Monthly Archives: April 2013

“The Dark Arts of Innovation” – Or Not?

After excellent sessions on play and improvisation, I suppose I was only setting myself up for disappointment with the third of the series of talks at the ScienceFestival that I accidentally curated for myself: “the Dark Arts of Innovation. The talk’s title hints at secret recipes or innovation-magick, but whilst interesting and engaging, on that count it didn’t deliver. There were no secret tricks or short cuts, no quick fixes – though a fair bit of common sense.

I think this in part reflects the nature of the institutions represented by the three speakers: a university, a research institute and a private sector (and privately owned) company.

Light Bulb
Image from Olga Reznik on flickr.
Used under Creative Commons licence.

As Alan Miller, deputy principal (and responsibile for knowledge transfer) at Heriot Watt, pointed out, universities are steeped in tradition and conservative in nature; not necessarily the most innovative of institutions. Still, the Watt in Heriot Watt refers to James Watt, who whilst he didn’t invent the steam engine (that was Thomas Savery, apparently – I thought it was Newcomen, which proves that one really can learn stuff from the internet!), came up with an innovative design made greatly improved its efficiency and reduced its size, and enabled others to deploy it in many new ways – the power behind the industrial revolution.

Of course, once more the question of semantics came up. What exactly is innovation? Miller reckoned it was seeing the practical benefits of research – taking original research and creating products from it: exploiting experimental research and commercialising novelty. (As far as I recall, during my MBA the working definition of innovation we used was along the lines of seeing the potential products of new research, methods or processes, and then actually getting the product to market. Others define innovation as the generation of wealth from ideas.)

Either way, researchers are not necessarily the best innovators, and nor are universities the best at exploiting and commercialising their research. It has long been said that Britain is great at research but poor at exploiting it. Miller reckoned that Scottish universities are actually on a par with the US counterparts (a view which is consistent with this research into UK manufacturing from Southampton University). The UK parliament investigated the translation of research into commercial products last year, and produced a second report just last month. Others reckon the UK has no coherent policy on innovation. Part of the problem, I think, is whether a government can actually promote innovation specifically – they can make the economy as attractive for entrepreneurs and innovators (fat lot of success they’ve had there – though I guess they might argue the recent cut of the top rate of income tax is an effort to improve the incentives for entrepreneurs) – but I can’t help feeling that there is little governments can do to stimulate the process of innovation itself.

Heriot Watt tries to do this in various ways, though mostly by spinning off possible commercial outcomes from research into independent companies. The university doesn’t expect to to profit (though it hopes it will in the long term), but removing the removing the ties of bureaucracy and adding the profit motive seem to be beneficial.

The missing gap for me seemed to be how to identify those who were good at innvoation – clearly, not necessarily the same as those undertaking the initial research. My guess would be that most academics are motivated to a great extent by profit, but if one removes the results of their research and passes to someone else – even another (spin off) body – to commercialise, how does one recognise and reward to original researchers? Do they also profit from it?

Working out which bits of research actually have the potential also seems problematic: are there university committees assessing which bits of research might yield commercial results? Miller pointed out that the fruits of research may come a long time after the research itself – the development of transistors after WW2 relied on esoteric research into quantum mechanics decades earlier, for instance.

Fundamentally, though, Miller saw innovation as being all about people: they need to be stimulated to innovate. Unfortunately, how to actually do that doesn’t seem clear.

Lee Innes from the Moredun Institute gave some excellent examples of the way they have innovated. Firstly, they are very close to their ultimate costumers – farmers: indeed, they were established by the agricultural industry and are managed, in part, by farmers; they are aware of the issues facing farmers, and work with them on technological solutions. The profits of their innovation are channelled back into further research projects.

The institute also sifts ideas using evaluation criteria before product development and implementation – a long, and, she reckoned, potentially cruel process: you need to be willing to dump good, workable ideas if they might not come to fruition or would drain resources. “Killing the babies”, she called it.

The critical steps – necessary, even – seemed to be working in collaborative, cross-disciplinary teams, and for those teams to be small and flexible. She gave an example of a brainstorming session between the institute’s researchers and engineers from (I think) Heriot Watt where the engineers had picked up on a problem the researchers had thought of as insoluble – and a rapid diagnostic for toxoplasma is now in development. Being open to new ideas from unlikely sources seems to be beneficial – and I like the idea of innovation rising from random conversations! Spinning out potential products allows the innovators to work in flexible, dynamic, high performance teams to get the product to market – like any start up, perhaps. They are also open to unintended consequences – and exploit the novel application of them.

Promoting that sense of interdisciplinary collaboration in a high performing environment seems crucial to W L Gore. I have heard people from Gore speak before, and it has always seemed both an inspirational organisation – and completely down to earth. Gore’s Gerry Mulligan added to the passion for ideas I have seen from the firm before. It does sound like a truly innovative organisation, with a novel culture that has innovation at its core. (The first thing you see on their website is “A Commitment to Innovation Shapes Everything We Do” – quite a statement.) It eschews hierarchy and works with a minimum of bureacracy – no time sheets, for instance. Its teams are self-organising and wholly empowered; the only leaders are those who get followers (someone once said that Gore doesn’t do leadership training – they do followership training instead – though Mulligan did describe the leadership training those in senior positions get – clearly there is some recognition of hierarchy). Peers are involved in the annual review process – and are responsible for setting remuneration, too. Everyone gets 10% of time to work – or “dabble” – on their own projects.

This could also make it a harsh place to work, too – it may not be the best environment for introverts, perhaps. (I may be completely wrong, of course: if you are judged on your contribution to results by your peers, regardless of how loud you shout and how sociable you are, it could be that introverts may fly!)

It was, Mulligan said, all about the culture – and the people: without bureaucracy, hierarchy and “command and control”, innovation was able to flourish within small, flexible – and cross-disciplinary – teams based around relationships. Informal networks are key to sharing knowledge and enabling the teams to coalesce. All those conversations again…

There was long discussion about the nature of intellectual property, and who benefits from it. Gore uses patents a lot, and – in some jurisdictions – are bound to share the profits of IP with its developers (not in the UK). Mulligan described some bad experiences the firm had working with others and sharing IP, which had to be resolved in court, and felt it best to keep working relationships in house.

The speakers also felt that Scotland and the UK more generally had become risk averse: failure is a dirty word. Instead, they thought we ought to celebrate failure. At Gore, when a project closes because it fails, they have a party to celebrate. Of course, we can learn from failure – but to really learn, we need to share the knowledge of the failure. Researchers don’t publish details of experiments that fail, only those that succeed.

Condensing down what was said into that all elusive recipe for innovation, then…

  • small…
  • open…
  • collaborative…
  • flexible…
  • cross-disciplinary…
  • high performing…
  • empowered…
  • self managed teams
  • minimal bureaucracy
  • unafraid to fail
    And know when to stop!

But you still need to instill all that into your culture – and work with people who are creative innovators. Whoever they are.

Post Script. Whilst I have been writing this, my mind has kept returning to the Centre for Creative Collaboration, which I used to visit frequently when I was in London. C4CC acted (and, I presume, still acts!) a space promoting many of the themes of innovation that the speakers at this talk covered – particularly the open discussion and conversation. C4CC was set up in partnership with several of London’s higher education institutions, but is largely independent of them. Perhaps could be a model – only one many possible, mind – for incubation of innovation.

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“Making It Up” – a discussion on (and including!) improvisation

Through no design, I seem to have picked a series of talks at the Edinburgh Science Festival that effectively hang together around a theme – first play, now improvisation (and, later, innovation).

“Making It Up” gathered together musicians and a choreographer – and all of them psychologists – to explore the nature of improvisation, and got the lively audience to indulge in both improvised music and movement to demonstrate their ideas. The basis for each contributor was that improvisation can change the way those who improvise think, and can have benefits outside of the medium being improvised: how we learn, how we think, and our creativity.

I was attracted to this talk for several reasons, both professional and personal. Fundamentally, I believe that everyone is creative, and that most jobs involve creativity in one way or another. My guess is that even those in the most mundane jobs perform their tasks differently from everyone else – if business processes allow them. And those of us who work in the “knowledge economy” probably spend a lot of their time improvising one way or another. At a personal level, I listen to a lot of improvised (free) and semi-improvised (jazz) music, and I wanted to increase my understanding of what was going on in the art form.

The discussion was chaired by Martin Parker, a musician and academic. Parker said that he thought all of us improvise much of the time – our very conversations being made up as we go along; it is, he felt, a fundamental part of being alive.

The first contributor was Peter Lovatt, a psychologist and former choreographer and dancer, didn’t necessarily agree: many of our day to day interactions follow familiar patterns which we stick to rigidly, and we need to learn how to improvise; it is hard to make things up from scratch and easier to start within an understood structure. (The use of “standards” within the musical improvisers repertoire reflects this – the standard structures with which to launch an improvisation.)

Lovatt got interested in the psychology of improvisation following improvisers discussing how their perception of the world changed following improvisation – colour and sounds would seem more intense and their perspective changed. He devised experiments to test the hypothesis that improvisation did actually change the way people think. Working initially with verbal improvisation exercises and later, to remove the possibility that the exercise itself was priming the subjects for oral tests that followed, movement exercises, he found that just twenty minutes of improvisation improved people’s functioning in divergent problem solving tests. (Divergent problem solving, I learned, is where there are many several potential answers to a question – for instance, “what uses are there for a brick?” Convergent problems are those for which there is only one answer – such as “what is the capital of France?”) Clearly although improvisation might be fundamental to our being alive, it is also something that we need to practise to get the benefits.

Lovatt went on to work successfully with Parkinson’s sufferers to correct what he described as their “divergent deficit”, resulting in a reduction of symptoms lasting several days after the course of improvisation has stopped.

Raymond MacDonald is another improviser-turned-academic, and he brought his saxophone along to give us a demonstration. He also got the audience improvising music within a structure. He started off by returning to the tension between people being natural improvisers and improvisation being something that we need to practise, reflecting Parker’s earlier comments by paraphrasing Gilbert Ryle (who apparently had a lot to say about improvisation):

“a brain that is not improvising is not alive”

maintaining that improvisation itself is part of life, and that we learn from an early age by our mistakes – making it up as we go along. (Pat Kane had made exactly this point in the session on play.)

Outside
Raymond MacDonald playing in Gateshead.
Photo by Andy Newcombe on flickr, used under Creative Commons licence

MacDonald also contended that everybody is naturally musical from a very early age (if not from birth), and that everyone can be moved by music and communicates musically – even if they are not aware of it. It was at this point that he got us improvising, something which sounded surprisingly harmonious – and it was great to see the whole audience try this out, and, apparently, enjoying it!

Children improvise through play; the difficulty is that we soon learn not to as we grow up. We are taught in music classes to play the “right” notes, and that before one can improvise, one has to have complete mastery of one’s chosen instrument. (Something MacDonald took pleasure in disproving through our attempts at harmonic improvisation!) MacDonald linked improvisation and music to health and wellbeing, saying cancer patients who had been taught (or retaught?) to improvise could communicate better and felt better.

This is where Tom Cochrane came in. He wanted to investigate the emotional state – and the awareness of the mental state – that arises from improvisation. Based on models of how we perceive the world and react to it (using cybernetics and control systems), this would require feedback loops, adjusting our awareness of our state within the world; in order to improvise, Cochrane maintained we’d need three loops: the first detecting the world and responding to it (ie developing emotions from it), the second building on the response and responding to that by playing music, and the third changing the music in response to what has been played. (I think I got that right; I’d have drawn it but the drawing programmes I have just do my head in!)

In Cochrane’s models, our emotional cognition of the world is partly constituted through music, and we can improvise our emotions to become “more powerful, more graceful and more meaningful”, creating shared emotions as others react to our music.

Using sensors and – of course – computers, Cochrane has developed a programme he calls the “mood organ”. It detects the emotional state of the subject and creates sounds based on that, which the subject can then change and influence – thereby allowing anyone to improvise, regardless of their musical expertise.

He demonstrated this with Raymond MacDonald hooked up to the “mood organ”, improvising with his saxophone along to the music created by his emotional state. The effect was quite haunting.

There were of course a lot of unanswered questions arising from the session. I was curious – obviously – to know what effect listening to improvised music had on its audiences – basically, has my mind been changed through the experience of listening to improvised music? Does the nature of the music matter – do classical musicians improvising work in the same way as jazz musicians, or rock musicians, or …? Do their brains work in the same way? What if they jump between genres? And what happens to classical musicians who are playing the music as written but improvising the mood and the emotions?

I also wanted to know about the effects of improvising movement: I am sure many people make up dances in the privacy of their own homes, dancing along to the radio – does this have the same as effect as Lovatt’s courses of improvised movement?

And there was something missing about the connection between learning, improvising and creativity – though I can’t quite work out what!

“Why We Play”…

Pat Kane gathered an interesting panel for Edinburgh International Science Festival to discuss “Why We Play”: a biologist, a social scientist – and a games creator.

It was a fascinating discussion, raising lots of questions – perhaps most importantly, “what is play?” Not fully answered, if only because once you define it, it stops being play! – and giving many answers to the implicit question of why, but that’s fine – it was thought-provoking, and for me that was the point.

There are of course problems. Defining “play” seems difficult – it is one of those behaviours that we all recognise and understand the meaning of, but can’t really define. Patrick Bateson (a biologist, and hence something of a taxonomist too) laid out five characteristics of play:

  • it is intrinsically motivated – there is no or limited external reward
  • it has no immediate benefit
  • it is sensitive to wellbeing (to the extent, Bateson felt, of being an indicator of it)
  • it most common, but not exclusively so, among the young

But these don’t seem exclusive behaviours – unless one includes activities like reading and artistic endeavours in the definition (perfectly plausible – the discussion went on to discuss creativity, so maybe art is just another, “creative” form of play?). Maybe it is best not to get lost in semantics, though as Bateson pointed out, scientists (and, presumably, other academics) need to be able to define something to study it.

Mammals play (cats, anyone? Chimps, dolphins, you name it…); birds play (and learn from it); humans play. In mammals – including us – play can be social or directed at objects, as we (and other animals) learn to manipulate the world around us.

DSCN5589
Obligatory cat photo: cats do it…

Bateson also highlighted that “play” is a homonym: as well as play itself, we play sports, playmusic and play in the theatre. We even play with data…

He also pointed out a difference – which I am not sure I really get – between rule-based play and “playful play”. Many games are structured – particularly in competitive play and sports – and the structure brings meaning to the game. Playing chess, for instance, relies on a very complex rule structure. If one could improvise chess moves, it wouldn’t be much of a game. But “playful play”, outside the strictures of games, is apparently linked with imagination and creativity.

Alex Fleetwood, a games designer who I saw speak a couple of years ago at TEDxOrenda, discussed how it is possible to use games – and play – to generate new ideas. People can use games to help them interpret and make sense of the world, and as new technologies come along – be it clocks, printing, or virtual reality – new games have come along to help us understand the technology; in turn, games can change the way we integrate this information and the way our brains work. (I couldn’t find any references for that contention!) Interestingly, many of the games Alex’s company, Hide and Seek, develop seem to use old technologies in novel ways to make us think differently about the world and explore new behaviours.

Wendy Russell took a rather more academic approach, though focussing on games and society. There are, she said, four kinds of games and play (with what I guess are Greek names…):

  • agoncompetitive games and sport
  • alea – games of chance
  • mimesismimicry, make-believe and play-acting (and, perhaps, even theatre?)
  • ilinx – dizzy play and disequilibrium

These form a continuum, she reckoned, from rigid, rule-bound games to turbulent, improvised anarchy – from order to disorder.

She pointed out that on of the things about play was its pointlessness; and if you try to impose a point, it threatens to become serious and – well, not fun. (Just think about how seriously people can take football matches!) All those people looking to “gamify” their processes, take note…

Those in power and in institutions like order and structure; those at the bottom of the pile like disorder, as a way to get away from their everyday lives. Society allows disorderly games, sometimes in a managed environment, so that people can let off steam: funfairs, carnivals, mardi gras, April Fool’s Day – all allow people to relax the usual conventions and escape for a while. The role of the fool and the jester do the same: the normal hierarchy is temporarily suspended.

British society is changing (or has changed!) the way we, and children, play. Parents seem to manage their children’s time much more closely, and seem scared to let children play outdoors, unattended; both adults and children can play more easily indoors, using modern technology, than outdoors, albeit socially. Russell said that architects are now trying to design space for play into new structures – perhaps just as interior designers are trying to build play-areas in workspaces.

The role of play in creativity was touched on by each of the speakers, but it seems hard to put a finger on it. Some creative processes tend towrds the anarchic – brainstorming sessions, for instance, where all ideas are equally valid and anyone can contribute. The burgeoning unconference movement (of which I am a strong advocate!) might also be seen as disorderly play, beyond the usual bound business strictures. Everyone felt that play – or a sense of play – is crucial to promoting creativity – without specifying how.