By Simon Jones, Director, Human-Computer Studies Laboratory, University of Amsterdam
In a few short years innovation has moved from being the domain of wild-haired creatives into an effective business process that acts as one of the levers for extracting value . At this point it is timely to pause and consider ‘what’s next?’ After all, the global environment continues to get more complex, competition gets tougher and the demands of customers increasingly sophisticated. How can countries, regions, cities, private and public sector organizations respond to this challenge? How can they succeed in a marketplace where innovation is an established technique, widely deployed? How do we reach way beyond what is possible and proceed as though it could be? In short: in order to maintain competitive advantage, what comes after innovation?
This article looks at the next wave of change for organizational and individual creativity. It argues that to thrive in the non-linear, quixotic, accelerating world we live in the creative response has to evolve beyond systematic processes of innovation and become spontaneous, volatile, impulsive and serendipitous. In short, we need to be instinctive.
It seems paradoxical, perhaps even reckless to suggest the next competitive edge will arise from preferring instinctive action to formal process. However, there are a number of existing cases where doing precisely that has been the best route to higher performance.
Innovation is the act of connecting human creativity into a supply chain. Sometimes it is connected into an existing supply chain and sometimes it creates an entirely new supply chain. Many organizations have recognized the central role of innovation as a means of extracting maximum value from assets old and new. Indeed, many companies, cities and regions will claim to have a culture of innovation and methods plus tools and techniques for innovating. As such innovation is becoming a systematic process for creating, managing and deploying human creativity . Contemporary European economies see innovation as a main component of maintaining economic success and ensuring future prosperity for their people. However, the globalised nature of business means that the emerging economies of Asia and beyond are similarly adopting and adapting innovation practices as they too seek to climb the added-value ladder. If the developed economies of Europe are to maintain their competitive advantage just having an innovation system will not be enough, they will have to accept that their competitors can deploy innovation strategies at least as effectively, just for example, as they do today with quality systems. To flourish in the future Europe needs to master the skill sets that lie beyond innovation.
Three Cases of Instinct.
Manned flight has been possible for just over 100 years. In that time, engineers and scientists focused on aerodynamics to develop smooth, stable flying platforms. The creation of such aeroplanes has had a transformative effect on our lives, of that there’s no doubt. Aeronautical engineering developed rich and sophisticated theories and models about the behaviour of airplanes. A key element of any aeroplane is its control. The ability to fly straight and steady under differing conditions makes for a plane easy to manage and generally safe and sound. However, where aeroplanes need to out-perform each other, such characteristics are disadvantageous. In the extreme case of military fighter aircraft, airframes which are inherently aerodynamically unstable are not only desirable but offer the best opportunity for surviving a dog fight . In pursuit of this goal, aircraft designers have rejected much of traditional airframe design and wilfully create planes which left unmanaged will hurl themselves into pieces. However by harnessing these designs to appropriate sensor, actuator and control systems, successful flight is possible by continually adjusting the system to correct the instability when needed but permits such instability when the resulting changes deliver enhanced manoeuvrability.
In the mid 1950s, Ornette Coleman produced his albums ‘Something Else’ and ‘Tomorrow is the Question’. These are generally considered to be among the first Avant Jazz (also known as Avant-Garde Jazz or Free Jazz). Ornette and others like him found accepted Jazz styles to constrain not to liberate him. Avant Jazz uses many Jazz idioms, but the role and rules of composition are considerably weakened. Avant Jazz emphasizes the role of improvisation and has few or no pre-composed elements . In the last 50 years this approach has evolved considerably and more structured and compositionally influenced forms have also emerged . Nonetheless the underlying recognition is that above and beyond a certain point structure and process inhibits and it is only by wilfully freeing oneself of these things is further progress possible.
The Game of Life
The Game of Life  is a well known computer simulation where a large square of cells, can be either black or white. Cells have a rule to decide whether they change colour and this is usually decided on the basis of the colours of the neighbours. The simplest version checks what colour the majority of the neighbours have and changes the cell colour accordingly. It’s a lot of fun to observe and can create a series of remarkably attractive pictures and animations. However it also has many important practical applications. The Game of Life is one representative of a class of systems known as cellular automaton (CA) they turn out to be powerful tools for the analysis of complex systems including encryption and many natural systems. However they operate in a very precise way. All cells have the same rules to obey and all cells update themselves at the same time. As a result of these restrictions many important problems, especially those that model living cells or the phenomena of complex groups are not easily addressed by CA’s. Moreover, the constraints on their behaviour are intrinsically unrepresentative of real cellular systems. Researchers have considered eliminating or modifying these constraints and proposed asynchronous cellular automaton (also referred to as stochastic or probabilistic cellular automaton) . These devices still change state as a basis of neighbour information but do so at a time of their own choosing and with a certain probability of a change occurring. Such systems are far harder to analyse and control. Sometimes they fail to do anything useful and rapidly get stuck in a single state or oscillate aimlessly around a few patterns. However it has also been discovered that with suitable rules and suitable starting conditions asynchronous cellular automaton can not only solve problems faster and quicker that regular CA’s but also solve complex problems that regular CA’s simply can’t.
If we look at the three diverse examples above, there are a number of common factors which point us in the direction of the post-innovation landscape.
- They have moved from an environment of a small number of cohesive macro-rules to one with many overlapping and conflicting micro-rules
- The participants have a very high level of skill and experience in the domain
- The overall control system intervenes very frequently but each change is relatively small
This seems to be one of the characteristics of the post-innovation landscape. Unstable aircraft are more manoeuvrable than stable ones. The well established equations and design principles of aerodynamics have been wilfully ignored to create a structure where instability of the airframe is maximised. The elements of the airframe fight against each other and together do not form a system optimized for airborne transport. In Avant-Jazz the well established compositional techniques, timing, tonal forms, melody and rhythm have been disregarded. The sound produced however is not random, each of the notes, phrases and forms have specific musical intent, it is the rules that produce songs and melodies that have been discarded. In cellular automata systems with a single or a few update rules, they are now superceded by devices where each cell has its own rule and conformance to those rules varies according to time, context or chance.
To use a language metaphor, in all these 3 cases, the established ‘grammar’ of the system has been replaced by something else but the individual sounds, formants or syllables are redeployed not abolished.
High-Level of Skill
One of the advantages of innovation practices is that it deskills the process to make it accessible to many people. However in these examples of a post-innovation landscape, such practices are currently only possible by those with extremely high levels of skills and techniques. Unstable airframes require pilots with the highest levels of training and expertise. Avant-Jazz is a form simply impossible to play by any but the most gifted musicians. The design and operation of asynchronous cellular automata even now defeats leading mathematicians and computer scientists. Success in the post-innovation landscape is likely therefore to depend on access to individuals who have been trained to the very highest levels and have significant expertise in particular domains. Such individuals have to have mastery of their specialist topic before they can effectively go beyond innovation to create new economic, social and technical landscapes.
Traditional management or control strategies usually operate on a macro-scale. A goal is set, it is monitored at a relatively small number of intervals (e.g. mid-life project reviews) and outcomes generally assessed towards the latter of half of a project. In the post-innovation landscape this is likely to be quite different. The ‘occasional touch on the control stick’ strategy taught to pilots is highly unsuited to modern fighter aircraft. They require frequent adjustments to stay in the air. Indeed, the degree of instability is such that computer support is generally necessary for most of these aeroplanes to be flyable. In Avant-Jazz rehearsal and scores are generally neglected. Instead a premium is placed on improvisation during which players play instinctively based on their own phrasing and the music that other players around them are currently producing. At its best it results in music with a passion and nuance unmatched by other forms. Cellular automata update their own behaviour frequently, in the asynchronous case the rules of updating are modified at least as often as the cells, resulting in a complexity of behaviour unmatched by traditional forms.
The Post-innovation Perspective
The post-innovation landscape will require different approaches from organisations, different forms of interaction and different skill sets. Of course the longstanding needs of entities will remain: they have to have a purpose, operate within an eco-system or supply chain and have ready access to financial, social, physical and information infrastructure. Current innovation programs are still necessary in the same way the need for quality systems is also not bypassed. However, the post-innovation landscape impacts leadership, organisational development, regional and city innovation policies and the educational sector. The following sections outline where and how these changes will be felt and how best to adapt.
Organisations will need significant numbers of people who are given a great deal of autonomy and these people will be entrusted with the future of the organisation. Their own individual track records will be of the highest calibre but their challenge is to deconstruct skill sets and knowledge and create a new vocabulary and grammar for themselves and their organisations. They may not know precisely where they are going, but their instinct and flexibility serves them well.
These individuals will have to spend much more time learning, experimenting and exploring than is done today. Perfecting their operational skills and exploring new concepts is vital to keeping good instincts and the ability to create new vista’s
Their skill set and approach makes them much more similar to elite sportsmen or artists. In common with such types, they will have a relatively short period in their lives where such instinctive abilities can be effectively deployed. Thereafter roles for them in developing new experts or other roles need to be sought.
The Post-Innovation Organisation
The operational mode of organisations will need to change. There will still be the need for long-term strategy but this will necessarily be broad brush and greater emphasis given to the culture, beliefs and value of the organisation as the guiding lights.
The organisation must possess superlative change management capability such that large numbers of small changes can be effortlessly and fluently executed; a challenge for even the most able COO’s. The organisation must have the capability to assemble and reassemble itself frequently and rapidly to ensure effectiveness as a new cultural and operational landscape is pioneered.
Regional and City Innovation Policies
Given the increasing importance of attracting star players to a region or city, the emphasis on a creative eco-system where supporting mechanisms such as venture capital, world-class universities and a pleasant living and working environment will increase in importance. Furthermore, such individuals are in demand and need to be attracted and incentivised to stay. Traditional inward investment and regional development strategies have focused on companies. Given the increasing role of instinctive leadership, this approach is likely to be insufficient and emphasis on locating and attracting key individuals either at or before their peak performance will increase in importance.
Such a landscape is likely to require significant numbers of talented individuals who like premier league footballers or international artists, are highly in demand for the relatively brief period they perform to the highest standards. This rapid turnover of instinctive experts means that the educational system needs to reform itself to nurture and enhance creative talent of the highest order. Europe’s elite institutions will need to expand to significantly enhance the number of people with skills of the highest level. This represents a new challenge to the massification trend of contemporary higher education and research that some will find difficult to attain.
Ultimately the requirement of the education system will be to hugely increase the number of individuals who have sufficient mastery of a domain to create a grammar and vocabulary that moves beyond it and put that into practice. This is truly uncharted territory for advanced education.
Innovation is not the end of individual, organisational or regional creativity. Human ingenuity remains central to competitive ability. The systematic approach takes us so far, but examples for science, technology and the arts show the fullest competitive advantages come from highly skilled individuals, encouraged to reconstruct their domains instinctively and possessing the courage and fortitude to master a world of permanent instability and ruthless competition.
 ‘Taking Action: Making Innovation Pay’, Harvard Business Review, James P. Andrew, Harold L. Sirkin, John Butman, Jan 9, 2007.
 ‘From Ideas to Income’, CEO Today Sovereign Publications. Simon Jones, September 2007, accessible via http://www.simon-jones.com/ideastoincome
 ‘F16 Fighter’, Global Security Inc, http://www.globalsecurity.org/F16Fighter
 ‘Jazz’, Encyclopedia Brittanica Online, http://www.britannica.com/jazz
 Avant-Garde Jazz, Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Avant-garde_jazz
 ‘The Game of Life’ Scientific American 223 120-123, Martin Gardner, October 1970.
 ‘Notes on finite asynchronous automata’, W. Zielonka, Informatique Théorique et Applications. v21. 99-135.
Simon Jones is Full Professor at the University of Amsterdam and former CEO of MIT’s Media Lab Europe. He is Founder of Ictinos Innovation which advises governments, regions, cities and corporations in innovation policy and invests in and advises start ups in the ICT and New Media area. He is based in London and Amsterdam.