If one more funding organisation or conference speaker this autumn blahblahs on about "Innovation" I'm reaching for my revolver...— Tim Wright (@moongolfer) October 8, 2013
Now, don’t get me wrong – I’m as much a fan of ‘innovation’ as the next person. But right now, ‘innovation’ is in danger of drifting into that wide Sargasso pool of pointless catch-all words that people use at conferences to try to describe the process of ‘having a good idea’ or ‘making things that people like’ or ‘making money’ or ‘getting the hang of this digital malarkey’.
Innovation is everywhere right now, stomping all over last year’s favourite word-virus – ‘creativity’.
The Technology Strategy Board, for example, is currently investing millions in the 'creative' (there’s that word again!) industries in order to ‘stimulate innovation’.
NESTA, too, claims to "know" about innovation - and at the recent FutureFest weekend (NESTA-backed) the collection of speaker videos currently online suggests there was a whole lot of innovatin’ going on.
One of the many good things about the Publish! conference was the helpful range of discussions about what innovation really is. In the current climate it seemed to have a lot to do with being low-cost, lightweight in terms of required resources, and simple enough for any old Herbert to understand.
Why is innovation alway rapid, lightweight and low cost? Sometimes I wouldn't mind if it was slow, heavy & COSTLY. #publish2013— Tim Wright (@moongolfer) September 24, 2013
In between the panel sessions, some great digital publishing projects and processes were discussed and demoed that might be described as innovative - ranging from the terrific work coming out of REACT's Books & Print Sandbox, inkle's Frankenstein, Me Books and Juliet Mushens's experiments about extending the way agents make contact and do business with writers.
In general, the conference helped me come to the conclusion that innovation is currently being pushed by the powers that be (the people with money and market influence, I mean) to encourage smart – predominantly digital-savvy - people to come up *not* with something startlingly new, but with some kind of refinement or re-alignment of an existing market, process or product that might save or make money.
As somebody clever said at some point in the day (I’m sorry I didn't make a note of who it was) we're all in danger of confusing innovation with *invention* - the former being the process of making incremental improvements to an already accepted product or process, the latter the development and deployment of something entirely new and possibly game-changing.
In the case of NESTA and the Technology Board, for example, it is pretty clear (to me anyway) that innovation programmes are there mainly to benefit large incumbent players (whether it be Sony, Ogilvy & Mather or The National Trust), allowing them to access ideas from smaller companies and remain dominant in markets that are in danger from digital disruption. This kind of innovation is, in the end, for 'winners', is pretty risk averse and not particularly in love with failure. In fact, to my ears, it doesn't have much to do with how new works and ideas come into world generally.
Indeed, if you wanted any clearer indication that the New Innovation has not a lot to do with the kind of artistic inventiveness or pure process-driven research that a lot of people in the digital world (like me!) indulge in, it’s in the associated backlash that seems to be going on whenever anyone mentions another hoary cliché – “daring to fail”.
This phrase really used to be a staple of any conference bullshit bingo card, but these days people on panels are a little bit more down on failure - seeing it as a potentially damaging and negative outcome that wastes resources and leaves the people who did the failing marked as, well, failures.
The trick, apparently, is to *learn* from failure. Only then is failure worth risking. That way the 'innovation' has a point even if it doesn't deliver immediate value. I'd argue, however, that we don't always have to learn from failure, and that sometimes making the same mistakes over and over again might even be part of the innovation (or rather the *invention*) process.
I've worked on lots of failed projects. I'm quite proud of it (in a way). I worked on a project recently, in fact, that was pretty much a failure. (Such a failure that it recently came *second* in an innovation contest - LOL.)
It was called #dream40 and was a collaboration between the RSC and Google, to see how Google tools and services might be used to allow people to enjoy, play with, participate in and extend a performance of a Shakespeare play - both in the place where the play was being performed live and online.
It's true that it was a knotty, gnarly, ambitious project with all kind of pitfalls and problems and to be brutally honest I don't think it really caught fire in terms of 'audience reach', 'creative value' - or any other yardstick you'd care to measure it by.
To get a sense of how much of a failure it was, check out Google Creative (!) Labs exec Tom Uglow's admirably honest list of all the things that didn't really work. It's quite a long list, and quite a few of the points on there are things that anyone who's worked on digital drama (aka interactive drama ) should really know by now. In fact, it shames me that I worked on this project and didn't do anything to stop it failing in the same ways as other projects have done before. But thereby may lie my point (if this post has a point...)
Why didn't previous innovations in online drama, previous 'failures', not inform on how #dream40 played out? And what was Google's aim anyway in developing something for which there was no apparent market or audience need?
My argument would be that when people are feeling 'inventive', they absolutely don't want to think that what they're doing has been done before, and they don't very often want to refer back to previous endeavours in the same field (in the case of web projects sometimes you can't refer back because they've disappeared, but that's another story).
Each generation of writers, artists , producers and geeks that has a go at cracking the problem of online drama really does want and needs to feel like it is inventing something new - rather than simply innovating in an already established field. There's also the rather obvious point that the younger the team is, the more likely it is that this really is the first project of its kind that everyone has worked on.
Even more importantly, people generally don't learn from other people's mistakes. They'd much rather learn from their *own* mistakes. Your own mistakes hurt so much more and live with you much longer. It doesn't matter how often Mummy or Daddy tell you not to put your hand near the fire, you'll only really remember not to do it *after* you've burned your hand, right?
So for my money, this leaves 'innovation' as the poor second-cousin of genuine 'invention'. I'd also like to claim that invention can and does often happen in a bubble, and doesn't have to relate to anything that came before. *And* I'd also want to suggest that failure doesn't necessarily need to have a learning point or any value.
We can just noodle about and experiment and repeat and fail again and again and again without any obvious point. Many great artists have done this. It is allowed - and may even be a more natural way to get to truly great new things than enforcing a programme of 'innovation'.
Two cheers, then, for Tom Uglow for being brave enough to face the consequences of our failure and admit that the benefits and value of the #dream40 experiment are to a large extent 'unknown'. As he writes:
"Artistic projects like this do not fit one-size-fits all metrics; and I’m not sure what those metrics are anyway – though I do know that targets breed strategies to hit targets, so you’ll forgive us for ignoring them. Hitting targets reward organizations not audiences, or artists, or culture. This was a disruptive experiment and a hugely successful one if judged simply on what we learnt and where we now move forward from. We hope you understand why we did this and that you enjoyed and continue to enjoy it."
BTW I *think* this whole area is something that Kevin Spacey was alluding to in his MacTaggart Lecture when he spoke of always keeping a sense of disappointment close at all times during a career (i.e. having a sharp sense of failure), and always being committed to working with 'total abandon' (i.e. not worrying too much about the point or purpose of your experiments ).
I'll also leave it to Kevin to share the good news about this alternative view of innovation/invention/failure - and it's this:
"...if there is one thing that overlaps between business and art, it's that in the long run, THE RISK-TAKERS ARE REWARDED."