PROFESSOR STEVE WOOLGAR

Do we need a new theory of innovation? And what is our understanding of innovation? Some problems can be addressed by thinking of innovation as a social process: it is important to consider sources of resistance to innovation before asking if new technologies will make us more innovative. The rationale for the importance of innovation […]

Do we need a new theory of innovation? And what is our understanding of innovation? Some problems can be addressed by thinking of innovation as a social process: it is important to consider sources of resistance to innovation before asking if new technologies will make us more innovative.

The rationale for the importance of innovation is fairly well known: advanced economies are increasingly under pressure and there is increased global competition for a wide range of goods and services. As part of this, product lifecycles are becoming shorter. To address these pressures, companies have deployed a range of measures which include merging, downsizing, cutting costs and re-engineering. However, there are reasons to believe that we have now taken these kinds of measures to their limit. The inescapable conclusion, according to this rationale, is to innovate.

Although we can find various definitions of innovation, one of the most popular is `the successful exploitation of new ideas’. It concerns me that we might be tempted to over-emphasise the distinction between the genesis of an idea and its exploitation. This separation can be misleading.

Another concern is the way in which innovation seems to acquire the status of a panacea. Is innovation always good for you? We recently did a study of university/industry links, focusing in particular on small and medium-sized firms in the manufacturing sector, because smaller businesses are regarded as the engine of growth in the economy. We wanted to know how these companies identified and acquired exploitable university innovations.

Overwhelmingly, the firms we talked to shunned the notion of innovation. From their point of view, talk about innovation was simply not real-world talk. They made their views clear to us: `Those DTI people don’t live in the real world’. And we were chastised as `university types coming down here and talking about innovation’. The Department of Trade and Industry refrain was: `What are we going to do about small businesses? Why don’t they innovate? Why won’t they listen to us?’

The problem of the relationship between universities and small firms was posed by the DTI in linear terms. It was imagined there is a rational path of connection between the two, but the linear connection was blocked. The solution was to identify and remove the blockage.

By contrast, the picture suggested by our work with small firms is of a world view organised around a cluster of relations with specific local concerns. This universe centred on small firms comprises close connections with suppliers and customers, well-developed knowledge of competitors, and lesser interactions with Tecs, consultants, trade associations, colleges and schools, exhibitions and shows. University graduates are just on the edge of the universe, while universities and Government are on the metaphorical equivalent of the dark side of the moon.

Small businesses at the centre of their own worlds do not see themselves as `isolated’ or `cut off’ from universities, nor do they think in terms of the path to universities being blocked. Their primary orientation is to markets rather than to the production of new ideas. Many of them pointed out that their key products upon which profitability depended were far from the current cutting edge of research.

This example highlights the inappropriateness of linear thinking. All its key assumptions have been shown to be false. However, despite the best academic critiques, linearity seems to be embedded in our social arrangements.

An alternative begins with the central premise of social science that society comprises overlapping networks of social relations. We are each a member of several such networks. Innovation requires a change in a network of social relations.

Some of these networks are more robust than others. One particularly notable class of networks is designed to have particular effects on other parts of society: these networks we call technology. Technology embodies key assumptions, for example about the identity and nature of users, their abilities to deal with technology, what they want and expect and how they will react to a new product. The assumptions inform the design process and design decisions. Technology is congealed social relations.

This way of thinking highlights some important sources of resistance to innovation. It is best understood as resistance to change in established social networks.

Will new technologies make us more innovative? This translates as: will new technologies bring about a change in social relations?

This issue can be illustrated by a recent study of business teleworking. The rationale for this technology is to reduce the amount of time spent in travel and in face-to-face contact, and thereby increase overall efficiency.

The study found that teleworkers made faster and more extensive contacts. But having done so, they were only able to capitalise on these new contacts by arranging to meet face to face, and as a result were travelling greater distances. This is an example of innovation failure in that there was insufficient change in the nature of social relations.

I recommend the following principles to guide our reorientation to the question of innovation:

* Beware linear thinking

* Encourage more and greater interaction across the boundaries between Government, industry and academia

* Be aware that innovation is a social process of changing networks of social relations

* Technology is a particular kind of network of social relations

* Sources of resistance to innovation are manifest in fears about changes in established networks of social relations.

It follows that successful innovations need to have the right social networks in place.

This is an edited version of the annual 3M Innovation Lecture, `A New Theory of Innovation’, delivered at Brunel University on 11 June.

Professor Steve Woolgar is director of CRICT (Centre for Research into Innovation, Culture and Technology) at Brunel University.