Experimental innovation across arts and technology

The programmes being piloted by MadLab, Makerversity and NearNow are aiming to test an approach to the development and support of innovation across arts and technology. They are different takes on an ‘innovation-intensification’ process – providing space to develop and test new products and services, and guiding innovators towards a sustainable business model – including the potential for ongoing investment. Continue reading “Experimental innovation across arts and technology”

Hemingway and innovation

Further to my earlier blog on the topic of ‘Failure’ I’ve recently been re-reading Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea.

On the face of it, this is a book about a sailor whose dream of catching the biggest Marlin is sadly dashed, his failure captured by every mouthful the sharks eat of his catch, as he slowly tries to guide it back to land.

But is it really a book about failure?

It’s sad, for sure. Santiago, the fisherman and sailor, is a sad and – by the end – a distressed and fragile figure. His catch, strapped to the side of his boat, is now just a fleshless skeleton and he, surviving for days without food or water, is sick and weather-beaten. But, that skeleton – all 18 feet of it, with a “handsome, beautifully formed” tail – is itself evidence of his achievement and of the battle he fought. As the last sentence states all too clearly: he is still “dreaming about lions” and, indeed, through the boy sitting by his bedside, he has a companion through whom he can share and pass-on his experiences.

As my earlier blog stated, identifying and celebrating ‘failure’ risks privileging the notion of being wrong and being right (in the same way that ‘perfect’ is the enemy of ‘good’). Innovation and improvement are not always about getting things right or getting things wrong – there’s a learning process here and even when one feels beaten, it’s important to acknowledge achievements and to learn. And of course, one should never give up dreaming about cats!

 

The Eight Creative Attributes

In a recent article, Tom Campbell from the KTN drew attention to a range of practices which are deployed by creative professionals in the creative sector, as well as in the wider economy. This is important for, as his piece noted, there are now almost as many people in creative jobs outside of the Creative Industries as there are in those sectors themselves – with 1.7 million employed in the creative industries and a total of 2.6 million in the ‘creative economy’ as a whole (the Creative Economy in this context refers to everyone who has some kind of creative employment).

Despite the scale of creative employment across a number of different sectors (from music teachers to designers in the car industry), our perception is that their significance in driving innovation across the economy is yet to be fully recognised. So what is it that the creative industries – or more accurately, creative people and businesses – can bring to the wider economy? Tom’s article made the case for what he referred to as the Eight Great Creative Practices – explicitly echoing the Government’s affirmation of the Eight Great Technologies. Covering disciplines such as performance, craftsmanship, curation and storytelling, the list attempted to establish a set of practices associated with creative professionals, but which can add value in a wide range of commercial environments.

The eight great creative practices is a useful provocation, but on the basis of reflection and a recent workshop discussion, it might be helpful to focus on more over-arching qualities, those distinctive characteristics that underpin creative practices, skillsets and methodologies. Here then, in the spirit of continuing the debate, are my suggested ‘eight great creative attributes’:

  • Abstraction: the ability to create ‘distance’ between contemporary reality and imagined or alternative futures. Not just to test product ideas, but to take on inherently uncertain, or even taboo, issues
  • Divergent thinking: the ability to be always open to new ideas and to encourage that openness in others.
  • Ambiguity: keeping two opposing ideas in one’s head at the same time, and using that to imagine different/opposed scenarios or options
  • Metaphor: the ability to imagine, envisage and deal with cognitive challenges and problems, not just physical ones.
  • Mediation: working across different disciplines – facilitating translation of contrasting or alien ideas
  • Interactivity: working collaboratively with a diverse range of practitioners to generate and test new ideas
  • Risk-taking: understanding the need to experiment and take on risk, and to manage risk effectively within commercial constraints
  • Resilience: the strength and tenacity to constantly iterate, learn from failures and to re-invent.

 

Evaluation – proving or improving?

Prompted by a great presentation from Jon Hugget, The Social Innovation Partnership hosted a lively discussion on Evaluation and Social Innovation this morning, organised in partnership with Impact Hub Westminster and °directional thinking.

Starting from the premise that too often evidence just gets in the way of innovation, Jon posited the view that the focus of social innovation should be on ‘Improving’ what we do, not trying to ‘Prove’ the validity of what we are doing.

There was broad agreement that the desire to demonstrate robust evidence can sometimes be a barrier to responsive and engaged social action and innovation – and a range of examples were cited of programmes which have succeeded through a commitment to agile and responsive methods of evaluation and learning while the project is progressing: from driving to primary healthcare, safe sex counselling to early years intervention.

Proving Improving
Slow Quick
Objective Subjective
Academic Practice-based
Laborious Responsive
Robust Useful
Longitudinal Immediate

However, all participants acknowledged the value and importance of evidence, and a strong case was made for investment in data-gathering and of understanding impact over the longer-term. Indeed, the point was made that, although funders and commissioners will often rely too heavily on evidence and data which appears detached from practice, this will assist them in being more adventurous and risk-tolerant than practitioners who might be too close to the action to take risks and countenance failure.

But there was remarkable agreement on the need for a more flexible approach, with a call for a broader, more diverse, approach to evaluation and measuring impact. There was a particular emphasis on the importance of drawing in users and practitioners – to be part of a more interactive evaluation process, based on live, ongoing, experience, rather than just longer-term research. A more radical approach was also suggested – one which might invite users and practitioners (rather than funders and commissioners) to drive the process, and shape the measures against which success is determined.

Ultimately, of course, everyone wants to contribute towards social programmes which are ‘proven’ to make things better for the people they’re trying to support, and no-one wants to waste resources on programmes which fail. But for TSIP, and for other partners, social innovation will always require a more agile and dynamic approach where getting things wrong might actually lead to improvement. Placing evaluation at the heart of that ‘improving’ mindset will ensure that those failures drive future change.

Perhaps characteristically, the group called for a ‘learning’ approach – one in which evaluators shared ideas, and were open about what works and what doesn’t. As the first of a series of breakfast sessions, this meeting provided the starting point for such a dialogue with other sessions to come.