There is a new vista appearing in the innovation landscape, alongside social, service and frugal innovation. This fresh perspective is emerging on the horizon currently dominated by technological innovation, it is as if the very roots of technology are being reconsidered. The new vista is taking its time, has a different outlook and offers substantial latent energy and possibilities. Researcher, Ann Marie Newton, weaves together the past and present dominant discourses of innovation influenced by economic power and positions an alternative future by proposing an emerging addition to the Innovation landscape called Craft Innovation.
Technology, which we think of today as digital, computing and electronic has dominated the discourses of innovation since the 1960’s when innovation itself gained momentum in the USA and Global North business communities as a conduit for economic growth. However, technology and innovation have not always been so intertwined and technology has not always been so amalgamated with the digital realm. The etymology of the word technology is tekhnē, meaning art, skill, craft (1). The term technology was previously used to describe ‘useful arts’ such as spinning, metal working or brewing. Interestingly the history of innovation is also very different to what we know today, the word innovation at one time had negative significance, and prior to the 19th century was used in the political, legal and religious fields (2). The dominance of technology and innovation really emerged after World War II when there was a ready made infrastructure of research and development in place that needed a commercial outlet, innovation became the language pipeline for business and technology the stream that filled those pipes.
The limits to technological innovation
Technological innovation is too narrow for today’s challenges, Craft Innovation offers a set of values and benefits that can complement our current electronic technological fascination. Craft Innovation could be thought of simply as applying innovation to or in craft: a new process, technique or material, however, Craft Innovation is also about the converse: applying craft to or in innovation. A Craft practitioner and Innovation practitioner have much to offer each other. Skills, mindsets, approaches and ways of working for each can be exchanged, discussed and experienced – provoking new thinking and different ways of seeing the world. This has value far beyond the economic.
Avid explorers at the Craft Innovation Salon
Recently on 4 April 2019, a group of avid explorers gathered in the wood panelled walls of the historic Red Room at UAL’s Chelsea College of Art & Design to delve into this landscape; the space in-between Craft and Innovation, a largely uncharted terrain. This exploration was made possible by a collaboration between the Crafts Council Innovation Manager Alma Daskalaki, MA Innovation Management researcher Ann Marie Newton and UAL’s Postgraduate Community Coordinator Abbi Fletcher.
The Craft Innovation Salon invited participants to examine innovation skills, share common practice, unpack and debate how craft and industry approach innovation. Questioning how craft mindsets can be applied in innovation practice, and what can craft learn from traditional innovation methodologies.
The salon began with three stimulating presentations illustrating different innovative models of collaboration between two worlds. Stories of an embroiderer working with roboticists using play as a way to solve problems,a practice-based Research Fellow, formerly a potter, discussing how knowledge can be shifted from sector to sector, to a glass artist who highlighted the value of asking questions in her collaborations with the aerospace industry, questions that simply would not have been asked by the usual team. Stepping back from their role as makers was a common thread, and the realisation that it wasn’t always about what they wanted, but getting something different from the experience instead.
These inspiring real-world examples laid the groundwork for the rest of the session which began with a look at some Innovation theory about practice. Citing Luis Perez-Breva (3), MIT’s Innovation Team Program Director:
“The process of creating what eventually becomes an innovation is something you can learn and become better at through practice” (2018).
This idea of learning to innovate opens up the possibility for knowledge transfer between the craft practitioner and the innovation practitioner and vice versa. This takes away some of the mystique around ‘innovation’; craft practitioners can innovate in their own work or in an unrelated business. Innovation practitioners can learn to develop a practice of crafting innovation. Although tacit knowledge cannot be directly transferred, ways of working and mindsets can be shared. Building upon this idea of practice, the work of innovation authors Denning & Dunham (4) was reviewed. Their idea that innovation is a way of doing based on eight practices was given as one way to increase the current low success rate of innovation. Confirming the importance of practice in innovation Denning & Durham say:
“Practices are the only way we know to connect ideas to action”
The next part of the Craft Innovation Salon was an exploration of practice by examining individual mindsets and skills and then mapping them as a collective. Interesting highlights such as procrastination and knowledge exchange were discovered. A making session to produce material models followed, using only two distinct elements, thread and paper. These material models then formed the basis of a metaphorical model of collaboration. The outputs were fascinating, from a meeting in the pub leading to a sustainability tour of the UK, to the promotion of an innovation culture in a high street clothing retailer by the introduction of a ceramicist. The event was captured live in the illustrations of Josie of Studio Jojo, her work can be seen in the associated images.
What next for Craft Innovation?
Overall the session was an interesting foray into the emerging space of Craft Innovation, a space which is rich and ready for more exploration, so please be sure to keep a lookout for it next time you survey the Innovation landscape.
This article was written by Ann Marie Newton, graduate of MA Innovation Management at Central Saint Martins. Her research asks the question Where is the Craft in Innovation Management? She perceives craft as an undervalued practice that is not even apparent in the innovation landscape. By crafting an innovation practice the current discourse could be rejuvenated to create a more diverse and successful innovation offering. You can read more on Ann Marie’s profile.
Illustrations by Josie of Studio Jojo.
- Online Etymology Dictionary entry for technology: https://www.etymonline.com/search?q=technology&source=ds_search accessed 19 May 2019
- Godin, B. 2016. Technological innovation: on the origins and development of an inclusive concept. Technology and culture, 57(3), pp.527-556.
- Perez-Breva, L. (2017) Innovating: A doer’s manifesto for starting from a hunch, prototyping problems, scaling up, and learning to be productively wrong. MIT Press.
- Denning, P.J. and Dunham, R. 2010. The innovator’s way: Essential practices for successful innovation. MIT Press.