Notes on Innovation

Tell us, oh oracle…
(image from Wyron A, via Unsplash)

It’s been about ten years ago now.

I was sitting in an airport gate with a friend, we’d just finished putting on a three-day professional development event for a bunch of higher ed people. I was showing her the current year’s report of assessment project I’d developed for the college I worked for. She was delighted, wanted a copy so that her own college could mimic it. She said, “One of these days I want to sit down and pick your brain about innovation.” And because it was Sunday afternoon and I was tired, I said in my best Yoda voice, “There’s no such thing as innovation. Innovate isn’t a verb.”

“So what’s the verb?”

I thought for half a second. “Re-imagining constraints.”

I’ve had this thought for a long time, but the architects Stephen Kieran and James Timberlake framed it in a very nice way, talking about the difference between innovation and novelty. Novelty is a dime a dozen; any child can do something different than it’s usually done. And most often, novelty is crap, because “the way it’s usually done” has a lot of good reasons behind it. Innovation can only be a judgment assigned after the fact; an action is an innovation if it changes the way that subsequent practitioners think, if it becomes part of the baseline of practice. If, in fact, it becomes part of “the way it’s usually done.”

“…most newness is new in all the same old ways: falsely, as products are said to be new by virtue of minuscule and trivial additions; or vapidly, when the touted differences are pointless; or opportunistically, when alterations are made simply in order to profit from imaginary improvements; or differentially, when newness merely marks a moment, place, or person off from others and gives it its own identity, however dopey.”

William Gass, “Anywhere but Kansas,” 1994

In “Anywhere but Kansas,” novelist and critic William Gass begins by talking about the ways in which readers pick up a story in order to be anyplace other than where they are. It doesn’t matter whether the other place is on an Atlantic whaling ship or in a Milpitas community center, it’s just somewhere other than here. It takes us away, and places us into novelty. Gass then carries that into the similar interests of writers, who themselves inhabit particular landscapes of prose, and he suggests that writers also are looking to be anywhere other than we are, which leads us into our own novelty, our own change for the sake of change.

In architecture and in writing and in higher education, I think, much of novelty fails in the ways that Gass identifies in the paragraph I quoted above. It’s minor, or stylistic, or re-named, or “brand conscious,” or enabled by some new technology. It is, in Gass’ words, “vapid,” because pointless.

Novelty that has any chance of becoming innovation—that is, of being recognized as worthy of understanding and incorporating into our practice—does so because it recognizes that some or another constraint gets in the way of doing what needs to be done. It relieves us from self-imposed limits, it allows us to do what we believe matters most.

The problem with confusing innovation and novelty is that we don’t focus on which constraints matter. Lots of bad design work gets done in grad school because the constraints that are rejected are gravity, or money, or culture. Lots of bad writing gets done in grad school because the constraints that are rejected are chronology, or plot, or motivation, or conclusion.

What if the constraint we rejected was “impressing our thesis committee?”

What if the constraint we rejected was “work that can be accomplished in a semester?”

What if the fact of graduate school was itself the fundamental failure of imagination, and that true innovation could only come through ignoring those demonstrably artificial constraints?

The historian of science Thomas Kuhn launched a thousand unseaworthy ships without ever intending to, with his 1963 essay “On the Structure of Scientific Revolutions.” In this essay, he identified most scientific work as “normal science.” It played by the rules, it followed on from current literature, it accepted a body of knowledge and attempted to push it a little further downfield. As Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes put it, the model was “three yards and a cloud of dust.”

Kuhn instead focused his attention on those moments where scientific consensus was broken and reframed; in particular, on the “quantum revolution” of physics from 1901 to 1912. What was being rejected? Not the facts: not the brute and incontrovertible items of empirical investigation. No, “paradigmatic science” accepted all of those facts, but not the mode of their organization. “This does not mean what you think it means” is the baseline maneuver of the paradigm shift. He claimed that science didn’t fundamentally advance incrementally; it advanced in sudden, jarring shifts between two incommensurate ways of understanding the same agreed-upon phenomena.

Anyway, like I say, this isn’t Kuhn’s fault, but a whole generation of somewhat sloppy thinkers took up the charge of “paradigm change” as a fundamental purpose rather than an outcome of careful deliberation. As an end, rather than a means. “Thinking outside the box” became the fundamental business metaphor of the past fifty years, and most of it has been vapid.

It’s hard to tell the difference between novelty and innovation. In heavy industry, the novelty was moving from a steam or water power source to electricity. But the real innovation was the realization, some years later, that the whole mill didn’t have to be run from one giant power source, that each individual tool could be run by its own dinky little motor. THAT’s the shift in thinking that enabled the contemporary factory.

When you see something new, ask yourself what exactly is different about it. I saw a little video clip the other day about an industrial process that was claimed to be an “innovation” because it did a two-person job with one person. The constraint that was being rejected there was the worth and the dignity of labor. The constraint that was being rejected was of a family being able to pay its rent and groceries.

The most innovative business book of my lifetime was Small is Beautiful, by the British economist E. F. Schumacher. The constraints he rejected were colonialism, and maximization of profit, and the centralization of the rewards of investment. The constraint he accepted was that labor is an expression of the human spirit, that work can be noble when we have some autonomy over its structure and conduct.

When we pursue novelty, we are (as always) involved in a statement of values. The things that we value, we will retain and advance. The things we do not value, we may discard. So think carefully, when you set out to “innovate,” exactly what you do and do not value. Because if it really IS an innovation, others will follow. As Victor Wooten’s mom said (on the record A Show of Hands), “If the whole world was to decide today to follow you… Victor… where would you lead them? You think about that.”

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