Innovation out of context

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There’s an abbreviated (and probably better for it) version of this on the British Council blog. Read that instead if you’re short of time.

I don’t usually think of myself as an ‘innovator’ because I’m old enough to remember when Trevor Baylis’s wind-up radio first appeared on Tomorrow’s World, and it feels somewhat offensive to put the kinds of things I do in the same category. But ‘innovation’ isn’t what it used to be – like ‘hacking’ and ‘curator’, the term has been thrown open to the floor. As those with money crave the authenticity of those without, concepts which might be well-intended from one place can often be entirely cynical from somewhere else.

We shouldn’t even trust ourselves with these terms, because it is in our nature to always do what feels good, and justify it afterwards. We can’t help it. The overwhelming drive to feel good will see us constructing social defenses for all kinds of crazy things that we just so happen to also love doing. Unfortunately, it is quite possible to live an artful, exciting, creative life that benefits hardly anyone.

Of course, we can take responsibility, and come up with honest definitions for our work, but to do so would require breaking up with commercial society. It’s not up to society to decide whether we’ve been innovative enough this year, like some sort of black polo neck wearing billionaire Santa, but if we don’t play the game, we might not get any presents.

My practice is all about the potential of the outsider. I work with people who are already outsiders to the commercial machine, but I also create outsiders, by decontextualising people and ideas – taking artists, writers, hackers and scientists out of their usual environments and putting them into challenging new contexts. There’s even a disorder related to it: ‘caetextia’. It means, literally ‘context blind’ and it’s an associate of autism. Without a sense of context, we find our thoughts firing from one association to another in the classic hyper-creative way. If innovation is, as a thousand stock photos would have it, about ‘thinking out of the box’, then my stuff certainly qualifies at the most conceptual level. But it’s beginning to feel like the only way to be an innovator, authentically, is to detach the claim from the question of finance.

Innovation needs genuine NEED (and not yours)

I have come to realise that we have to do the things which feel difficult. That’s one of the biggest clues to the value of the thing and the value for ourselves. And not just for the sake of it, in a sort of ‘we lived for three months in rolled-up newspaper in a septic attack’ competitive deprivation sort of way. But simply because the things that feel easy are the things we already know how to do. There is comfort in having done them before, and whatever we might tell ourselves, we can never be sure that our motivation is anything more than the satisfaction and confidence that comes with familiarity. And when we’re doing things we find difficult, we often seem to approach them in more sensible ways – as long as we’re doing the very difficult thing of trying to solve an external problem in a new way, we’re reasonably protected from the emo knots that go along with doing what we want.

However, novelty is not as commercially popular as you might think. Money hates risk, and risk (or perceived risk, which is usually the same thing) is lower wherever there is experience and similarity. Commercial society, whatever it claims to want for its innovations, does not want explosive lightening bolts of novelty. What it wants is repeatable, proven money-spinners. For every wind-up radio, how many thousands of patents fail to get a foothold?

Make it commercial enough

But I’ve noticed that commerce doesn’t seem to mind novelty if it arises from decoupling and shuffling of skills and contexts – it’s still familiar enough. And as a show impresario with no budget I *would* say this, but people, not ideas, are the real raw material of innovation. The courage to take ourselves out of context is key. Just don’t tell the money people how much we’re prepared to do for each other without any.

Little Britain

The smaller the world, the less legitimate its definitions. The UK has a lot of big talk about innovation and culture, for such a little place. It’s rational to assume our elected handful of cultural influencers must be the best, to fall in with the idea that there are an acceptable, quotable few for some good (if forgotten) reason. In fact, it’s almost impossible not to accept apparent importance on good faith. Those without much power or influence literally can’t afford to question the system.

But you don’t have to go far to realise what a nonsense it is. In February this year, with my project ‘Hack Circus’, I was one of the successful applicants for the ‘Global Futr Labs’ programme pilot, a co-production of Future Everything, consultancy Strange Telemetry, the British Council and the Arts Council. There are some really good posts already on the British Council blog from the other participants so I won’t repeat the details, but it kicked off some fundamental changes for me. I went to Manchester, and the world turned up.

The ‘Global Futr Labs’ were a sort of package of hot-housed opportunities laid out for us in a banquet – one foot in the global scene, one in Manchester itself and a third foot (maybe a kangaroo-like tail-as-foot) in the future of our own work. We were treated to a walking tour of Manchester, some workshopping of ideas around the critical urban environment, and an opportunity to methodically analyse our processes and present our work at the festival.


There was, to my inexperienced British eyes, genuine innovation in the stuff my new colleagues were doing – these creative entrepreneurs from around the world were not ‘disrupting’ in the school rebellion sense we gleefully embrace in this country, they were almost doing the opposite: equalising. They were a voice of sense, determined to use their tools to calmly resolve the chaos they’d grown up with, through bootstrapped ingenuity and bloody hard work. I realised with a jolt: disruption is a glamorous and foreign thing to many in the UK, a shorthand for ‘authentic’, and just as distant. In post-revolutionary Indonesia or the Ukraine, a hackspace is a critical centre for development and education, a spark that might reignite an economy or at least charge a community with hope. In the UK, hackspaces are (to some extent) a place for the privileged to indulge hobbies and just like 19th century hobby farms, perhaps they are an expression of our craving for the more meaningful life of an exotic ‘profonde’.

Change your context

And there was another kind of constructive caetextia, one which led me to Berlin this month. Through our displacement, our origins stand out in relief. We can only get a sense of something from a distance – and we can only show others who we truly are when we place ourselves in total contrast to something. It’s like wearing red in a red house all your life, then suddenly finding yourself in front of a green wall.

So it was that I found myself heading to Berlin the other week to lead an ‘intervention day’ at the ‘School of Magic, Machines and Make-Believe’, an annual summer school run by Rachel Uwa. A group of students from around the world, many simultaneously managing professional art and design careers, were taking the summer out to improve their technical and creative skills and try to build some new stuff.

I invited them to think about the city as a place of invisible limits and forbidden behaviours, and things developed from there. Some of us ventured outside, carrying heavy sandwich boards through the scorching heat, and offering strangers tours of everything from the police station to a local Lidl. Rachel and I stood in front of a shop window where dust-covered builders could be seen mid-renovation, and handed out tickets to passers-by to ‘watch the men for one minute’.

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Some teams thought about influencing routes and trails of breadcrumbs. They followed unwitting pedestrians over bridges, trailing a chalk on a stick. Others stayed behind and considered fantastical scenes beneath the street, so that we might mount projectors onto CCTV cameras and transform them from Orwellian harbingers into beams of magic that moved when the cameras did. We found ourselves in the park collecting childhood fairytales from a group of drug dealers, and left them, smiling, with our hamfisted gang signs (actually Rachel was very good).

And that was when I realised what all this was about. Putting yourself in a different context is an intervention and an innovation. And the more publicly you do it, the more completely you embrace the challenge, the more your experience will impact on your surroundings. So creatives, hackers, anyone keen to make a difference but feeling by the overwhelming influence of the status quo, I urge you: do the difficult thing and use your freedom. Get away from the red house and head to the green wall, at every opportunity. You won’t regret it.

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2 thoughts on “Innovation out of context

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