Tag: innovation

We don’t receive wisdom; we must discover it for ourselves after a journey that no one can take us on or spare us

So said Marcel Proust, that famous connoisseur of les petites madeleines. While I don’t share his effete view of the world, I do like French cakes and definitely agree with his sentiments on wisdom.

Earlier this week, Eylan Ezekiel shared this Nesta Landscape of innovation approaches with our Slack channel. It’s what I would call ‘slidebait’ — carefully crafted to fit onto slide decks in keynotes around the world. It’s a smart move because it gets people talking about your organisation.

Nesta's Landscape of innovation approaches
Nesta’s Landscape of innovation approaches

In my opinion, how these things are made is more interesting than the end result. There are inevitably value judgements when creating anything like this, and, because Nesta have set it out as overlapping ‘spaces’, the most obvious takeaway from the above diagram is that those innovation approaches sitting within three overlapping spaces are the ‘most valuable’ or ‘most impactful’. Is that true?

A previous post on this topic from the Nesta blog explains:

Although this map is neither exhaustive nor definitive – and at some points it may seem perhaps a little arbitrary, personal choice and preference – we have tried to provide an overview of both commonly used and emerging innovation approaches.

Bas Leurs (formerly of nesta)

When you’re working for a well-respected organisation, you have to be really careful, because people can take what you produce as some sort of Gospel Truth. No matter how many caveats you add, people confuse the map with the territory.

I have some experience with creating a ‘map’ for a given area, as I was Mozilla’s Web Literacy Lead from 2013 to 2015. During that time, I worked with the community to take the Web Literacy Standard Map from v0.1 to v1.5.

Digital literacies of various types are something I’ve been paying attention to for around 15 years now. And, let me tell, you, I’ve seen some pretty bad ‘maps’ and ‘frameworks’.

For example, here’s a slide deck for a presentation I did for a European Commission Summer School last year, in which I attempted to take the audience on a journey to decide whether a particular example I showed them was any good:

If you have a look at Slide 14 onwards, you’ll see that the point I was trying to make is that you have no way of knowing whether or not a shiny, good-looking map is any good. The organisation who produced it didn’t ‘show their work’, so you have zero insight into its creation and the decisions taken in its creation. Did their intern knock it up on a short deadline? We’ll never know.

The problem with many think tanks and ‘innovation’ organisations is that they move on too quickly to the next thing. Instead of sitting with something and let it mature and flourish, as soon as the next bit of funding comes in, they’re off like a dog chasing a shiny car. I’m not sure that’s how innovation works.

Before Mozilla, I worked at Jisc, which at the time funded innovation programmes on behalf of the UK government and disseminated the outcomes. I remember a very simple overview from Jisc’s Sustaining and Embedding Innovations project that focused on three stages of innovation:

Invention                     
This is about the generation of new ideas e.g. new ways of teaching and learning or new ICT solutions.

Early Innovation
This is all about the early practical application of new inventions, often focused in specific areas e.g. a subject discipline or speciality such as distance learning or work-based learning.

Systemic Innovation
This is where an institution, for example, will aim to embed an innovation institutionally. 

Jisc

The problem with many maps and frameworks, especially around digital skills and innovation, is that they remove any room for ambiguity. So, in an attempt not to come across as vague, they instead become ‘dead metaphors’.

Continuum of ambiguity
Continuum of Ambiguity

I don’t think I’ve ever seen an example where, without any contextualisation, an individual or organisation has taken something ‘off the shelf’ and applied it to achieve uniformly fantastic results. That’s not how these things work.

Humans are complex organisms; we’re not machines. For a given input you can’t expect the same output. We’re not lossless replicators.

So although it takes time, effort, and resources, you’ve got to put in the hard yards to see an innovation through all three of those stages outlined by Jisc. Although the temptation is to nail things down initially, the opposite is actually the best way forward. Take people on a journey and get them to invest in what’s at stake. Embrace the ambiguity.

I’ve written more about this in a post I wrote about a 5-step process for creating a sustainable digital literacies curriculum. It’s something I’ll be thinking about more as I reboot my consultancy work (through our co-op) for 2020!

For now, though, remember this wonderful African proverb:

"If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together." (African proverb)
CC BY-ND Bryan Mathers

The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention

Thanks to John Burroughs for today’s title. For me, it’s an oblique reference to some of the situations I find myself in, both in my professional and personal life. After all, words are cheap and actions are difficult.

I’m going to take the unusual step of quoting someone who’s quoting me. In this case, it’s Stephen Downes picking up on a comment I made in the cc-openedu Google Group. I’d link directly to my comments, but for some reason a group about open education is… closed?

I’d like to echo a point David Kernohan made when I worked with him on the Jisc OER programme. He said: “OER is a supply-side term”. Let’s face it, there are very few educators specifically going out and looking for “Openly Licensed Resources”. What they actuallywant are resources that they can access for free (or at a low cost) and that they can legally use. We’ve invented OER as a term to describe that, but it may actually be unhelpfully ambiguous.

Shortly after posting that, I read this post from Sarah Lambert on the GO-GN (Global OER Graduate Network) blog. She says:

[W]hile we’re being all inclusive and expanding our “open” to encompass any collaborative digital practice, then our “open” seems to be getting less and less distinctive. To the point where it’s getting quite easily absorbed by the mainstream higher education digital learning (eLearning, Technology Enhanced Learning, ODL, call it what you will). Is it a win for higher education to absorb and assimilate “open” (and our gift labour) as the latest innovation feeding the hungry marketised university that Kate Bowles spoke so eloquently about? Is it a problem if not only the practice, but the research field of open education becomes inseparable with mainstream higher education digital learning research?

My gloss on this is that ‘open education’ may finally have moved into the area of productive ambiguity. I talked about this back in 2016 in a post on a blog I post to only very infrequently, so I might as well quote myself again:

Ideally, I’d like to see ‘open education’ move into the realm of what I term productive ambiguity. That is to say, we can do some workwith the idea and start growing the movement beyond small pockets here and there. I’m greatly inspired by Douglas Rushkoff’s new Team Human podcast at the moment, feeling that it’s justified the stance that I and others have taken for using technology to make us more human (e.g. setting up a co-operative) and against the reverse (e.g. blockchain).

That’s going to make a lot of people uncomfortable, and hopefully uncomfortable enough to start exploring new, even better areas. ‘Open Education’ now belongs, for better or for worse, to the majority. Whether that’s ‘Early majority’ or ‘Late majority’ on the innovation adoption lifecycle curve probably depends where in the world you live.

Diffusion of innovation curve
CC BY Pnautilus (Wikipedia)

Things change and things move on. The reason I used that xkcd cartoon about IRC at the top of this post is because there has been much (OK, some) talk about Mozilla ending its use of IRC.

While we still use it heavily, IRC is an ongoing source of abuse and harassment for many of our colleagues and getting connected to this now-obscure forum is an unnecessary technical barrier for anyone finding their way to Mozilla via the web. Available interfaces really haven’t kept up with modern expectations, spambots and harassment are endemic to the platform, and in light of that it’s no coincidence that people trying to get in touch with us from inside schools, colleges or corporate networks are finding that often as not IRC traffic isn’t allowed past institutional firewalls at all.

Cue much hand-wringing from the die-hards in the Mozilla community. Unfortunately, Slack, which originally had a bridge/gateway for IRC has pulled up the drawbridge on that front, so they could go with something like Mattermost, but given recently history I bet they go with Discord (or similar).

As Seth Godin points out in his most recent podcast episode, everyone wants be described as ‘supple’, nobody wants to be described as ‘brittle’. Yet, the actions we take suggest otherwise. We expect that just because the change we see in the world isn’t convenient, that we can somehow slow it down. Nope, you just have to roll with it, whether that’s changing technologies, or different approaches to organising ideas and people.


Also check out:

  • Do Experts Listen to Other Experts? (Marginal Revolution) —”very little is known about how experts influence each others’ opinions, and how that influence affects final evaluations.”
  • Why Symbols Aren’t Forever (Sapiens) — “The shifting status of cultural symbols reveals a lot about who we are and what we value.”
  • Balanced Anarchy or Open Society? (Kottke.org) — “Personal computing and the internet changed (and continues to change) the balance of power in the world so much and with such speed that we still can’t comprehend it.”

On ‘academic innovation’

Rolin Moe is in a good position to talk on the topic of ‘academic innovation’. In fact, it’s literally in his job title: ‘Assistant professor and Director of the Institute for Academic Innovation at Seattle Pacific University”.

Moe warns, however, that it’s not necessarily a great idea to create a new discipline out of academic innovation. Until fairly recently, being ‘innovative’ was a negative slur, something that could get you in some serious trouble if you were found guilty.

[T]he historical usage of innovation is not as a foundational platform but a superficial label; yet in 2018 the governing bodies of societal institutions wield “innovation” in setting forth policy, administration and funding. Innovation, a term we all know but do not have a conceptual framework for, is driving change and growth in education. As regularly used without context, innovation is positioned as the future out-of-the-box solution for the problems of the present.

This makes the term a conduit of power relationships despite many proponents of innovation serving as vocal advocates for diversity, equity and inclusion in higher education. Thinking about revenue shortfalls in a time of national economic prosperity, the extraction of arts and humanities programs at a time when industry demands critical thinking from graduates, and the positioning of online learning as a democratizing tool when research shows the greatest benefit is to populations of existing privilege, the solutions offered under the innovation mantle have at best affected symptoms, at worst perpetuated causes.

Words and terms, of course, change over time. But, as Moe points out, if we’re to update the definition of innovation, we need a common understanding of what it means.

Coalescing around a common understanding is vital for the growth of “academic innovation,” but the history of innovation makes this concept problematic. Some have argued that innovation binds together disciplines such as learning technologies, leadership and change, and industrial/organizational psychology.

However, this cohesion assumes a “shared language of inquiry,” which does not currently exist. Today’s shared language around innovation is emotive rather than procedural; we use innovation to highlight the desired positive results of our efforts rather than to identify anything specific about our effort (products, processes or policies). The predominant use of innovation is to highlight the value and future-readiness of whatever the speaker supports, which is why opposite sides of issues in education (see school choice, personalized learning, etc.) use innovation in promoting their ideologies.

It seems to me that the neoliberal agenda has invaded education, as it does with any uncommodified available space, and introduced the language of the market. So we get educators using the language of Silicon Valley and attempting to ‘disrupt’ their institution.

If the goal of academic innovation is to be creative and flexible in the development, discovery and engagement of knowledge about the future of education, the foundation for knowledge accumulation and development needs to be innovative in and of itself. That must start with an operational definition of academic innovation, differentiating what innovation means to education from what it means to entrepreneurial spaces or sociological efforts.

That definition must address the negotiated history of the term, from the earliest application of the concept in government-funded research spurred by education policy during the 1960s, through overlooked innovation authors like Freeman and Thorstein Veblen. Negotiating the future we want with the history we have is vital in order to determine the best structure to support the development of an inventive network for creating research-backed, criticism-engaged and outside-the-box approaches to the future of education. The energy behind what we today call academic innovation needs to be put toward problematizing and unraveling the causes of the obstacles facing the practice of educating people of competence and character, rather than focusing on the promotion of near-future technologies and their effect on symptomatic issues.

While I’m sympathetic to the idea that educational institutions can be ‘stodgy’ places that can often need a good kick up the behind, I’m not entirely sure that academic innovation as a discipline will do anything other than legitimise the capitalist takeover of a public good.

Source: Inside Higher Ed (via Aaron Davis)

Estonia goes for free public transport

Estonia is pretty much already the home of free public wifi, so this is a logical next step. The council of the capital city, Tallinn, provided free public transport to citizens for the last five years after a referdendum. Now the idea is to extend that to everyone — including tourists.

This article mainly comprises of an interview with Allan Alaküla, the Head of Tallinn European Union Office. He makes a couple of important points:

 A good thing is, of course, that it mostly appeals to people with lower to medium incomes. But free public transport also stimulates the mobility of higher-income groups. They are simply going out more often for entertainment, to restaurants, bars and cinemas. Therefore they consume local goods and services and are likely to spend more money, more often. In the end this makes local businesses thrive. It breathes new life into the city.

In other words, allowing people to move around the city without thinking about the cost encourages people to do so. This has economic and social benefits.

Before introducing free public transport, the city center was crammed with cars. This situation has improved — also because we raised parking fees. When non-Tallinners leave their cars in a park-and-ride and check in to public transport on the same day, they [not] only use public transport for free, but also won’t be charged the parking fee. We noticed that people didn’t complain about high parking fees once we offered them a good alternative.

This is great, joined-up thinking: make it really easy for visitors to the city to do the right thing. Estonia really is at the forefront of citizen and pro-social innovation, as anyone familiar with their e-Residency scheme will be aware.

Source: Pop-Up City

Bridging technologies

When you go deep enough into philosophy or religion one of the key insights is that everything is temporary. Success is temporary. Suffering is temporary. Your time on earth is temporary.

One way of thinking about this one a day-to-day basis is that everything is a bridge to something else. So that technology that I’ve been excited about since 2011? Yep, it’s a bridge (or perhaps a raft) to get to something else.

Benedict Evans, who works for the VC firm Andreessen Horowitz, sends out a great, short newsletter every week to around 95,000 people. I’m one of them. In this week’s missive, he linked to a blog post he wrote about bridging technologies.

A bridge product says ‘of course x is the right way to do this, but the technology or market environment to deliver x is not available yet, or is too expensive, and so here is something that gives some of the same benefits but works now.’

As with anything, there are good and bad bridging technologies. At the time, it can be hard to spot the difference:

In hindsight, though, not just WAP but the entire feature-phone mobile internet prior to 2007, including i-mode, with cut-down pages and cut-down browsers and nav keys to scroll from link to link, was a bridge. The ‘right’ way was a real computer with a real operating system and the real internet. But we couldn’t build phones that could do that in 1999, even in Japan, and i-mode worked really well in Japan for a decade.

It’s all obvious in retrospect, as with the example of Firefox OS, which was developed at the same time I was at Mozilla:

[T]he problem with the Firefox phone project was that even if you liked the experience proposition – ‘almost as good as Android but works on much cheaper phones’ – the window of time before low-end Android phones closed the price gap was too short.

Usually, cheap things add more features until people just ‘make do’ with 80-90% of the full feature set. However, that’s not always the case:

Sometimes the ‘right’ way to do it just doesn’t exist yet, but often it does exist but is very expensive. So, the question is whether the ‘cheap, bad’ solution gets better faster than the ‘expensive, good’ solution gets cheap. In the broader tech industry (as described in the ‘disruption’ concept), generally the cheap product gets good. The way that the PC grew and killed specialized professional hardware vendors like Sun and SGi is a good example. However, in mobile it has tended to be the other way around – the expensive good product gets cheaper faster than the cheap bad product can get good.

Evans goes on to talk about autonomous vehicles, something that he’s heavily invested in (financially and intellectually) with his VC firm.

In the world of open source, however, it’s a slightly different process. Instead of thinking about the ‘runway’ of capital that you’ve got before you have to give up and go home, it’s about deciding when it no longer makes sense to maintain the project you’re working on. In some cases, the answer to that is ‘never’ which means that the project keeps going and going and going.

It can be good to have a forcing function to focus people’s minds. I’m thinking, for example, of Steve Jobs declaring war on Flash. The reasons he gives are disingenuous (accusing Adobe of not being ‘open’!) but the upshot of Apple declaring Flash as dead to them caused the entire industry to turn upside down. In effect, Flash was a ‘bridge’ to the full web on mobile devices.

Using the idea of technology ‘bridges’ in my own work can lead to some interesting conclusions. For example, the Project MoodleNet work that I’m beginning will ultimately be a bridge to something else for Moodle. Thinking about my own career, each step has been a bridge to something else; the most interesting bridges have been those where I haven’t been quite sure what was one the other side. Or, indeed, if there even was an other side…

Source: Benedict Evans

Does the world need interactive emails?

I’m on the fence on this as, on the one hand, email is an absolute bedrock of the internet, a common federated standard that we can rely upon independent of technological factionalism. On the other hand, so long as it’s built into a standard others can adopt, it could be pretty cool.

The author of this article really doesn’t like Google’s idea of extending AMP (Accelerated Mobile Pages) to the inbox:

See, email belongs to a special class. Nobody really likes it, but it’s the way nobody really likes sidewalks, or electrical outlets, or forks. It not that there’s something wrong with them. It’s that they’re mature, useful items that do exactly what they need to do. They’ve transcended the world of likes and dislikes.

Fair enough, but as a total convert to Google’s ‘Inbox’ app both on the web and on mobile, I don’t think we can stop innovation in this area:

Emails are static because messages are meant to be static. The entire concept of communication via the internet is based around the telegraphic model of exchanging one-way packets with static payloads, the way the entire concept of a fork is based around piercing a piece of food and allowing friction to hold it in place during transit.

Are messages ‘meant to be static’? I’m not so sure. Books were ‘meant to’ be paper-based until ebooks came along, and now there’s all kinds of things we can do with ebooks that we can’t do with their dead-tree equivalents.

Why do this? Are we running out of tabs? Were people complaining that clicking “yes” on an RSVP email took them to the invitation site? Were they asking to have a video chat window open inside the email with the link? No. No one cares. No one is being inconvenienced by this aspect of email (inbox overload is a different problem), and no one will gain anything by changing it.

Although it’s an entertaining read, if ‘why do this?’ is the only argument the author, Devin Coldewey, has got against an attempted innovation in this space, then my answer would be why not? Although Coldewey points to the shutdown of Google Reader as an example of Google ‘forcing’ everyone to move to algorithmic news feeds, I’m not sure things are, and were, as simple as that.

It sounds a little simplistic to say so, but people either like and value something and therefore use it, or they don’t. We who like and uphold standards need to remember that, instead of thinking about what people and organisations should and shouldn’t do.

Source: TechCrunch

Game-changing modular wheels

This is fantastic:

The Revolve is a full-size 26-inch spoked wheel that can be folded to a third its diameter and 60 percent less space, and back again in an instant, and its commercial availability will offer new design possibilities for folding bicycles, folding wheelchairs and many other vehicles that need to be transported in compact form.

A real game-change in terms of accessibility, I reckon.

Source: New Atlas

Succeeding with innovation projects

There’s some great advice in this article for those, like me, who are leading innovation projects in 2018:

Your role is to make noise around the idea so that potential stakeholders are excited to learn more about it. At this stage, it’s really important to reach out to key individuals within the company and ask for advice, so you can more easily establish an affiliation between them and the new activity, and cultivate a community of internal supporters.

Source: TNW