Innovation – just another meaningless buzzword?

Innovation Road Sign with dramatic clouds and sky.

By Heather Cameron

As one of the trendiest terms of recent times, innovation has become familiar across the business world. But has its excessive use to refer to anything new effectively made the term a meaningless buzzword?

Lack of meaning

Certainly, critics argue that innovation is overvalued by its promoters and that it is what follows innovation that is really important.

An article published in Aeon magazine last year discusses this view. It highlights that over the last decade questions have been raised over the intrinsic value of innovation, citing a number of statements, including:

‘Innovation is in grave danger of becoming the latest overused buzzword’

‘Innovation died in 2008, killed off by overuse, misuse, narrowness, incrementalism and failure to evolve… In the end, “Innovation” proved to be weak as both a tactic and strategy in the face of economic and social turmoil.’

Even a professional innovation consultant interviewed for the Wall Street Journal said he had advised his clients to ban the word at their companies, describing it as just a ‘word to hide the lack of substance’.

The article suggests that maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the labour that sustains functioning and efficient infrastructures, has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.

Indeed, an idea can be argued to be of little value on its own.

Meaningless or misinterpreted?

An array of definitions can be found for innovation, perhaps the most widely referred to being that of the OECD:

‘the implementation of a new or significantly improved product (good or service) or process, a new marketing method, or a new organisational method in business practices, workplace organisation or external relations’

The important term here is implementation. Other definitions similarly refer to innovation as the implementation of such things that add value. Therefore innovation isn’t just about the new idea/technology/process, it is about the application of it and the outcomes it achieves.

As a recent blog in the Huffington Post noted, while being ‘new’ matters to the definition of innovation, ‘it is far less important than the description of what’s achieved through innovation’.

With so many definitions, it is hardly surprising that innovation has not only been overused but has often been misused. In particular, it has often been used instead of invention. The difference between these two terms is that an invention is the creation of an idea whereas innovation is an activity or process that adds value.

As the Aeon article suggests, innovation isn’t technology and that highlighting maintenance ‘involves moving from buzzwords to values, and from means to ends‘.

Final thoughts

Perhaps the Aeon article’s conclusion sums things up pretty well:

Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there? We must shift from means, including the technologies that underpin our everyday actions, to ends, including the many kinds of social beneficence and improvement that technology can offer.

Rather than labelling innovation as meaningless, perhaps it is more accurate to say that innovation means little on its own.


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Archives in a digital world … creating social value and community engagement

By Rebecca Jackson

Recording the everyday goings on in our lives has almost become second nature, without most of us even thinking about it. Constant updates on Twitter or Facebook act as a personal archive in a digital age. Events we attend often result in photos being uploaded, tagged, liked and shared; while the advent of new tools like Periscope enable live streaming.

While we may think this is a modern phenomenon, a similar, albeit less personal, chronicling of people and events has been going on for centuries and is accessible to us today in the form of archives and art collections. Giving us a window into the lives of those who lived before us, archives have traditionally been seen as a way to enhance learning and increase understanding about the society we live in today. Archive material has also been used as a fun and accessible way to explore our history that goes beyond (sometimes tedious) reading in books.

But in this digital age, where does archiving fit in? What purpose does it serve and what relevance can it have to local communities?

spa blog photoThe Scottish Political Archive

The Scottish Political Archive (SPA) is a small but dedicated team of researchers and archivists based at the University of Stirling. I’ve been involved as a volunteer since 2012.

The archive, which is almost entirely reliant on student and public volunteers to function, is home to collections which document the recent political, social and cultural history of Scotland. There’s a particular focus on the impact of national events at a local level around Scotland’s Central Belt – preserving the legacy of Scottish politics for future generations.

A modern archive for modern politics

Since its establishment in 2010, the SPA has actively hunted for material to document the recent political history of Scotland, particularly artefacts relating to central Scotland. This includes anything from leaflets and posters to badges, banners, mugs and T-shirts.

It seeks to merge the traditional with the digital, with artefacts held on site (available to browse on request) and a digital Flickr archive which includes photos and videos from events attended by researchers and archivists.

The 2014 independence referendum archive is now one of the largest that the organisation holds, along with the digital archive of the Scots independent photography collection, and the personal archive of former first Minister of Scotland Baron McConnell of Glenscorrodale (aka Jack McConnell).

In addition to this, the archive sends archivists and researchers to public meetings, hustings, party conferences and election night counts so that we can create as complete a documentation of political events from start to finish as possible. This was the case in both the 2014 independence referendum and the 2015 general election campaigns.

  Indyref photosreferendum collage 3

Engaging with local communities

As well as collecting material to add to its collections, SPA engages widely with the local community and in cooperation with the Stirling University Art Collection has organised projects with local primary schools, elderly groups and marginalised groups.

One of the most successful projects to date was a project with inmates of HMP YOI Cornton Vale prison in Stirling. The Create and Curate project, funded by Education Scotland, was designed to provide an innovative way to teach skills and encourage inclusion and participation, with inmates creating pieces of writing and artwork to be displayed in an exhibition.

The project helped to build the confidence of those inside the prison and gave them a creative outlet which many said they had never had before. Their work was initially shown in a private exhibition space within Cornton Vale Prison, but has since been moved to an exhibition space at the University of Stirling, where it will remain open for members of the public to view free of charge.

Archives as a bridge to the past

The SPA doesn’t just engage with local communities about modern politics. This year marks the second year of commemorations to mark the centenary of the First World War, and more specifically this year, the centenary of the Battle of Gallipoli.

SPA and the Art Collection worked with local primary schools in the Stirling area, in cooperation with academics from the University of Stirling and Stirling Council, to host an event to mark 100 years since the outbreak of Gallipoli.

The Gallipoli exhibition included the installation of over 100 handmade poppies, to mimic that of Paul Cummins and Tom Piper outside the Tower of London last year. The poppies were made from recycled material by the schoolchildren. The children were then invited to the University grounds to install them alongside representatives from the Scottish Government, Stirling Council and Stirling University.

poppies

The cultural value of archives

Local authority archive and heritage services have suffered from significant budget cuts in recent years. Demonstrating the value and impact of archives can be hard to evidence – it’s been suggested that the economic value of archives depends on how users make them meaningful. And the sector has suffered from a lack of public and official understanding of their wider benefits.

The SPA projects not only highlight how archiving, art and heritage projects are still beneficial to communities today but also show how local authorities can use them to bring social issues to life.

By collaborating with other organisations in the cultural sector, local authorities can use resources such as archives to promote local community engagement and link the importance of heritage to community values. It can also provide a way to teach new skills and integrate marginalised groups, as well as acting as a useful way to promote the local area.


Earlier this summer, we looked at the question of the use of volunteers to run libraries and archives, and the risks associated with the fragmentation of these public services.

Follow us on Twitter to see what developments in public and social policy are interesting our research team.

Volunteers in libraries: an alternative to closures, or a risk to the professionals?

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

Manchester Central Library. (Photograph: James Carson)

By James Carson

Anyone doubting the capacity of libraries to stir up strong feelings need look no further than the debate concerning volunteers in public libraries. In 2011, when the leader of Oxfordshire County Council called for increases in the use of volunteers in public libraries, the author Philip Pullman was quick to respond:

‘Does he think the job of a librarian is so simple, so empty of content that anyone can step up and do it for a thank-you and a cup of tea?’

Volunteers in a changing library landscape

The use of volunteers in libraries is not new. But the nature of volunteering in libraries is changing, largely due to increasing budgetary pressures on local authorities. Since 2010, reductions in the grants given by central government to local authorities have forced many councils to review their services, and some have decided to close one or more public libraries in their area.

Some commentators have argued that because fewer people are using them the closure of public libraries is no great loss. It’s true that usage is down on previous years: a 2012 report by the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee observed that footfall and borrowing figures in libraries have fallen steadily in England since the 1990s.

But the committee also noted that many libraries have adapted to changing needs, providing other important, but hard-to-measure benefits to communities, such as literacy campaigns in areas of social deprivation and free internet access for unemployed and socially excluded people.

The emergence of community libraries

As an alternative to library closures, a growing number of councils have responded to funding cuts by handing over library facilities to volunteers, enabling them to be run as ‘community libraries’.  Research conducted by the Arts Council of England in 2012 found that over 170 community libraries were in operation, representing approximately 5% of all public libraries in England. Many library authorities reported that they had plans for more community libraries in the next few years.

The Arts Council report also featured a number of case studies demonstrating the different models of community library, including those where a library has been handed over completely to the community, without any professional support, and those where there is continued access to the advice and support of professional librarians.

Professional responses

Unison, the trade union which represents many professional librarians in the UK, estimates that the number of volunteers in libraries increased by 69% between 2006/07 and 2010/11. Its policy is to acknowledge that volunteers have a role to play, but that they should not be used to cut costs, or as replacements for employed, paid, trained staff in the public library services. CILIP, the professional body for the library and information sector, has also come out against the replacement of paid professional and support roles with either volunteers or untrained administrative posts.

A postcode lottery of library services?

In 2013, a report, from the National Federation of Women’s Institutes (NFWI) warned that the diversity and range of demands placed on volunteers risks diluting the professionalism of the library service and placing an unsustainable burden on volunteers themselves.

“Volunteers have an important role to play yet there is a danger they will reach saturation point and in relying on volunteers to deliver day to day services, we risk losing sight of the added value that volunteers can bring to the service more widely, for example through assisting with reading schemes.”

The NFWI report made a number of recommendations, including adequate training for volunteers, and a debate on how community-managed libraries will fit into the overall library service.

Community libraries are becoming a more common part of the local landscape, and many are providing services that would otherwise have disappeared due to library closures. But, as the NFWI report warned, there are risks associated with the increasing fragmentation of library services:

“…the proliferation of these models could lead to a ‘postcode lottery’ of library services with the creation of a two-tiered system of library provision that undermines the benefits of skilled and trained library staff and under-estimates the role that they play in both delivering an effective public service and supporting communities.”


 

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The act is a year old but what does social value actually mean?

people forming a circle

by Alex Addyman

On 31 January 2013 the Public Services (Social Value) Act, or simply the Social Value Act as it is more commonly known, came into force. The law was a turning point for many organisations, particularly social enterprises, with Social Enterprise UK considering it to have: “the potential to transform the way public services are commissioned, requiring public bodies to consider choosing providers based on the social value created in an area and not on cost alone”. Continue reading