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Breeding Innovation

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Innovation is a concept that just won't quit. Suitable really, as it is broadly intended as a means for solving problems and the world has plenty of those at the moment. Perhaps we can safely assume that after more than two years of public and global saturation 'innovation' has escaped the buzzword graveyard.

At the Centre for Creative and Social Technologies (CAST) at Goldsmiths we have come to acknowledge what is really a self-evident reality - you can't teach innovation, or at least you can't teach people to be innovators. For us innovation has come to be about discovery, resilience, and luck. And you can teach all these things and hope that innovation is a byproduct of their playful intersections.

So let's start with discovery. We are firm believers in failure as the greatest method of discovery. Seeking to innovate new ideas and concepts is really a process of experimentation and in the digital and creative practices you tend to learn a lot more from experiments that fail than you do from the ones that work. Our lessons learned on this suggest this may be because when you succeed in the early instances of trials it is because you haven't stretched your ambition far enough or perhaps even really experimented at all. Basically you should be aiming for about a 95% failure rate in your efforts at innovation. That's a good success rate of failure.

Resilience is about equilibrium. This term came to us from a blog post from Marion Kooneeliusie, the granddaughter of the late and great Inuit guide Pauloosie Kooneeliusie. About five years ago I went on a two week dog sled trek through 23 hour darkness and -50C conditions with Pauloosie starting out from his hometown of Qikiqtarjuaq, an island on the east coast of Nunavut in the Canadian arctic. We passed graveyards of Scottish whalers who had settled in the region after their ships were locked in by an early freeze. We passed caves full of frozen seals that worked basically the same way as our own domestic freezers leaving excess food for the next sled on the trail. After a particularly long day, one of the dogs tired as we floated through 20 foot snow banks. The dogs would go down and disappear into the banks as they pulled us along in blistering winds before reappearing full of paddling and survivalist instincts. When the dog fell the ropes got tangled around her legs, the blood red drops on the snow shocked my retinas after a week of white blindness. Pauloosie stopped the sled and got down to untangle the dog. On his first attempt the dog nipped at his hands and got a stern talking to from the legendary guide. When he tried again and the dog nipped again Pauloosie got up and back in his seat and we finished our journey to the log cabin, leaving a trail of blood behind us in our tracking wake.

When we arrived he fed all the other dogs first and only begrudgingly tossed the wounded animal some leftover seal meat at the very end. The next morning we were back on the trail and as I huddled down in my coffin-like sled I felt a wet nudging on my neck. The wounded dog was taped up and riding contentedly in the back under some blankets and fur. When we eventually returned to Qikiqtarjuaq, there was a dozen of those wounded animals frolicking happily in Pauloosie's backyard. Their trail days were over but their lives of domestic bliss had only just begun. Everything Pauloosie did was in balance and equilibrium. It is a quality that nearly all of us caught up in the rushing rivers of innovation and digital media seek at nearly every turn. And equilibrium is a pre-requisite for innovation. If you find yourself getting evangelical, preaching dogma, righteousness, utopian fantasies, or over exuberant and empty sales pitches, just stop. Find balance. Find equilibrium. And commence your quest for illusive innovation again.

Finally luck. One of the most under-appreciated academic research studies of the past century is Richard Wiseman's seminal work on Luck. From a 10-year study, he arrived at four simple principles for making your own luck in life: listen to your intuition, think positively and create self-fulfilling prophecies, adopt a resilient attitude to setbacks (e.g. failure), and most importantly to think that lucky people are really just those that keep a lookout for new possibilities and create them in the process. What made his work so effective was that he tested all this by instigating a 'Luck School' where he took people who declared themselves generally unlucky, trained them in his four principles, and let them loose on the world as suddenly lucky products of his school of scientific skepticism. You need a lot of luck to innovate successfully, but you can make yourself think and behave like a lucky person and dramatically increase your chances of translating this luck into innovative results.