Innovative? Or just new to me?


As we usher in the New Year, Sophie Duncan, Deputy Director of the NCCPE, explores what innovation really means. Does public engagement always have to be innovative and 'new'?

I got into an interesting discussion recently about what innovative public engagement looks like. I would be interested to know what people think. Is innovation about something completely new that we haven’t seen before? Or is it just new to me? Or is 'new to me' just an excuse for rehashing old content, a so called ‘new to Dave’? Clearly our definition of innovative can make all the difference. I had a particularly trying time when my definition of innovation clashed with a funders definition, which meant a host of excellent projects were not funded as they weren’t considered innovative enough.

There is a huge pressure to be innovative in our society, and it often ends up being a funding criteria for projects. Indeed we included it as a criteria in our recent Engage competition. Now, clearly it is great to be innovative but what some herald as innovation is just old hat to others. I wonder, does this matter? We believe quality engagement is not necessarily about being innovative, but ensuring that you are purposeful, think carefully about your participants, develop an activity that is appropriate to your purpose and participants, and evaluate effectively to both inform what you are doing and assess its value. However, you can easily meet these criteria without being innovative. Is there a danger that in our quest for innovation we miss building on and sustaining excellent work, because we want to chase the next new thing?

In the competition we saw some wonderfully innovative projects that were also high quality engagement projects. Bright Club, the thinking person’s comedy club is one such example. However, if I replicate it in another city does it matter that it is an established engagement format already? Isn’t that a real bonus, because we have learnt so much about how to make it engaging for audiences and researchers? Or when I say we need to be innovative, am I just trying to budge some academics attitude that a public lecture is the only way to engage, and only if the audience remain silent and appreciate the content?

How many people need to be doing something for it not to be innovative anymore? How long does a project need to be established for before it isn’t innovative? Take Danceroom spectroscopy – a beautiful engagement project that seeks to make the invisible atomic world tangible to others – which has run for four years. Or the recent resurgence in citizen science. I was involved in a citizen science project in the late 1970s. Does that mean Conker Tree Science isn’t innovative given that we have been there before?

So am I against innovation – no not at all. There is something wonderful about ideas that are new to me, new to the context, and new new. We want to stimulate creativity and there are clearly millions of ways that one can engage with others, many of which have still to see the light of day. However we sometimes hold up innovation at the expense of everything else, and in so doing fail to support great work.

What do you think? In our quest for innovation, do we risk missing out on developing exisiting ideas? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment below.

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