IMG_3981My cinematic hero is WALL-E and his devotion to EVA is an inspiration.  They combine to emancipate us from lives mediated through screen banality, and motivate us to tackle an abandoned and destroyed environment.  They could be avatars for Prof. Helga Nowotny’s two types of innovation, the prevalent one of recombination and re-use, and the rarer type, of origination and invention.  The former, like the apple watch, is more easily exploited than the latter, like the work of the quantum device lab.  Nowotny suggests that innovation can be seen as clusters of invention, and while business are continually ‘trading off’ the two forms  of innovation, combinational innovation without origination quickly runs out of steam.  You can’t re-combine candlelight to create electric light.

Her call is for a theory of innovation to temper the positivist rhetoric that tells us that innovation is always good and always progressive, despite lifetimes of evidence to the contrary.  She tells the story of another robot, programmed to ask ethical questions, who on asking a young pupil “what words of comfort do you have for people in the future” received the reply “‘we didn’t have any idea what we were doing and what the consequences would be”.  This resonates strongly with our current concerns over biological innovation.

An innovation theory must reintroduce us to the importance of social and economic innovation to frame technological innovation. It must also address the point that while innovation takes place in the present it is ‘strongly entangled with our imagination of the future’.  Art is both rooted in, and plays with our imaginations, and has philosophical and ethical aspects that can help us with the unexpected dimensions of innovation. But our definitions of design as innovation and art as invention are far too simplistic and won’t help us to pursue the artist / instrumentalist opportunity emerging in project calls across Europe. Artists can also help us understand innovation consequences in our imaginings of the future.

Listen to Prof. Nowotny’s Gifford lecture at http://www.ed.ac.uk/schools-departments/humanities-soc-sci/news-events/lectures/gifford-lectures/helga-nowotny

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