The Appearance of Innovation

The Appearance of Innovation is the second in a series of six essays taking a critical look at innovation culture, its assumptions, influences and impact.

In the first essay of this series we asked the questions:

If there is no significant quantitative data to confirm the success of the Innovation Agenda, why does it still loom so large in the landscape, why are these strategies being propagated and implemented despite no tangible proof of their impact?


Why do so many well-meaning, thoughtful, passionate and dedicated people take on the mantle of innovation out of a desire to create change only to find themselves frustrated, years later, to be confronted with the same questions and same problems?

It is probably because the Innovation Agenda is incredibly seductive.

Since the Innovation Industry originates in the corporate sector, it has an exciting vocabulary borrowed from the business world, one that is prone to buzzwords and rife with marketing-speak designed to create the appearance of novelty, dynamism and action. We are told we face “adaptive challenges” and are encouraged to be “change agents” pursuing “disruptive” strategies to “redefine our business”. We are overwhelmed with a relentless onslaught of corporate jargon, and we are susceptible because we’ve been indoctrinated to believe that the businessmen and consultants are always right. We become vulnerable, lose faith. But how does jargon work, why does it work so well and how can we resist its siren song?

Central to the modern Innovation Industry – and by extension the Innovation Agenda in the Arts – is the creation, introduction and diffusion of memes, a word coined by Richard Dawkins in 1976 and defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as, “an idea, behavior or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.” The fabrication, replication and dissemination of memes can be as much a shell game and mechanism for creating value in the Information Age as it is a legitimate component of non-hierarchical, distributive discourse; to understand the seduction of the innovation agenda, it is necessary to understand the meme as a unit of currency in what I call the “ideas economy”.

While ideas and discourse have been a part of the human experience since we first became conscious, the “ideas economy” as we currently know it probably dates back to the moment when popular guides to “self-improvement” cross-pollinated with popular guides to effective business strategies. From the early days of Dale Carnegie to today’s empire of TED, a vast marketplace of ideas has emerged, for good or ill. The good part is that there can never be too many ideas, though parsing the good ones from the bad ones still requires diligence and perspicacity. The bad part is that as ideas increasingly become marketable commodities, the demands of the media through which they are disseminated and sold inevitably result in their simplification and diminution. Webcasts, podcasts and PowerPoint are not conducive to complexity or even, necessarily inspiring rhetoric. (My favorite demonstration of this is Peter Norvig’s PowerPoint version of The Gettysburg Address).

So as ideas emerge from research and development, become productized and delivered to market, they are broken down into memes that can replicate. The faster they replicate and the further they spread, the more they increase the brand value of the meme’s originator (and subsequent memes he or she may create) while providing opportunities for “idea innovators” to modify, augment or subvert the meme to create new value. The challenge is that the creation of value often results in the destruction of meaning.

In the study of semiotics we encounter the notion of “slippage”, a condition in which distance arises between the signifier and the signified, often to such an extent as to confound meaning. Memes, by virtue of their ephemerality and viral nature, are prone to slippage as they move through the unstable landscape of media and cultural discourse, morphing as they go. Thus memes in the ideas economy go viral and undergo extreme slippage, to the point where the use of these memes serves more as an expression of a desire to appear innovative than to engage with the idea that it is meant to signify.

Take, for instance, the trendy meme of “the commons”. According to Wikipedia, (which is, in fact, a commons):

There are a number of important aspects that can be used to describe true commons. The first is that the commons cannot be commodified – if they are, they cease to be commons. The second aspect is that unlike private property, the commons are inclusive rather than exclusive — their nature is to share ownership as widely, rather than as narrowly, as possible…

So Wikipedia, because it is massively open and participatory, inclusive and collaboratively edited, managed, operated and supported by its community, is a true Commons. However, if you build a website and receive a big grant to run it, if you get paid to be the editor, solicit content, edit that content, choose which contributors to pay and how much to pay them, by definition, this is not a commons. If all the administrative decisions on editorial policy, organizational strategy, funding initiatives and management of human and capital resources are made by leadership and not the constituency, it is not a commons. You can call it a commons until the cows come home, but you have not built a commons.

I am vehement about this because in the rush to create “commons” people often neglect one key point: if the commons is open to all and benefits everyone, then everyone must be invested in and responsible for its stewardship and care. Everyone has to be able to collectively tend to the commons, which demands universal access. The commons is both a shared benefit and responsibility; it demands cooperation and collaboration for the collective good. That’s how it works. You can’t create a unilateral commons; it is contradictory, bordering on hypocritical. (I have so much more to say on this and why this is so important, but in the interest of time I will direct you to the last two paragraphs of this article on

Thus in the world of arts administration, we frequently find ourselves adrift in a sea of meaninglessness masquerading as “Big Ideas”. Usually conveyed over the course of a weekend intensive in a conference room suffused with fluorescent light, these “Big Ideas” are conveyed with urgency and conviction by corporate-trained proselytizers bearing visually enticing PowerPoint slides. Eventually you will find yourself bludgeoned into submission, no longer questioning the relentless flow of gibberish. If I had the time I would do for Innovation-Speak what artists David Levine and Alix Rule did for International Art English or maybe build an Arts Innovation Language Generator like this Corporate Gibberish Generator. Nothing says “innovation” like “We’re exercising our under-utilized organizational muscles to develop processes to manage conflicts around the change initiatives we’ve implemented to address our adaptive challenges and build stabilizing capacity.”

I’m not just being glib. The persistent invasive creep of corporate innovation language into the arts poses an almost existential threat to our enterprise, which is, at its core, the creation of meaning. As Andrew Simonet said in his presentation to the Brooklyn Commune, we’re inundated by messages in all media – television, books, internet, phones, radio – almost all of which exist primarily to sell us something. The entire raison d’etre of 98% of everything we see, hear, read or experience is to get us to consume a product or buy a service, usually something we don’t need or even want. Nearly every image we see, sound we hear, or word we read emanating from ubiquitous on-demand entertainment platforms during the 24-hour news cycle is rigorously calibrated to maximize disorientation and unease, to create a sense of material want while stimulating inchoate psychological terror that can only be assuaged through consumption. This is by design and necessity; corporations study human behavior and develop complex systems for the creation of desire and its fulfillment, these cycles are known in video game design, for instance, as “satisfaction loops”.

The not-for-profit arts sector is the tiniest sliver of a tiny sliver of an even tinier and ever-shrinking corner of the world that is, ideally, not supposed to be about selling anything to anybody. Our entire existence is predicated on seeking meaning beyond commerce. Our endeavor is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, we are public servants attending the oft-neglected but all-too-real human need to cultivate wisdom, contemplate existence and create beauty (see Maslow). Artists are called to make the unseen visible, to bridge the unbearable existential chasm between interior isolated selves, to bring human beings together in real time to connect, to share, to learn, to grow, to co-develop more fully realized selves. If we conduct ourselves only according to the logic and values of the market, if we willingly participate in the creation of meaninglessness, or abdicate the struggle to make meaning in the face of meaninglessness, we are lost.

This may seem hyperbolic, but let’s look at an example.

In the first part of this essay I discussed memes and slippage and how ideas, as commodities, become distorted, creating the appearance of innovation when nothing underneath has actually changed. At the same time, the cumulative effect of the proliferation of memes with their aggressive viral spread and concomitant extreme slippage is one of hyperinflation: a bubble in the ideas economy that must, inevitably, burst.

One of the most hyper-inflated memes in the ideas economy of the arts is “sustainability.” Sustainability has undergone such extreme slippage that I’m not sure anyone really knows what it is supposed to mean anymore. Now, I’m not so cynical as to suggest that the sustainability bubble has burst, but from where I’m sitting it looks like it is waning, only to be supplanted by the meme of resilience. I don’t know who introduced resilience, or started aggressively replicating it (Andrew Zolli, maybe?) but it has been gaining ground.

In any case, this is problematic, because as the meme of resilience supplants the meme of sustainability, the tangible efforts to create real change become obscured by an ever-shifting set of guideposts. Taking these abstract ideas, that generally originate from very specific contexts, and translating them into new contexts is difficult under the best of circumstances. Even if the ideas deftly adapt to the new context, it is highly likely that through overuse the words will become mere signifiers for a general attitude or perspective, but not a tangible course of action. For instance words like “organic” and “artisanal” and “all-natural” become brand positioning reference points rather than indicating any actual quality of the product in question. In this way once-meaningful terms may serve to create the appearance of change, while preserving the status quo. And this is the slippery slope of the Innovation Agenda.

Even given the dangers of slippage inherent in meme propagation, I would like to propose the adoption of a relatively new meme, one that hasn’t quite fully worked its way into the ideas economy: interdependence.

If sustainability is predicated on resilience and resilience requires flexible, redundant systems, then the viability of the macro-system in aggregate is predicated on interdependence.

When we use terms like “ecology” or “ecosystem” to describe a particular culture or social structure, we are using a kind of shorthand for interdependent support systems. The social, biological, mechanical and digital worlds all require reliable interdependent systems to protect against massive macro-systemic failure.

In the first essay of this series we quoted the Irvine Foundation’s final report on the Arts Innovation Fund as saying:

We have long partnered with major arts organizations because they are important to civic life and essential to a stable arts ecosystem. Their ability to evolve and gain relevance in today’s California correlates to the quality of life in our local communities.

And responded that:

Major arts organizations are not the only arts structure that is important to civic life nor are they essential to a stable arts ecosystem. Civic life depends on engaged and active citizens, not institutions. A stable arts ecosystem depends on equitable economic structures and mechanisms for capital allocation; stability depends on mitigating the precarity of as many stakeholders as possible in an interdependent system.

And this is the key insight – that “the arts” writ large is an interdependent ecosystem where small and medium sized arts organizations, along with major legacy arts institutions, serve as a kind of circulatory system through which a diverse array of artists flow, providing essential nourishment for the body politic. If we focus solely on major arts organizations, or neglect to develop and steward circulatory systems between organizations, then we perpetuate systemic dysfunction and flirt with macro-systemic failure.

So if, for argument’s sake, we accept the prevailing definition of innovation in the arts as “instances of change that result from a shift in underlying … assumptions” then the only way the innovation agenda will succeed is to completely reframe the underlying assumptions currently held to be true. A stable arts ecosystem demands an equitable flow of resources throughout an interdependent system; it demands that we counter corporate metrics for productivity, growth and value with viable, thoughtful responses predicated on our own values, resist the seductive jargon that creates the appearance of innovation while we seek out the real and make meaning.

But in order to counter corporate metrics for productivity, growth and value with viable, thoughtful responses, we need to understand more fully what those corporate frameworks are.

We’ll explore that in the next essay.

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