What are we innovating?

To prepare for my senior seminar this semester, I’ve been reading a lot about innovation. Here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. Innovation is linked to business growth. According to Making Innovation Work: How to Measure It, Manage It, and Profit From It, “Innovation is the key element in providing aggressive top-line growth, and for increasing bottom-line results.”
  2. Business is currently experiencing an “innovation gap.”  Several sources I read stated the need for students to be better trained in creative and critical thinking skills in order to be able to help businesses improve their profits through innovation.
  3. The arts are commonly cited as a tool that can be beneficial for innovation.  Exposing students to the arts, we read, is a wonderful way to help them learn the creativity that they will need in order to succeed in business.

You might think that this post is going to be about increasing funding for arts education, and how wonderful it is that the corporate world is starting to understand the arts.  It’s not. Aside from the obvious concern that the arts seen in this context as merely a means to an end, and not an end in themselves, my question is about the very nature of innovation.

I have never thought of innovation as a word that applies to business alone.  Is innovation something that happens only when there is a purpose for it; i.e. to create a new product to sell or an efficiency that spurs growth and creates profit?  Is it possible to have innovation for innovation’s sake?

And, if innovation is linked to product or profit, how does that definition fit into what arts organizations do?

Your thoughts would help me and my students sort this one out.


About Ellen Rosewall

I am Professor and Chair of Arts Management and author of Arts Management: Uniting Arts and Audiences in the 21st Century (Oxford University Press, 2013). I believe that arts and culture are undergoing a profound change in the 21st century, and I love talking with people about how we continue to bring arts to our communities and individuals give the brave new world of social media, technology and economic changes. Join the conversation!
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2 Responses to What are we innovating?

  1. I’m trying to think of the best way to word my response, but I’ll stumble through and see what happens:
    In our society, as troubles arise, they are addressed and viewed as stand alone problems. Very rarely do I see a news report or political pundit address the underlying causes of an issue. Each situation is approached as an isolated incident, unless something directly links the occasions i.e. victim, motive, affected demographic. We’ve been trained since youth to look at the pieces of a puzzle and work it forward towards a specific, known outcome. We don’t look at puzzle pieces and imagine the cardboard, ink, artist, or factory that were involved in the creation of the puzzle, we just take what we’re given and move forward from there. We need to start working backwards from situations, not starting with the idea of how do we prevent this situation in the future, but going back to the events that led to this specific outcome.
    With this in mind I focus on the arts. The arts are a long term investment in both the individual and the culture towards addressing the underlying issues we miss, despite recognizing the symptoms. Innovation, or lack there of, is not a problem can’t be solved immediately with standard problem solving.
    The arts and innovation have gone hand in hand since mankind first had ideas to express. The problem is we live in a society driven by financial gain. Arts by themselves might not be the profit generating machine that businesses desire, and so the Arts are are put low on the list of social priorities. If an idea does not lead to a new product, or new form of marketing, it is discarded. Every experience I’ve had with the Arts has led me to believe that creativity flourishes when money is not part of the equation. When I don’t have to worry about trying to sell the finished project, or I’m not concerned with the value of the materials I’m working with, the outcome is greater than anything motivated by financial gain.
    Arts education, or involving arts in education, offers students the opportunity to be creative for the sake of creativity. It’s the ability to question things and methods that are taken for granted that can lead to innovation.

    I hope any of this makes sense and/or is helpful.


    • I love these thoughts, Justin — especially coming from you since you now have a for-profit business but have always had a not-for-profit heart. I think much of your work is very innovative, in the sense that it takes established techniques and leads them to new places. I wonder also what you’ve found about how this aspect of your work affects sales.

      But back to innovation and the arts, your comments bring up a question: if we innovate and nobody notices, is it still innovation? If we are not valuing the arts as much as we should, who cares if we innovate?

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