Innovation – Don Quixote’s Army

From several directions I’ve encountered a set of messages, converging from Twitter, email, and conversation all focused on some aspect of innovation. The general theme is “why it is so hard?”.   A succinct summary to that point was made recently by Terry Cutler:

Innovation is  “a deliberate and thoughtful act of defiance against the status quo in order to make a difference.”

This was complemented by a colleague writing in a discussion list about the ambivalence of educators to adopt technologies in their teaching.  He reminded us that Neal Postman had something to say of relevance here,

Postman used to say that it’s the job of university professors to teach AGAINST THE CULTURE.  (Ed Lamoureux)

Innovation pushes you outside your comfort zone. Those who are uneasy with ambiguity or uncertainty have particular trouble with this sensation. The problem is that creativity or at least the talk about it has become a positive cultural norm – that is, not the act itself but the rhetoric around it. We espouse the value of creativity, but it makes us uncomfortable so in the same breath that we advocate for it, when it is expressed in new ways to do something that touches us, we revert to caution and express concern for risks and the negative impacts that might be caused. Not that they will, or that  there really is danger or damage imminently on the horizon if the innovation is pursued, just that it might be horrible because there is a potential for things to go wrong, and that needs to responsibly be avoided.

Jennifer Mueller, Shimul Melwan, and Jack A. Goncal, authors of the paper “The Bias Against Creativity: Why People Desire But Reject Creative Ideas” in DigitalCommons @ IRL, wrote

…if people hold an implicit bias against creativity, then we cannot assume that organisations, institutions or even scientific endeavours will desire and recognise creative ideas even when they explicitly state they want them.

All of this was summarised nicely in the blog by Stephen Machette, writing in of all places the blogs of the Australian newspaper (a publication I no longer read regularly because of its unrelenting bias against the reality of climate change and human contributions to it), entitled “No One Likes a Smart Innovator”.  The sad reality is that it is very true to the mark.

In universities everywhere I suspect, but certainly where I have current first-hand knowledge, the reaction to a radical course redesign that is supported enthusiastically and fully by the faculty can run into deep opposition among senior university leadership. It is too much change, too fast, putting too many students at risk, or so the response is often articulated. Why, one might be asked, couldn’t you just do one or two tweaks to the course and teach everything else the same? But that’s the problem with change – you do it or you don’t. It’s hard to innovate half way.

Yes there is risk. Yes it could fail to work out as intended. The risk is minimised because the faculty teaching and proposing innovations are committed and responsible. They will do their utmost to avoid diaster if they really believe that’s where they’re heading. But they’re equally passionate about the potential upside for the course redesign and it’s benefit to students. That in itself will mitigate even those changes that may when tried turn out to be less than we hope.

I’m reminded of a wonderful saying attributed to “Doc” Edgerton, the father of high speed photography among other things.  He said

That’s the nature of research–you don’t know what in hell you’re doing.

That’s true though “Doc” was exaggerating to make his point. Good research is in fact based on deep inquiry that sits on a sound, but unfinished framework. The best research re-shapes the framework itself.  Recent findings from CERN have experimentally rejected much of  ‘string theory’,  with experimental physicists finally having an instrument to collect data that allows them to now tell their theoretical colleagues , think of something else because the predictions from string theory aren’t substantiated by experimental data.

We face times that need innovation more than ever. We have to embrace the ‘mindfulness’ of openness, questioning what we ‘know’ and what authority says must be.  Without that we’re in for a long slow descent.

— pdl–

About longpd

I'm a senior scholar at Georgetown University, in CNDLS, a technologist and lapsed evolutionary biologist with an incandescent passion for new modes of seeing and learning.
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