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Innovation for realists

Stuart Cunningham proposes a working concept of innovation for arts and cultural sector...

Innovation is an overworked buzzword, a cliché which any serious thinking person can see through immediately. If that is what you think, read on, because I might have news for you.

The arts are often thought of as intensely innovative because each new work is, by definition, new. This is the idea that novelty – or, in the realm of science and technology, invention – equals innovation. But, for the term to have real meaning, bite and traction – for it to be more than a buzzword – it needs to be differentiated from novelty, or invention, for its own sake. Such a move would also help arts and culture to begin to connect to where innovation is really invested in by governments – science and technology.

Innovation, at its simplest, say Mark Dodgson and David Gann, in Innovation: A Very Short Introduction, means ‘ideas, successfully applied’. The 2008 Review of the National Innovation System said it was ‘creative problem solving designed to produce practical outcomes’. The Australian Bureau of Statistics’ definition of innovation is ‘the introduction of a new or significantly improved good or service; operational process; organisational/managerial process; or marketing method’.

I think these are definitions we can work with.

We want arts and culture to be meaningful to a broader and more diverse population – how do we achieve that? We want arts and culture to be mainstreamed – how do they contribute to social, educational, technological, or environmental improvement? How can arts and cultural enterprises operate with efficiency and resilience – how can they understand demand for their services and engage supportive partnerships?

Innovation in arts and culture can be about forging such partnerships, or re-engineering an engagement strategy, or creating new demand (audience development, anyone?) and rigorously measuring it, or understanding what role R&D might play in your enterprise or sector, or using or developing new technologies to support any or all of these.

So what kind of government schemes could help? Voucher schemes are tried and tested mechanisms for engaging on the demand side. Variations of this are schemes for which the applicants are conjointly on the supply and demand side. You don’t get funded unless you have partners who want to use or apply your work, or work with you. These partners would normally not be arts or culture entities. These kinds of programs might be enhanced by establishing schemes which are jointly run by government and partners. These partners may be public (other government departments or agencies city councils), commercial or community organisations. Arts Queensland is presently within a department that covers science, information technology and innovation and so the time is ripe.

The best local examples of this approach I know of are New Zealand’s Better by Design, which was the model for Queensland’s Ulysses design and architecture program, and has also inspired Victoria’s approach to design and has shaped emphases in programs of the Creative Industries Innovation Centre, the creative industries arm of Enterprise Connect.

Better by Design was a demand–side program that focused on working with companies outside of the creative sectors to identify how design could address companies’ business needs. This evolved through the Design Integration Programme which saw 132 companies engaged in a process beginning with a two to three-month 360 degree assessment of in-depth business analysis to determine how design can best help build competitive advantage.

Internationally, the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts, jointly mounted by Nesta, the Arts Council England, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), is a good example.

The Digital R&D Fund is interesting because it supports collaboration between organisations with arts projects, technology providers and researchers to shift business thinking and business culture. The fund encourages projects that use digital technology to enhance audience reach and/or develop new business models for the arts sector. In addition every project needs to identify a specific question or problem that can be tested and, as part of that testing, knowledge is generated for other arts organisations that they can apply to their own digital strategies. Significant learning and institutional knowledge transfer is built-in and disseminated further contributing to the development of a broader innovation culture.

Stuart Cunningham is Distinguished Professor, Queensland University of Technology (QUT), and Director of the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation (CCI). He is author or editor of several books and major reports, most recently Hidden Innovation: Policy, Industry and the Creative Sector, University of Queensland Press 2013.





Feature image:  Seed