The Subtleties of Innovation

I’ve been obsessed with the future of museum learning programming for quite a while now, and I’m always drawn to examples of practice that are actively breaking away from what has been done before. I’ve understood ‘innovation’ to mean a substantial change; a leap forward without precedent, creating a clear demarcation between ‘how it was then’ and ‘how it is now’. However, as with just about everything else in life, it turns out that ‘innovation’ is much more subtle and complex than I realised.

During a recent meeting with the ImaginationLancaster team (who I’m working with to design interview tools – see previous post) Dr Leon Cruickshank, Professor of Design and Creative Exchange, introduced me to a range of terms describing different types of innovation. For example: radical innovation describes the type of progress I usually imagine – the big leap forward; disruptive innovation occurs when a small company spots a gap in the established market and creates a new, cheaper version, meeting the needs of those priced out or ignored by the existing offer – in time, the scrappy start-up can steal the market from established top dogs; and incremental innovation is the softly, softly approach, making small and frequent adjustments to an existing offer (be it a product, service or programme) which all adds up to a substantial shift over time. I have a lot to learn about this field – Leon’s article The Innovation Dimension: Designing in a Broader Context (Design Issues, Vol. 26, No,2, pp17-26, Spring 2010) gives a useful introduction to innovation studies and how they relate to design – less straight-forward and chummy than you’d think.

Leon’s article also introduced me to the great phrase ‘path dependency’ which ‘occurs when circumstances preclude the adoption of innovations because the necessary physical, logistical or conceptual changes present too great a barrier. This path dependency becomes an issue particularly when systems of innovation become interrelated or heavily specialised, when infrastructure costs are very high, or even when working practices are long established and when people are resistant to change… Reliance on routine and on established patterns of working forms an important component of path dependency’ (p24). I can relate to this; when I think about the ongoing cycle of regular programmes such as after-school art clubs, adult weekend drawing workshops, talks and tours at the same time each day – all of them can take on a life of their own, making it very difficult to change course. What was once a newly-laid path of interesting programme, over a few years can wear down into a rut and, worse, over many years can deepen into a trench of staid repetition; it’s a struggle to clamber out, particularly when you can’t see over the top and imagine anything else. To want change but not know where to start because everything feels so fixed can be paralysing.

In hindsight, it now seems obvious that innovation has many shades and I should have figured this out sooner. The good news is that these new (to me) terms are very helpful when thinking about how we might apply innovation to different strands of museum learning programming.

Over the past couple of months, I have been talking to my peers a lot about their practice and programmes and it’s a recurring theme that the core, ongoing programme is a very different beast to short-term, often externally-funded project working. The core programme tends to tick over and gets less attention because it is a known quantity, and museum educators are working well within their comfort zones because they are familiar and confident with the format, audience and outcomes. Project-working encourages more experimental approaches and more thorough evaluation, partly to satisfy funder requirements and partly to reach new audiences. Museum educators are challenged to think in different ways about their practice, which can be both daunting and energising. It’s tempting to put one’s creative energies into projects and consider this strand to be the most innovative aspect of the learning offer, but I think core programming and project-working would be better served by considering how different kinds of innovation can enhance both.

I’m generalising, but I can see how incremental approaches to innovation would work well to refresh the core programme, and more radical/disruptive innovations are well suited to the format of project working. I would like to think that what we learn in one could inform the other (and vice versa), but this doesn’t seem to happen as often as it could, perhaps because the nature of these programming types is so different? Would our energy be better spent developing each separately and in parallel rather than trying to makes links between them?

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