7 Questions and Answers on a New Academic Center on Innovation Innovation Innovation

This post builds on two earlier ones I wrote, “Learning Innovation is Evolving into an Academic Discipline,” and the follow-up, “8 Questions and Answers on a New Academic Discipline to Study Learning Innovation.” I base this post on a Facebook Messenger conversation I had with a friend, which became a kind of interview and which I have edited for further clarity.

What is the big problem or question that your new academic center will address?

Well, I started seeing that individuals who said “innovation” a lot were getting a big share of resources and money at my university. And I thought, “Shit, bro. I want some of that cheese. Gimme some of that cheese.” Innovation.

So you’re saying you’re doing this because the powers that be would fund it?

And give me a bigger office, and someday, if I’m really lucky, a whole glass-covered building. I think it’s often best to view universities as hierarchical social fields. Administrators sit at the top, doling out resources. Faculty and other employees compete for those resources and other forms of status. Administrators are typically scared out of their minds because they do not know what will happen in the future, and it turns out uncertainty is extremely disconcerting. Moreover, administrators know that people are watching them and that it is important to look like they are doing something. You’re pitching things they can show off to others. They’re into “innovation” for a bunch of reasons: because these days they think innovation is something universities should do, because they believe they can sell it to customers . . . er . . . students, and because innovation is a “god term,” a concept that is “positively-evaluated, potent, but vague.”

Functionally, innovation just means “good.” Crack cocaine, Oxycontin, terrorism, and chemical weapons all involve innovation, but ain’t no one talking about that. When people say “innovation,” they may as well be rubbing their bellies, going, “Mmm. Yummy.” That’s why, when you talk to administrators about innovation, you’re like, “What am I going to give you? I’m going to give you that sweet, sweet goodness, baby.”

Individually, universities are fields, but they are also members, along with other universities, of the larger field that is higher education, which has a clear and well-known status hierarchy. At non-elite universities like my own, you will be more successful if you can link your effort to something folks are up to at top institutions. “Look, mom, Harvard’s doing it!” You aren’t only importing the idea or tool but also the aura surrounding it. Bonus points if you can use the words “MIT Media Lab” in your pitch. Stanford’s also a good one because it has that extra special Silicon Valley sauce. That’s why my center combines Disruptive Innovation (Harvard) + Impact Innovation (MIT Media Lab) + Design Thinking-inflected Social Innovation (Stanford), or Innovation Innovation Innovation.

You emphasize that your center is “interdisciplinary.” Is that important?

Oh yeah. For sure. For years now, reformers in higher education have argued that disciplines are “silos” that don’t talk to each other, that hinder innovation and economic growth, that ruin students’ education, that act as enemies of holistic, integrated thought and being and all that is good and holy. Never mind that Jerry A. Jacobs showed that this argument is full of holes in his book, In Defense of Disciplines, demonstrating empirically both that academic disciplines do talk to each other and share ideas, quite a lot actually, and that interdisciplinary spaces tend to become discipline-like over time. The late historian and philosopher Ann Johnson and others have also shown that interdisciplinary teams arise naturally as individual disciplines work on tough problems and find that known-solutions aren’t getting the job done. (Reformers also tend to argue that universities aren’t teaching “general critical-thinking skills,” about creativity and whatnot, but this idea is also largely bunk.) But really, who cares about facts? The important thing is that some university administrators believe these falsehoods and aren’t about to start appraising the platitudes swirling around them. You can exploit that.

It sounds like you are saying that you have to create the perception there is a problem to which you are the answer. Am I getting that right?

That’s definitely true. You have to convince them that higher education is doing it wrong, while also implying that everyone in the room is a genius who, along with you, knows the solution.

Terrifying them is even more important, though. When I am pitching administrators, I show them threatening charts of how fast cell phones diffused around the planet, which really has nothing to do with anything, and LOADS of curves representing exponential change — like Wayne and Garth from Wayne’s World, schwing! — and then I start throwing in phrases like “digital transformation” and “the permanent disruption of college education,” because I want to scare the bejeezus out of them and bring them to the edge of full-blown panic attacks by making it seem like there are monsters lurking everywhere who are about to eat both the administrators and their lunches, and everyone is nodding along with me by the time I start explaining that obviously the future is going to be way more complex than the present and how just as obviously the answer is coding camps and Design Thinking and movement therapy to connect students to their bodies and empower them with creative confidence, and by that point, I don’t even have to make the ask because they are already listing potential donors, such as rich alumni who believe that artificial intelligence will inherit the Earth.

You make a lot of claims about your ability to produce innovation and turn students into innovators, but can you prove them?

The philosopher Stephen Turner argues that we should make a distinction between experts who have demonstrated efficacy and those who have not, which we might call “experts.” Turner says we should conditionally trust physicists when they make claims about physics because they can do stuff with their knowledge, like make bombs that work. But here’s the deal: probably no one on this planet knows for certain how to make more innovation in general.

If someone tells you they know how to increase innovation or make you innovator, they are probably trying to sell you something. Like, literally. You can hire Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s consulting firm, Innosight (I wish I was making this up). Christensen and his gang will come put Innovation-GogglesTM on you that allow you to see opportunities for “disruptive innovation” where before you just saw ordinary social reality. But then when social scientists reexamined Christensen’s data they found that only a fraction of his cases fit his own definition of disruption, that disruptive innovation is not nearly as important or pervasive as Christensen claimed, claims that likely made him millions of dollars.

Similarly, the urbanist Richard Florida made boat loads consulting cities around his notion of the “creative class,” which is like the hipster Field of Dreams theory of innovation: if you build the green-space-single-cup-pour-over-light-roast-single-origin-coffee-bike-sharing-program-shiny-silver-white-Apple-laptop-Nirvana it, they will come. But then recently, Florida felt forced to confess that whoops! — his theory didn’t really work and, what’s worse, his policy recommendations probably exacerbated inequality.

Or, you can pay Stanford $15,000 for a four-day Design Thinking bootcamp. Design Thinkers have never demonstrated persuasively that their quasi-mystical process leads to any especially significant outcomes, and many professional designers will tell you privately that they believe Design Thinking is a scam verging on fraud. After your Stanford bootcamp, you will leave the Bay Area half-a-new-car poorer, but — quite sadly, tragically even — you will still be you.

In this universe of “experts,” hell, I’m an “expert,” too, and no one can say any different. If they do, I’ve got buckets overflowing with anecdotes to “prove” them wrong. Like one day, a kid came to one of my innovation expos, and afterwards, he said he likes robots, so he’s an innovator now. Whatever.

Uh, are you are saying that you have no idea whether your activities will produce any innovation? Aren’t you worried that someone might call you out about that?

Not in the slightest. Realistically, I will be retired or dead by the time someone could judge whether my center was successful. Studies show repeatedly that innovation policy has little to no effect and that, anyway, it’s between difficult and impossible to measure. That uncertainty’s doubly true of an academic center like mine. Real innovation isn’t even the goal, actually. The goal is to have enough shiny activities to fill a newsletter.

And if someone ever did push me and demand that I prove that I am accomplishing something, I’d respond, “Hey, man, fail fast, yo.” ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

When I’ve talked to you before, you’ve suggested that much of what people say about innovation today is a fad or craze. Do you think it will go away soon?

We know that chatter about innovation started rising after World War II and has gone through periods of significant growth, including maybe over the last decade.

Google Ngram showing use trends for the word “innovation” from 1800–2008

If you talk about innovation in the shadow of that curve — which, in large part, is a giant wave of bullshit — you aren’t an innovator, you’re an emulator, a copycat, a herd animal. This is the core irony of “innovation.” I mean, innovation chatterers claim to value originality and “thinking outside the box,” but then they start chanting together in Newspeak about how they impactfully lean agiled their creatively confident disruptive innovation pivots. These are the squarest people on Earth. They glorify “change” but are, in fact, conservative conformists, the khaki pants of technoculture.

This kind of herd-like emulation runs deep. I once chatted with a venture capitalist who told me that universities and cities all over the nation and the globe are erecting buildings and areas dedicated to innovation. Almost without fail, the VC says, these wildly-imitative white elephants sit empty, devoid of life or activity, like glittering ossuaries for the bones of dead dumb ideas.

The University of Pennsylvania has built one of these things that it calls PENNOVATION WORKS, which deeply mortifies faculty there who see it as yet another symptom of Penn’s perennial status anxiety.

Here’s my bet: when I am retired or dead and people still have no idea whether my center created anything of value beyond glossy newsletters, mostly because they will have forgotten about me and my work, let alone all of the public and private money I’ve spent, PENNOVATION won’t be called PENNOVATION anymore. The building will be renamed after some wealthy donor and dedicated to the great-great-grandchild of translational medicine or whatever. And at a faculty meeting on my campus, some old timer will ask, “Hey, do you remember when we had that Center on Innovation Innovation Innovation?” and everyone under the age of fifty will say, “No,” and the other old timers will shake their heads, thinking, “God, that was so stupid.”

As ideal and ideology, innovation has been around at least since the 1950s and is pretty durable and might even continue, but we all know that the current instantiations won’t be around for long. Reportedly, IDEO frets constantly because the Design Thinking brand is totally watered down, and the chances that lightning will strike twice and the company will come up with another PowerPoint presentation that will make it millions upon millions of dollars off the gullible are exceedingly slim. All of this will blow away.

I think it would be great if we, like, learned (are we in the education business?) and wised up and knocked off the nonsense, but I’m not holding my breath. I mean, we’re talking about human beings here. From the people who brought you tulip mania, the Osmond family, French Theory, credit default swaps, and fidget spinners. Let’s be real.

Far as I can see, there’s nothing but waves of bullshit stacked up from here to the horizon, and probably beyond. My advice? Catch one and try to hang ten. You might even make some money and have some fun. Cowabunga!

I do technology studies, co-organize @The_Maintainers, and profess Science, Technology, and Society at Virginia Tech.