A Critical Text about Proboscis by Fred Garnett
This is a critical text written to comment on the work of Proboscis in Public Sector Innovation with new technology from a cultural perspective. I was invited by Giles Lane to do this in late 2010 as I have followed the work of Proboscis since 2002 when I first went to a public event of theirs and have since appreciated the qualities of what they have done.
What I have decided to do in my Critical Text, Enabling Consequences, is to look at why Proboscis’s innovations, which from my perspective are capable of widespread adoption, have been insufficiently recognised and acted upon. I think this comes from both how they are conceptualised, through a process related to obliquity and how they might be adopted as a process of generative innovation; that is as a platform innovation that begets further innovations.
Brief History of Proboscis
Proboscis are probably best known for their work, Urban Tapestries, a breakthrough project (undertaken with collaborating partners such as Hewlett-Packard Research Laboratories, Orange, France Telecom R&D UK Ltd, Ordnance Survey and the London School of Economics), designed to enable the interactive city to emerge based on the pull of the participative strategies of active citizenship rather than push strategies of advertising.
They appear to set themselves the question “how can you double your intellectual quality every 18 months”. In part this is a response to Moore’s Law that states that the power of computer processing doubles every 18 months, but turned into a cultural question. In practical terms Proboscis ask themselves “how can you innovate at all times in terms of process, documentation and ideas”. They see what they do as pre-competitive research, what Steven Johnson has recently entitled the ‘adjacent platform’ of innovation. That is a process that occurs before any practical innovation actually happens.
Public Sector Innovation
I am particularly interested in Proboscis because I was also previously involved in an innovation project in the Public Sector, Cybrarian, which also failed to be recognised at the time. Cybrarian was a prototype ‘Facebook for Civil Society’, for which we created the high-concept description of it being an ‘Amazon for e-gov’ as the term social network didn’t exist then (2002). Some of us subsequently formed the ‘public technology’ group lastfridaymob, which spent some time trying to analyse why. We concluded that government didn’t have the relevant interpretive criteria to understand that new technology, created to meet public needs, namely creative, interactive and participative, and that these were three factors that government found hard to recognize. I always saw these three qualities in Proboscis’ work.
There is a deeper problem that new technologies are increasingly interactive and smart, demonstrating participative affordances, and the political context into which they are pitched are representative and hierarchical. So to unpick this problem of public sector innovation a little more lets look at how innovation occurs in greater depth.
A typical way of modelling the Innovation process is in what might be called the 4i model; Ideas, Invention, Innovation, Impact. This typically argues that someone, possibly a researcher, has a bright idea which they tinker away at until an invention can be developed. An invention is the first instantiation of a new innovation, it can be a mock-up, a model, a design, a drawing, but it has been produced as a one-off, or prototype, often to demonstrate the potential, or some expected quality. The difference between an invention and an innovation is money. Someone decides that the invention, either because they see the prototype or drawing or a description, is so compelling that it will be worth spending a lot of money setting up a production and distribution system so a version of the invention can be sold as a product on a large scale. This innovation process is also often divided into product push, where the new technology itself is compelling, or market-pull, where demand has been detected. In organisational terms this often reflects a distinction between the research and marketing functions in companies who are concerned with innovation, or a culture, like the USA, which sees social and cultural value in the process of innovation. Successful innovations need to bridge the gap between the qualities of supply-side technology-push, and the interest of demand side market-pull.
When Apple decided to launch the iPod – in technical terms a fairly simple device made on automated production lines in China – they also needed new software to control the iPod – iTunes – and new distribution arrangements with the entire music industry, for the music, songs and albums needed to populate their invention with resources. The music industry were the very people who felt that Napster, an early peer-to-peer forerunner of iTunes, threatened their entire industry, but Apple found powerful arguments for getting them on board, part of which was that Apple weren’t the first to market, so could respond to their needs. So the issue of turning a simple working invention like the iPod itself, into an innovation, is massively complex however compelling the product on display. All products have hinterlands, which can seriously affect the way an invention becomes an innovation and also how it becomes a universally recognised and used product or process, as digital music now is today. However we have been discussing product innovations being brought to market, whereas Public Sector Innovation is more concerned with processes that enable infrastructural development, and this requires a more pervasive model of innovation.
Steven Johnson’s Reef innovation v Market Innovation
Steven Johnson’s book Where Good Ideas Come From (2010) looks at ways in which innovation becomes adopted and contrasts the more typical 4i model discussed above, or market innovation, with what he calls reef innovation, what we might call infrastructural development. Steven Johnson is an American and writes about the US context, which is much more focused on invention overall than the UK and with a history of infrastructural developments coming through private sector activities; for example American utilities are generally private sector; gas, electricity, telephones etc. Whereas in the UK there has been a more mixed tradition of regulated private sector innovation, in the 19th Century, and state-controlled utilities, in the 20th Century. Following the privatisation policies of the 1980s and 1990s there has developed more of a regulated private-sector approach in the UK, returning somewhat to our 19th Century traditions.
Reef innovation is Johnson’s way of describing how a private sector model of development produces new infrastructure for society as a whole. This is a metaphor derived from how coral reefs accrete growth and so stay above sea level, as the volcanic rocks on which they are situated shift, in order to allow coral reef island life to flourish. He is discussing how the enabling utilities, such as communications technologies that lay beneath the functioning of everyday social life, evolve and grow. Johnson argues that society as a whole grows more through reef innovation; the slow accumulation of numerous utilities that form the infrastructure through which society functions, than through market innovation. So we need a more sophisticated view of infrastructural innovation, such as the reef model, to discuss public sector innovation.
However Johnson is writing of the American context where the accidental reef-like growth of market-tested processes of infrastructure accumulation is a useful metaphor, but it is not perhaps fully applicable in all socio-economic contexts. However with the concept of reef innovation Johnson is helpfully looking at systemic Innovation, rather than product innovation as the 4is model tends to do, and systemic innovation is particularly significant in times of systemic change, which we see now as we attempt to move to a Knowledge Economy, or the Information Society as the European Union calls it through its IST programmes for i2015 and i2020. However Systemic Innovation requires a still broader view of the transformational characteristics of systemic change.
Structural Innovation v Disruptive Innovation
Innovation that leads to transformational change is something that the economist Joseph Schumpeter (the so called “Prophet of Innovation”) writes about as he discusses the difference between Structural Innovation and Disruptive Innovation. Structural innovation is where the innovation extends existing uses of a product and should increase the numbers of users, such as lighter mobile phone handsets, whereas a disruptive innovation such as the mobile phone system itself, is one where the innovation changes how things are done, in such a way that challenges existing system processes. So transformational change, arguably a key feature of the coming Knowledge Economy in both the UK policy context and EU-IST programmes, actually requires the promotion of this disruptive innovation. At the governmental level this creates a problematic tension as governments are more interested in providing reliable infrastructure that changes little, but is increasingly used by citizens, rather than enabling systemic change through deploying new technology innovations.
Consequently government prefers to adopt disruptive technology innovations as infrastructure, such as websites, once they have attained widespread use and so can be seen as large-scale structural innovations. Thus a conundrum emerges in that technological innovation which enables often necessary social change comes in a disruptive form that is difficult for governments to deal with. However whilst governments are often interested in systemic change, say to improve social infrastructure during an age of global change and de-regulation, they are more comfortable with structural innovations which might extend their electoral support through greater use, rather than disruptive innovations which can alienate it.
Distinctive Features of the Proboscis Model of Innovation
However I think Proboscis are doing particularly interesting things in terms of innovation which don’t quite fit into any of these innovation models; reef, structural, disruptive. Firstly they are operating outside the boundaries of the 4is model, both in terms of generating ideas at the conceptual end of the process, and also in terms of offering processes of innovation at the take up end. Secondly they are developing innovations that are neither disruptive, nor structural, not least because Schumpeter’s models also emerge from an analysis of American economics. Proboscis are in the business of producing socially enabling participative innovations, which might be better described as enabling innovations, drawing their value from the degree to which they extend the affordances of the public realm.
I now want to look at three distinctive features, two intrinsic and one consequential, that can be identified in the Proboscis approach in order to examine what socially enabling participative innovations might mean in practice;
- a) Applied Heutagogy; namely thinking about projects in fresh ways before they begin, based on a guiding set of values, in terms of ‘moving criteria across contexts’ which might be described as providing an ‘ideas platform’ for thinking about innovation.
- b) Generative Innovations; creating innovative platforms that can then be used generatively to develop further uses by others in the public realm.
- c) Extending the Public Realm through Participation; the consequence of this approach to innovation, which emerges from using their models of thinking and applying their approach to public sector innovation.
I asked Giles if he thought his work fitted into the Blue-Sky model of thinking, which might be characterised as a model of brainstorming about what you do by removing under-pinning values that sustain the original work. It is thinking outside the box of existing limitations that is more likely to destroy the box than think of new uses for it. I suggested that we call Proboscis work ‘Pink-Sky Thinking’, meaning it was fresh but rooted in the original values that they started with. He declined to accept this and suggested that their thinking tended to be oblique. I think this is because they see their work as being of a piece and that Proboscis have extended their original vision by learning from their projects and the ways in which they have been implemented, Social Tapestries emerging out of Urban Tapestries for example.
Giles suggested that their approach was deeply rooted in their values of ‘moving criteria across contexts,’ which is the classic art school strategy of heutagogy. But Proboscis aren’t simply artistic provocateurs, they think deeper than that as their thinking is informed by a profound understanding of the public realm in which their innovations will be situated, so they are also thinking of consequences as well as creative solutions. Steven Johnson also talks of a process of moving criteria across contexts that he calls exaptation, but this is more limited than the applied heutagogy Proboscis use as it is generally the application of one new set of criteria to one new field of practice in search of innovation. Proboscis are more flexible than this, but I think they are engaged in a broader process of multiple exaptations in their thinking. This process of thinking through a multiplicity of strategies derived from a range of contexts I would characterise as an ‘ideas platform.’ This offers a richer conceptual mulch than the ‘adjacent platform’ model described by Johnson, as it is also takes account of the consequential use states and the state changes (Giles’s term) that might be enabled. It could also be described as thinking about where good ideas go to…
Kondratieff talks of long wave economic change coming from what he terms ‘meta technologies’, technologies that are embedded in other technologies like the steam engine and the microprocessor. However long-term social change comes from behavioural adaptations to the affordances of these new technologies, such as the car or the mobile phone. But social change also needs infrastructure that supports the use of the new technologies; for example, time was standardised across Britain in 1840 to meet the needs of the railways. In many ways since 1770 this infrastructure has been in the form of networks of new technologies; canals, railways, telegraph, telephone, roads, electricity, television, the Internet. However these networks have tended to be dedicated to a single mode of use until the Internet came along. Like electricity this enables it to be a multi-use network, but the Internet is also capable of supporting and distributing multiple formats. Thus across this network an almost unpredictable range of uses can be developed; the Internet enables a range of consequential uses, limited only by the design flexibility of the digital formats themselves. The World Wide Web itself is one such multi-modal consequence of the flexibility of the Internet, but it is possible to design with it’s almost endlessly consequential nature in mind and Proboscis seem cognisant of this.
A Generative Innovation might be described as an innovation that enables further innovations, as described above, not as an embedded meta technology but as a platform of possibilities. An interesting development in Proboscis work was the shift from Urban Tapestries to Social Tapestries, from a platform to a user environment and what characterises their user environments is their participative quality.
Arguably the Knowledge Economy and the Information Society are characterised by the participative qualities of the technologies used to build them, this has been particularly clear since the ‘architecture of participation’ that is Web 2.0 became widely available as a possible infrastructure platform. Proboscis’s work has anticipated this participatory quality due to the heutagogic nature of their thinking about creating generative processes. This thinking can be described as an ideas platform, which precedes the adjacent platform model of innovation as described by Johnson. Proboscis were used to playing with form, moving criteria across contexts as they describe it, at a time when new technologies capable of creating social transformation were emerging so, for them, the flexibility of digital technologies, their arguably ‘disruptive’ qualities, were already accounted for at the thinking stage.
Extending the Public Realm through Participation
So the combination of applied heutagogy and generative innovations has the Enabling Consequence of creating the possibility of extending the public realm through participation in this age of digital networks and use affordances. This is because Proboscis are engaged in flexible thinking about future possibilities whilst being aware of how implementation might extend and change the character of the public realm. They design for the participative qualities of digital networks and so capture what makes them so attractive to people in society.
[CAVEAT: I don’t want this to read like a testimonial, after all it is a critical text and not all of Proboscis’s projects have been unqualified successes, but this has been an attempt to capture both what uniquely characterises their approach and to also try and understand how public sector innovation might be made to work effectively in the UK in an age of digital flexibility.]
Conclusions; Enabling Consequences
Proboscis’ research model
Proboscis have a concern with public sector innovation in a time of digital flexibility, but are capable of absorbing the transformative potential of the evolving digital realm into both their thinking, as social artists comfortable with the heutagogic playing with form, and as visionaries, capable of thinking of how new platforms might enable greater engagement in and with the public realm. They bring this together in an unusually broad and deep way of solving problems, what I call applied heutagogy, addressing multiple perspectives not just the artistic one of playing with form.
The participative affordances of the technology and the heutagogic quality of their thinking, what they call ‘moving criteria across contexts’, combine to offer the possibility of creating generative infrastructure; infrastructure that begets further infrastructure. They work with the grain of digital transformation both conceptually and in terms of its consequences.
Public sector Innovation
Most public sector innovation emerges from a hierarchical policy process that has originated in one part of government and has a clearly defined and departmentally owned problem it wants solving. Public sector innovation typically, for a range of historical, political and cultural reasons, wants structural innovation that extends the relevance and influence of the owner of the policy and so sees innovation concerning ‘state changes’ as disruptive and out of scope.
Ben Hammersley recently highlighted this conceptual problem at the governmental level, what he characterises as the clash between hierarchical and network thinking, in his British Council lecture in Derry on March 25 2010. The problem Hammersley highlights is hierarchical thinking about networked contexts. The public sector wants innovation to be structural in order to count as improving their policy delivery in alignment with the current construction of existing policy responsibilities; it thus ignores the ‘state change’ potential offered by new network possibilities. In terms of innovation the public sector is, at best, involved in post-hoc legitimation but not in the creation of participation platforms designed to work in the emerging network contexts.
Innovation in a Transformative context
So we have an impasse; the opportunity for the development of a digitally flexible public realm capable of supporting a range of interdisciplinary models of innovation working across open networks, and a public policy context which is incapable of recognising networked and other new technology affordances. We can describe this as a clash between possible participative and traditional representative views, both of working processes and of society (and so of policy development); or more simply a clash of values. Proboscis want to ‘establish a discourse around values’ so that we might uncover where value is created, and also what those values might be, as we try to find ways of working with the digitally flexible and transformative characteristics of the emerging of participatory culture.
Hammersley somewhat ghoulishly, suggests that we first need the older generation in power to die off if fresh thinking capable of coping with a networked society is to gain traction in government in 2011. What Proboscis show us, less dramatically, is that with some applied heutagogy, thinking practically about how we might learn from ‘moving criteria across contexts’ at the start of a problem-solving process concerning public-sector innovation, along with some consideration of how we might create a ‘platform’ that could generate further innovative ‘state changes’, constrained by considerations of the nature of the public realm, then we can indeed enable public sector thinking that is in tune with the evolving networked society we live in at the start of the 21st Century.
Fred Garnett, April 2011