Are today’s innovation centres, hubs, labs the answer to driving innovation in business today? Or much like animals in farms or zoos, an attempt ‘tame the wild’? Together with Ella Hafermalz and Dirk Hovorka from the University of Sydney Business School we explore the metaphor of human/animal interaction as it relates to innovation centres within organisations.


Show notes and links for this episode:

Capgemini Consulting and Altimeter global report reveals leading businesses continue to struggle with innovation, with traditional R&D model ‘broken’

John Berger’s book “About Looking”, chapter titled “Why look at animals?” 

John Berger, art critic and author, dies aged 90

ON Prime: the Australian inventions CSIRO is helping take to market

Introduction: Innovation has always been a fuzzy business. The question of where to do it and how to do it has always preoccupied business. Today's answer seems to be the innovation centre, the innovation hub, the innovation lab. These flexible collaborative yet contained spaces where businesses invite employees and customers to witness innovation as it happens like never before. But can a centre that separates and contains, preserve what is essentially a creative boundary spanning process that normally upsets the status quo. But can innovation be enclosed?

From the University of Sydney Business School, this is Sydney Business Insights, the podcast that explores the future of business.

I am Sandra Peter and today we are talking to Ella Hafermalz and Dirk Hovorka who are conducting a provocative enquiry to find out "Can innovation centres tame the wild?" Ella Hafermalz is a postdoctoral researcher in Business Information Systems who is interested in the future of work and how businesses implement new ideas. Dirk Hovorka is an Associate Professor and chair of the Business Information Systems Discipline at the University of Sydney Business School.

Sandra: So, welcome Ella, welcome Dirk. In your research, you have metaphorically used human animal relations to look at innovation centres. Can you run us through the idea behind this?

Dirk: Sandra, we started with the recognition that innovation has become a holy grail for organisations. We looked at the way in which innovation centres are frequently constructed and noticed the separateness as an entity and drew from that the idea that these are akin to wildlife reserves in Australia.

Ella: We actually then started to look at an essay by a theorist called John Berger and he talks about human animal relationships and how they've changed over time. He points out that we used to actually be very close with animals, we would treat them as gods and we would spend a lot of time interacting with them, but through the industrial revolution this all changed. Animals started to be seen as a very separate entity and in that process we put them into separate places, including into reserves as Dirk mentioned, into farms, we treated them as pets and kept them separate in our homes, and then we also put them in zoos and showed them off. And this sort of metaphorical thinking about human/animal relationships helped us to start digging a little bit deeper into the conceptual aspects of innovation centres as something that sits separately from the rest of the organisation. Innovation is contained and we are comparing that to how animals are kept separate from society.

Sandra: Indeed the innovation has become the holy grail these days and today the Australian government alone is putting $1.1 billion into sporting innovation over the next four years to drive the so-called "ideas boom". Dirk, has innovation always been valued in society?

Dirk: Interestingly, innovation is a very contested idea historically. When we looked at historical analysis of term, we noted that innovation was for a long time not considered something you wanted to pursue but was actually an accusation. Innovation was transgressive, it challenged the orthodoxy, both in terms of the church and in terms of political structures, in terms of work relations. It was something that was considered to be very wild and very dangerous. So, starting from that ground, we looked at the idea that novation, from which innovation comes, refers to newness and newness was not something that has always been appreciated. In the 19th century, innovation was really focused on invention, which came about as the consumer culture increased and technology became more widely distributed, and by the mid-19th century innovation was really understood through an economic logic of bringing new things to market.

Sandra: Many companies today are setting up these innovation centres and innovation labs to actually drive innovation today. Can you tell us a bit about this trend?

Ella: Innovation centres, they're sectioned off parts of an organisation and they're dedicated to driving innovation. There's two common types: one at in-house innovation labs and these sit inside an organisation but are separate from them, or innovation outposts and they are based in universities or industry centres, like Silicon Valley, and the idea behind these innovation centres is that they can give the organisation a competitive edge by allowing them to experiment with new products and ideas. And they're meant to be beneficial on a number of fronts, including financial performance, corporate brand, and even employee engagement. But it's not really clear how successful these innovation centres are being. There's not been a lot of academic analysis of their role in making organisations more innovative and there is some scepticism coming out around how successful they can be.

Sandra: So, how are you using the metaphor of human/animal relations to think through the potential limitations of these innovation centres? Perhaps containing them is not such a bad thing?

Ella: As Dirk has told us, innovation used to be considered dangerous because it was new and threatening and even wild so we're looking at innovation centres in a similar way. Perhaps they are trying to contain what has been considered wild and innovative in a very safe space in this contained centre. And as I said, we're using four different metaphors to explore this idea. So, I'm going to go through those now and perhaps these will resonate with people who have worked in innovation centres or perhaps not, we'll see.

So, first of all, Berger tells us that as nature started to disappear from our cities, people got quite nostalgic for nature, they missed it and they treated it as something that was quite innocent and that had been driven to the far edges of the earth by our human endeavours of city building. And within that metaphor animals came to be seen as something that was quite innocent and that needed protecting. And here we can look at the innovation centre as a sanctuary for what is naive and innocent. This is where innovative activities and people can be protected from the rest of the organisation. And maybe that is a good thing because these entities perhaps do need protecting from commercial interests, at least in their initial years. But it can also be seen as problematic if we take this metaphor of the weak nature being protected in a sanctuary and take that into an innovation centre context. Maybe innovation is being positioned as also something that is weak and defenceless and that can be a problem because it might not be seen as a serious part of the business. In the second metaphor that we use we look at the farm. The farm is another place where humans have completely separated animals from everyday life of society and have treated them as a commercial product. In this case animals are contained and in the case of commercial farming are treated as a resource that can be extracted for use by humans. Here animals are really treated as a commercial product. They're produced in a mechanistic way and what is useful about them is only allowed to escape the farm when it is useful to humans. So, again, if we take that metaphor and think about it in the context of innovation centres we can think of the innovation centre as a farm for innovation. This is where we might put innovative people and ideas and put them to work in a mechanistic process where innovations can be extracted when they're seen as being safe and useful for the organisation. This might seem something that's very appealing to organisations who want innovations readily produced for them but perhaps this is not actually a space where ideas can be truly innovative and disruptive because they can only escape when they're considered to be safe.

Sandra: However, the case can be made that farms can be efficient, therefore do you think that innovation centres could also be efficient?

Ella: Perhaps they can but this idea of efficiency is really tied to an industrial model of efficiency, which was about mechanistically increasing the number of entities you could produce in a certain amount of time and that is all predicated on the product being standardised. You expect that because the product is the same, we can speed up the way in which it is produced. Innovation is really not like that. If you look at the innovative ideas that have really changed the landscape of our markets today, it's really often quite singular. One small idea that has transformed the way that we do something, that's not something that you can necessarily mechanise in the same way as a commercial product.

Sandra: What about pets?

Ella: Pets are actually a relatively new phenomenon. We didn't use to keep them in the way that we do now. Of course they're enormously popular now, I have a number of pets myself. Berger has an interesting take on this. He says that we keep pets because there's some element of our personality that we are insecure about and a pet can be conditioned to react towards you as if they recognise that aspect of your personality. So, for example, if you might be wondering if you're funny or not, maybe you pet can learn to react to you as if you are and that is very reassuring. So that's quite entertaining in itself. But if we take that into thinking about innovation centres, this brings up the idea that perhaps innovation centres are there to furnish an aspect of the organisation that they are insecure about. Perhaps the organisation knows that innovation is very important, that it should be innovative, but feels it is lacking innovative qualities. It can therefore set up an innovation centre which then reassures the organisation that they are in fact innovative. They can even show it off to visitors and say "Look! Look! We have an innovation centre, we're an innovative organisation".

Sandra: So, in your opinion, what should organisations be focusing on so that they're not solely there to complete the organisation's image to clients and shareholders?

Ella: The issue with pets is that they are completely cut off from any potential to interact with their external environment. So, yes we might take them on a little walk or an outing, but we make sure that they cannot reproduce and we prevent them from having the sort of freedoms that a wild animal might have. They can't truly interact with their environment. For innovation centres this could be a lesson to say that we need to make sure our innovation centres are not toothless, that was is contained within them can actually interact with the wider environment. There is a sense of exchange between the outside and the inside world of the innovation centre.

Sandra: So, people have put animals in sanctuaries, processed them on farms and kept them as pets. What about zoos?

Ella: Zoos are a phenomenon again that was from about the 19th century. They were a status symbol. This was about empires showing off that they'd been to all corners of the world. Animals were sent back to menageries and zoos and then they were curated and displayed to the local population. And so it was sign of status and also an exotic experience for those who visited the zoo. The role of zoos has changed a little bit but if we take that initial idea behind them and compare that to an innovation centre, here we start to think about how innovation centres are a place where curiosities are collected, both in terms of new technologies, unusual activities and people, and then curated and displayed for the purpose of consumption as a spectacle by external visitors again who are then paraded through the innovation centre and is shown off to them in the same manner that zoos show off exotic animals. This can be a little bit of a problem because really in a zoo when you go and look at an animal in a zoo it's a funny interaction because that animal is not wild anymore. They're there as a display of what was wild but they cannot actually show that wildness back to you because they're completely dependent on their keepers, on their daily routines that are structured by the zoo keepers. And if we think about in terms of innovation centres, well, to what extent can the innovative activities in there really be considered to be interacting with the wider ecosystem responding to market forces if their purpose is to be displayed and curated for the idea of spectacle.

Sandra: So, can innovation centres tame the wild?

Ella: Maybe that's not actually the best way to think about them. Do we want to tame what has been traditionally transgressive and wild? Maybe there's something very important about that idea that we want to hold onto.

Dirk: One of the places that we're looking in this research is the way in which innovation in its origins is something that is dangerous, it is something that is disruptive of the way in which we live in the world, the way in which we see the world, and trying to take this idea of innovation as a packaged and very predictable research approach that ends in commercialisation elevates economic logics and at the same time diminishes the kind of social or environmental, the sorts of innovation that really revolutionised the way in which we exist in the world. We're focused very much on the commercialisation aspect and other important issues get left by the wayside because they are not part of this drive towards predictable production of commercial products.

Sandra: So what have you learned?

Dirk: Well, through the presentations we've given and the research we've done so far, we know that some of these examples really resonate with people who've worked in innovation centres, that they feel like they're on display, they feel like they are there because the organisation needs to have an innovation centre, they feel like they are only being tasked to produce in a mechanistic way and in a very rational way products which might be looked at as beneficial but they're innovation with the small "i" innovation. There are some very positive examples of innovation centres that produce a counter narrative. These come from centres that are very much networked, they're location-based, they're networked with other centres, they're networked with organisations as Ella said, they go outside the organisation, they interact with outside entities, they interact with outside ideas, and they serve as a place of circulation of people and ideas where there is a renewed interest in the broader spectrum of development and inventiveness that really changes the way we see the world. This focus allows these ideas to escape but not just in a really safe and controlled way. So, we're suggesting that innovation is not something that we want to try to tame. We might want to use an innovation centre or some configuration to protect the parts of the process that are vulnerable but we really need to be thinking about how to spread these ideas and get people thinking about how to do things and exist differently. So, in this way, innovation is a bridge. It's a bridge between the world as we know it and a future state of affairs whose outlines are emerging. These outlines are not yet clear but they're something we can move towards through these processes and through this really experimentation with what is wild and what is dangerous.

Sandra: So what's next for both of you?

Ella: We are really keen to talk to people about their experiences of working in innovation centres, of setting them up. We recognise that there's a huge variety of experiences out there and we would like to hear from people.

Dirk: We'd also like to hear from people who've had not only the kinds of metaphorical experiences that we have seen and talked about but the way in which centres are configured in networks where people are exposed and are really tasked with not just solving the problems we know about but in generating problems that we haven't really thought about, generating really new worlds that we don't yet know how to achieve.

Sandra: Ella and Dirk, thank you very much.

Dirk: Thank you very much for the opportunity.

Ella: Thank you.

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