The Innovation Gap?

MY favourite highbrow sci-fi writer / academic has posted one of his wonderful essays, this time on the relationship between science fiction and innovation. Please read it (at least once), but if you are going to force me to try and sum it up in three sentences, well …

  • A) We lack popular culture images to tack our innovative aspirations onto (i.e. moon rockets, Asimov’s robots)
  • B) A lack of conflict and fear-of-failure have prevented us from innovating on a big scale
  • C) This is compounded by information overload stopping things from being tried again, alongside a risk-adverse culture focused on short-term gains

Starship concept art by Chris Foss - innovation needs big bright imagery to drive it forward

Having done his essay a massive injustice with that summary, I’d like to now painfully attempt to frame some of his arguments in the context of libraries and higher education.

A) We lack popular culture images to tack our innovative aspirations onto
Probably true. Most of the available sci-fi images of future libraries involve no librarians or library buildings, the classic ‘Library of Congress on a single disc’ conceit is one. If anything, this is symptomatic of the view of libraries as centres of content rather than actual service providers.

To be honest, the Internet blew any fictional aspirational images we might have had out of the water. We now need better images that encompass the actual service librarians provide. To go back to Stephenson, his excellent novel Snow Crash features an intelligent software agent called The Librarian, linked constantly to the Internet, able to interpret and assist in serious research, always on call. Not a bad image. To bad its not a real person.

A typical mad scientist. Is he on your library payroll?

B) A lack of conflict and fear-of-failure have prevented us from innovating on a big scale
Partly true, which is not to say that we do not innovate at all. In his argument, Stephenson uses the cold war as his motivator for human space travel. I would argue that libraries are under so much pressure from Google, our users, our publishers and lots of other stuff that we can’t afford  NOT to innovate.

I’ve actually got innovation built into my job spec. This is both ace and daunting. Monday mornings are much better spent topping up on coffee and amusing cat photos rather than dreaming up some new amazing concept.

Me aside, librarians and libraries in Universities are often quite keen in trying new things. Here are four models for how we innovate in libraries in UK HE:

  1. We innovate nationally – say the JISC, RLUK or some other funding body identifies a problem, comes up with a solution and funds it. Sometimes this works (COPAC = ace national research catalogue), sometimes it stagnates as it does not meet end-user needs  (Lots of mostly empty institutional repositories, rather than a national level subject based service).  But at least we tried
  2. We outsource innovation to our software suppliers –  sometimes this works amazingly (Summon, bX), other times they ignore us and let products stagnate as they remain profitable without having to be rethought. I would argue that this was largely the only real model we had from the late 1990s till around 2005, whilst we were still trying to understand the Internet. The inability of the library systems market to develop better OPAC interfaces (until they decided to resell them as new products) has meant that we now cannot afford to rely on them  alone
  3. We innovate in house, preferably on somone elses’ coin (JISC again). Similar issues to number one, but often better focused on local needs
  4. We hope that someone clever does something amazing. Sometimes they do.

A combination of all four and others ought to see us through. Yet it does not always.

C) Lack of large scale innovation is  compounded by information overload stopping things from being tried again, alongside a risk-adverse culture focused on short-term gains

Stephenson has a great section on this which I will quote:

In his recent book Adapt: Why Success Always Starts with Failure, Tim Harford outlines Charles Darwin’s discovery of a vast array of distinct species in the Galapagos Islands—a state of affairs that contrasts with the picture seen on large continents, where evolutionary experiments tend to get pulled back toward a sort of ecological consensus by interbreeding. “Galapagan isolation” vs. the “nervous corporate hierarchy” is the contrast staked out by Harford in assessing the ability of an organization to innovate.

Most people who work in corporations or academia have witnessed something like the following: A number of engineers are sitting together in a room, bouncing ideas off each other. Out of the discussion emerges a new concept that seems promising. Then some laptop-wielding person in the corner, having performed a quick Google search, announces that this “new” idea is, in fact, an old one—or at least vaguely similar—and has already been tried. Either it failed, or it succeeded. If it failed, then no manager who wants to keep his or her job will approve spending money trying to revive it. If it succeeded, then it’s patented and entry to the market is presumed to be unattainable, since the first people who thought of it will have “first-mover advantage” and will have created “barriers to entry.” The number of seemingly promising ideas that have been crushed in this way must number in the millions.

The more we stifle our ability to fail, the less flexible and adaptive we become. Through caution we are destroying our ability to evolve. In HE, where image and prestige are important, the bigger you are, the greater the risk of failure becomes as you worry about tarnished reputations.

I look at smaller ‘up-and-coming Universities’ aiming to improve research impact and student satisfaction ratings. I see that they are jumping on and off bandwagons and trying new things all the time. This is resulting in a lot of junk but also some success.  Either way, they are gaining the in-house ability to develop new things quicker and learning how to drop stuff they do not need, which are vital functions of any body operating in the fast moving information environment.

Considering I work in the birthplace of evolutionary theory, its a bit ironic.

Again, the bigger and more successful you get, the harder it becomes to innovate. Google, once a symbol of innovation has recently dropped its ‘labs’ brand.

I’ll add a final point specific to libraries and supporting services generally.

D) What else is wrong? A gap between real service and innovation

If  I were to add anything to Stephensons’ arguments as applied to libraries, its on the gap between innovation and the end user.

In a University faculty, where researchers may experiment, write up and move on after maybe setting up a spin-off company, innovation has a natural endpoint.

In a service environment such as a library,  whenever innovation occurs and appears to be successful, it needs to be translated into the mainstream, turned into a new product or service and pushed into production. Even with the concept of the perpetual beta, this is really hard. One way to innovate is to stop doing stuff, let things go. I think libraries are particularly bad at this.

So to summarize, we innovate plenty. There is not so much starvation as a gap between real services and innovation and in innovating with existing services. Its partly down to our vendor  / publisher relationships, partly down to in-house organisation and concepts A, B and C as outlined above come into play.

I’ll try and expand with concrete suggestions in follow-up posts.


2 thoughts on “The Innovation Gap?

  1. Point (A) is in mind for me after Playful11 last week, which had a talk on the same topic 🙂 I wouldn’t limit it to libraries. It’s much easier to make a doodad and say “hey, this is a star tek communicator!” than it is to make something genuinely new, which might be very hard to describe without any SF analogues.

    But inspiration should not, of course, be limited to building a future that’s already been conceived of. And library innovation shouldn’t be limited to library concepts from the canon…. (otherwise you could all start growing GM trees producing acid-free paper leaves, a la Anathem 😉 Where are the neural interfaces to information of Vernor Vinge? The friendly and colourful and good value Hitchhiker’s Guide which works everywhere, even in backwaters?

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