What makes innovation possible?



We all value innovation, or at least we say we do. A question I seldom see answered or even asked, however, is what makes innovation possible? The question, what makes something possible, is often a philosophical one and it’s an important question to ask. In the case of most any innovation in knowledge the answer we often hear pertains to institutions—universities in particular—and the policies and supports that those institutions put in place to promote cutting-edge research, policies that bear especially but not exclusively upon the distribution of funding. Innovation requires money and a great deal of it, or so we often hear. This view undoubtedly holds a certain amount of truth in the case of the natural sciences and technology, but I doubt it’s the whole truth. Then we have the many disciplines of the social sciences, the arts, and the humanities—what makes innovation possible there? We often hear the same answer: it’s mostly about money. I’m going to outline what I believe are a few of the more important preconditions of innovation taken generally, none of which have anything to do with money or institutional measures at all. Innovators typically are individuals or small groups of individuals, not institutions. These individuals often work for institutions, but let’s not confuse being employed with taking direction. Committees and collective bodies of just about any kind are almost constitutionally incapable of innovation. Their constant tendency is to conform to procedures, to take direction from other collective bodies, administrators, consultants, and lawyers, and to play it safe. Innovation and playing it safe are about as opposed to each other as any two things in the world.

I’m going to say that the first precondition of innovation, and possibly the hardest one to realize, is plain old courage. If you spend time worrying about how something you say or write is going to be received, that worry will prevent you from saying anything at all. If you’re afraid of a negative reaction, which could be anything from an unfavorable book review to being cancelled, you’ll publish nothing, or worse, you’ll say what you think someone wants to hear. The thought, “what are they going to say about this, or about me?” should not enter your mind. Many who claim to value innovation probably don’t really value it at all; what many of them want is to hear what they already believe repeated back to them, maybe repackaged or refined but not fundamentally altered or questioned. Innovators don’t care about this. They do their work and let the chips fall where they may.

The second condition is a theme that I’ve talked about here before, and it’s freedom—specifically the freedom to work without the distractions and the nonsense that come with institutional employment. It has long seemed to me that what the researchers who do the kind of work that we tend to think of as innovative want most is to be left alone to do whatever it is that they do. They don’t need to be showered with grants, rewards, or awards. They don’t need that and they probably don’t care about it. What they need is for others not to get in their way. This kind of personality tends to be a self-starter and they typically don’t respond to incentives and disincentives. They’re not worker bees. They probably don’t have an open-door policy. Their door is more likely to be closed so that they can work in their office or lab without distraction.

Any good university has what’s called a research services department. I’ve been at my university for nineteen years now, I’ve written my share of books (one might even say more), and I’ve had no contact with them. I had to go on their website just now to find out where they’re located and what they do. Apparently they help professors with grant applications, for those whose work requires this. They offer other services as well, various forms of what is called “support.” I see they are hosting a workshop next week called “Your Brand Matters,” put on by some representatives of a bank. Does an archaeologist have a brand? What about a historian or a philosopher? I’m pretty sure I don’t have one; should I be getting one? What would that involve? I wonder what advice the bank would have for me. No, actually I don’t, so I’m going to give that workshop a miss. I also discovered that my university has a five-year strategic research plan which, according to their website, “identifies six themes that represent core and emerging research strengths through which researchers from across disciplines will contribute to discovery, new insights, and creative works.” I don’t know what the six themes are; I stopped reading, but I’m guessing they include all the usual political catchphrases. This leads to my third condition.

Innovators almost by definition don’t take direction—or not from five-year plans, university policies generally, administrators, governments, or people in general. They do take direction, but that direction is found in the work itself and from nothing outside of it. They do the work that needs to be done and follow their instincts. Can an institution like a university really plan for innovation, get out in front of it, or in any meaningful sense make it happen? To some extent this will depend on the field. I’m not a scientist or a technologist, so I can’t speak for them, although I would be surprised to hear many of them say that innovation in their field conforms to a plan that has been laid down in advance by a committee of university administrators. The more usual pattern finds such committees not causing innovation but getting on the bandwagon after the fact while perhaps claiming some kind of credit. Innovative research is directed not externally but internally—by the field one is working in, by the need to fill holes in the existing research, to answer some unanswered question within it and especially to pose new questions and to pursue them in a systematic way. Innovators like to ask questions that haven’t been posed before and to offer hypotheses that are uncertain and experimental. They don’t wait for permission.

Fourth, have a large palette. A couple of years ago I cowrote a book with Jeff Mitscherling on artistic creation, and in doing the research for that book we read and listened to countless interviews with artists, paying special attention to how they described their creative process and what made it possible for them to be innovators in their particular art form. One of the more prominent themes that presented itself again and again is a broad knowledge of the tradition in which they’re working. Innovative artists know their tradition. The same is true of philosophers. Much of the work of innovation is to see connections that haven’t been noticed before, and knowing your tradition makes it possible to grasp relations that can be surprising—relations between disparate phenomena, ideas, or whole fields of knowledge. Innovation often consists in seeing X in light of Y or placing them alongside one another, where X and Y had often been located at considerable distance from each other. If one were a drummer, would one be more likely to develop an innovative style if one opted for a basic five-piece drum kit or a larger setup? My money is on the latter, for a larger kit, like an artist’s palette, makes it possible to integrate a greater variety of elements into a style that is distinctive and novel. Many great drummers have played on small kits, but I wonder what a Buddy Rich might have sounded like if he had had Neil Peart’s setup to experiment with. Innovative thinkers know their tradition not because they are slaves to it but because it gives them more to draw and build upon.

Fifth and last is a curiosity that is insatiable and not particularly discriminating. Innovators are explorers of the mind. They’re the restless sort, curious about everything, perpetually unsatisfied and wanting to press on toward a horizon that moves with them. They need to see for themselves what lies over the hill and don’t accept what others are telling them. They don’t necessarily play by the rules. They have their own rules.

There’s a certain disconnect between how institutions tend to think and how innovative minds tend to work. Institutional dynamics incline toward caution and bureaucratic proceduralism while innovation thrives when caution is thrown to the wind. Institutions typically move in the way that elephants do. Innovators are cheetahs. My evidence is intellectual history itself, which as I see it is one long story of wild-eyed visionaries going their own way and being variously rewarded and celebrated, executed and excommunicated, put on pedestals and knocked off of them, ignored, misunderstood, and cancelled. They did it all without brands, research services departments, and five-year strategic plans.

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