Sunday, September 18, 2011

Innovation Incubation

Good morning.
“And the beat goes on............................

Where are the new big ideas?

I read an article last week about some innovation conference going on in Silicon Valley, and two of the founders of PayPal were lamenting that innovation in the Valley was dead - or at the very least - getting harder to find. They were critical of the trend towards venture capital dollars moving towards novelty applications (from angry birds to I surmise even angrier cows or whatever is popular at the moment) for mobile phones, pads and other devices in the growing hustle to score a quick buck. They wondered where the real innovation and the really big ideas that change things will be coming from if the trend continues.

That made me wonder where are the big ideas for the arts and culture sector going to come from. And that made me ask when was the last time we actually came up with any really big, new idea that was even a moderate game changer -- at least apart from the purely artistic side of things. I’m not sure precisely what I would say qualifies as big, or new or as a game changer. I might argue that simple things like the concept of Open Studios or the idea of Operas broadcasting live to local movie theaters are big ideas, perhaps new, and maybe even small game changers. I don’t think we’re talking merely “best practices” here - for those aren’t really innovative, new ideas. Rather they are more likely improvements on the better mousetrap as it were.

We have grant programs that specifically seek to incubate new projects and good ideas of value to artists and the artist’s community, but where is the grant program or the conscious attempt to incubate good ideas of value to the business of the nonprofit arts sector? Where is the attempt to drive innovation in our sphere? Why don’t we have some means to support think tanks and the like the purpose of which is innovation in our approaches to how we function? If I look at some ideas that I think are good ideas and are having some impact on the way we do things - ideas like the Kickstarter and similar platforms - while I like those ideas - they didn’t actually originate with us, but came from outside our sector.

I’m guessing there are a lot more innovative ideas emerging out there than I am aware of. But I am constantly looking for them, and if I’m not aware of them, I suspect many other people aren’t either.

I’m not sure I can argue, like the PayPal founders in the article I read that innovation in the administration side of the nonprofit arts sector is dead, because I’m not sure I can argue it was ever alive. I think most of the management ideas we employ that work and were at some point new and novel - again originated from outside of our sphere. Ditto models we have co-opted for use in everything from fundraising to advocacy, communications to program development. 

There is certainly no shortage of challenges that we face. So why don’t we come up with bold, new ideas to address those challenges? If we are the very backbone of the creative sector, why aren’t we more creative. Or if that is an unfair characterization, why aren’t we, at least, bolder in our support for innovation on our part?  To answer that question, I suppose we need to understand much more about the creative process and the phenomenon of innovation than we do (or probably anybody does).

This week Brain Pickings (my favorite newsletter site about all things creative), featured "five timeless insights on fear and the creative process".  More than one featured work noted that: "the myth of the genius and the muse perseveres in how we think about great artists. And yet most art, statistically speaking, is made by non-geniuses but people with passion and dedication who face daily challenges and doubts, both practical and psychological, in making their art."  If indeed creativity is more (or as much) about perspiration than inspiration, we ought to be able to figure out how to design and nurture ecosystems that encourage ideas and innovation - starting with ourselves.  Moreover, I think that fact (again if indeed it is true), might be enormously helpful to us if the public (and the business community in particular) understood that reality - for it would help to demystify creativity as all about genius.  Creativity and innovation are very likely about process.  And how that process actually works, what principles govern it's genesis are subjects ripe for discussion with stakeholders, decision makers and especially the media and the general public.  The more we can get people across all sectors to think about creativity and innovation and to begin an ongoing dialogue about it all - the better for us on multiple levels. 

If we are going to champion creativity and innovation as the outcome of what we do; if we are going to base our arguments for support on our role in fostering and enabling those twin processes; if we are going to claim that creativity and innovation are within our domain -- we need to soon learn a whole lot more about it from a practical perspective - and we really do need to work on being more creative and innovative ourselves.  As the more we learn about it, the more we can share that knowledge.  To learn about the process will help us to achieve a more informed public.  To come up with new, big ideas would only be a bonus.

Have a good week.  Goodbye summer, hello fall.

Don’t Quit.