management, and political economy."


"Creativity on Demand approaches innovation as something that consultancies sell to companies that think that they need it if they are to stay ahead of the pack, or at least not fall behind. The volume, then, is not about what innovation is in any neutral sense, but is about what those consultancies advertise: a concept of what the innovative company is and a set of courses that teach people how to innovate and companies how to encourage it. . . . This is an intriguing analysis of an important aspect of contemporary business beliefs and practices."

Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute

Creativity on Demand is an excellent contribution to the subfields of anthropology of work, business anthropology, and economic anthropology.”


“Attentive, engaging, and highly innovative, Creativity on Demand brings an acute ethnographic sensibility to bear on the making of the ‘new’ in contemporary corporate life, showing us, in the process, how anthropology can help us better understand our present-day condition. This is a singularly thought-provoking read.”

Don Brenneis, University of California, Santa Cruz

“I’ve been waiting for years for a book like this to come along. Using an approach that neither celebrates innovation nor dismisses it, Creativity on Demand is the first extended critical exploration of a concept with a lot of social force behind it, but—until now—not much ethnographic light illuminating its inner workings. Anyone interested in the political economy of operationalized creativity will find something to run with in this book.”

Keith Murphy, University of California, Irvine

“Creativity on Demand shines an ethnographic light on the ceaseless production of newness as a quality of contemporary ‘fast’ capitalism. Wilf’s work with innovation consultants is an important contribution to anthropological and other critical studies of business.”

Andrew Orta, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Table of Contents


Introduction: The Ubiquity and Ambiguity of Routinized Business Innovation

1 Robinson Crusoe in Manhattan: Planned Accidents Are Good to Innovate With
2 “Putting This Mess into a Structure”: Cultural Contradictions and Discursive Resolutions
3 “Listening to the Voice of the Product”: Human Creativity Displaced
4 The Post-it Note Economy: Understanding Post-Fordist Business Innovation
5 Clutter: Unpacking the Stuff of Business Innovation
6 “Life Design”: The Omnivorous Logic of Business Innovation
Conclusion: Institutional Myths of Innovation

List of References

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