Recently I have been reflecting with Imran Ali about the nature of innovation in the city (of Leeds in this case) and how it might be developed. The assumption being that more and better innovation will be an unalloyed good in a fast changing, dynamic, complex yet very finite environment.
Most of the discussion has focussed on some obvious innovation levers that we believe could yield some relatively quick and easy wins, such as:
- encouraging more innovation across traditional boundaries of department or role
- seeking applications of technology for social innovation
- thinking as idealists rather than realists – exploring the art of the possible not just the pragmatic
- providing ‘investment ready’ development programmes
- engaging non traditional sources of funding in the innovation process and so on.
But the implicit assumption all of these approaches to innovation is of an innovative elite. A creative class with the brains, the money (or access to it) and the networks to figure out how to make things significantly better for the rest of us. Scientists, technologists, financiers, policy makers, politicians, environmentalists, campaigners, entrepreneurs (social and not so social) and academics are all encouraged, incentivised and trained to ‘unleash’ their creativity and innovation.
But how many in the city form part of that elite? The hallowed few from whom progress is expected to emanate or who feel it is their duty to change the workings of the world. A few thousand perhaps in a city of 800 000. I suspect it is less than 1% of those living in the city.
I believe that innovation, creativity and change in pursuit of progress, are essential human qualities that will find means of expression. Regardless.
- How does the potential of ‘innovation’ play out for the rest?
- How do the processes of creativity and change in search of progress manifest for them?
Well, I suspect there is another slug of the population who are deeply engaged in creativity and change in relation to developing their practice, in the more or less explicit hope, that they may be able to join the elite. Training, learning, networking and thinking of ways to get their hands on the innovation levers. Would-be entrepreneurs, politicians, students, scientists and bureaucrats who are working their way upwards and onwards. Some, of course will join the elite. But most, by definition, will not. And they will join another group of potential innovators.
These are the ones who do not wish to change the world/city/community. Perhaps they have given up on the challenge. Perhaps they never engaged with it. But the essential creative drive remains and will be expressed. It may play out through personal lifestyle choices. Living the environmental life perhaps, gardening, reducing the golf handicap, pursuing cultural enlightenment, renovating houses/cars etc. Progress is defined in more or less personal terms. It is perhaps the pursuit of happiness rather social change. Work becomes a job rather than a way to make a mark on the world. Creative courage is reserved primarily for ‘out of hours’ activities.
And then there is another group who never really established a foothold in ‘the system’. Those for whom a steady salary providing some level of ‘disposable’ income was never really ‘on the cards’. Vocational and professional routes for creative expression never opened up for them. From this group I suspect the systems demands not innovation and creativity but just passive compliance. Do as your told, smarten up tour appearance, brush up your CV and look for a job. Or at least pretend you are looking for a job. But the drive to innovation will out. Creativity will be expressed.
So when we are looking to support innovation in the city where is the great untapped potential?
- Does it lie in providing more and better support and training to the elite?
- Or should we try to mobilise middle England, Big Society style, to rally tot he cause?
- Or should we perhaps change the terms of engagement with those at the margins of the system? To shift from a coercive approach to a coaching one?
Anyone for ‘Innovation Coaches’ in Leeds?