The future is already here: on degrees of innovation in public service reform

Ben Hammersley has written an excellent reflection piece for Native, the magazine from the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts. My own main interest is in public service reform, but it doesn’t matter that Ben’s piece is about the possibilities that technology brings to the arts because its arguments extend to any sphere in which there’s a need for progress and development.

The central point of Ben’s argument is as follows:

It’s easy to break out the toys[.] I could be forgiven for pimping out my favourite new thing. But I’d be wrong to do that. Instead, I’ve grown to learn that the greatest innovations are not always with the new ways to tell stories, or the new ways to make a noise. Instead, the truly revolutionary are often somewhat banal. They’re the innovation that disappears as soon as it happens, that arrives and makes us immediately forget what it was like to live without it. Not showy, but subtle and just-so.

Ben goes on to give an example of a banal innovation (an oxymoron?), which is worth quoting at length:

Take ticketing as an example. Many major locations offer online ticket purchases, some of which you can print at home. An online ticket purchase requires a credit card, and that in turn requires your home address. It’s a matter of simple automation to take that address and augment the ticket or email with useful information. Here’s how to get to and from the venue from your address; here’s how long it will take given various public transport routes; here’s some recommended restaurants on the way (and here’s 10% off the bill of the pre-show fixed menu); here’s a local venue you might also like. It’s the day of the show, and the tubes are delayed, so here’s an email in the morning warning you of a slower than usual commute.

The number of places that do this in practice is probably not very many, which is why Ben quotes William Gibson at the start of his piece: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed.”

We know Gibson is right, and can see this by thinking about other things we think are already here but are actually not evenly distributed.

Take the internet itself. It has obviously been revolutionary, but think of the 6.4m adults (13% of the British population, though the number is falling) who have never used the internet[1]. That’s not just people who don’t regularly use it, but people who have never used it. And it’s not just older people who make up these numbers; they disproportionately include people who are disabled or from lower socioeconomic backgrounds.

The internet is relatively recent, though. What about railway travel? Access to railway travel is not evenly distributed either: there is an estimated gap of approximately 100 million passenger journeys between the actual journeys made by disabled train passengers and what proportion of train journeys we would expect disabled people to make[2].

And what of clean drinking water – less something “future” and more “fundamental”? Currently 748 million people in the world don’t have access to safe water, and 2.5 billion people don’t have access to adequate sanitation[3].

So, the future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed, and this is true at quite basic levels. (And by “evenly” we don’t mean just in terms of availability but also in terms of access. Inequality, though, isn’t the focus of this post.)

What I loved most about Ben’s post is the honesty in his starting point, which is to acknowledge that most new-fangled things are already here.

Of course, someone somewhere has to be doing something that is new in the absolute sense of the word. To move from a world in which there was no railway or internet to a world in which there are railways and the internet we had to create something new. But the rate at which these truly new things occur is nowhere near the rate at which people claim to create new things[4].

In the area of public service reform, when people talk of “innovation”, “new” or the need for “new ideas”, my sense is that, more often than not, what they think they’re talking about is what’s new in an absolute sense, i.e. doing something that has never been done before. This typically manifests itself through an organisation or a person offering a new solution, product or way of doing things that will solve a problem heretofore never been solved before.

In reality, though, what people are claiming as “new” is something that actually replicates practice in another area; or they are doing something that is supposed to be done anyway; or perhaps they’re doing something using a different mechanism to what is found in other places.

All of this in and of itself is valuable, but is rarely presented in this more honest way. Instead, developments are often unthinkingly labelled “new”, “innovative” or a “solution”. Such presentations – such pretentions – could be a consequence of the way in which funding is awarded, or indeed the focus on awards themselves, or could be something that is fundamental to the way in which we as humans want recognition.

This, of course, could all just be a question of defining what we mean by “innovation”: should we just stop people calling things “innovative” when they’re anything but? Well, yes, that would help. In this vein, I think there are three things that follow from this often unthinking use of “innovation”.

The first is a direct consequence of public service reforms being presented as “innovative”: it creates an easy target. Situations often arise in which we have strong advocates for change coming up against other forces as a result of the way in which they choose to present what they think is “innovative”. “That’s not new” or “We’ve tried that before” are responses you might typically hear in such a situation. A corollary is that it can then be difficult for strong advocates of the “innovative” to distinguish amongst the “other forces” those who agree with the need for something different and those who defend the status quo. The overall effect is to distract and detract from the first order problem for which a solution is sought.

The second implication is to recognise there are different degress of innovation[5]: it isn’t just about the new, but can also be, for example, the connections between things or the scale at which it happens where innovation lies. So, in Ben’s given example, the automated processes that flow from people providing a postal address when buying a ticket online could be thought of as a degree of innovation. By admitting to the possibility of degrees of innovation, we can start to ask when an “improvement” becomes an “innovation”, and act and present accordingly.

And this concept of degrees of innovation feeds into the third and final point. It’s worth introducing it by repeating a segment from Ben’s article:

[T]he truly revolutionary [innovations] are often somewhat banal. They’re the innovation that disappears as soon as it happens, that arrives and makes us immediately forget what it was like to live without it. Not showy, but subtle and just-so. It’s easy to hand-wave at such new features to an existing ticketing system, of course, but what I just described is genuinely not technically hard. It’s not showstoppingly impressive, but it’s good and thoughtful and useful.

Being “good and thoughtful and useful” strikes me as excellent guides for the sorts of improvements we need at all scales in public service reform. So the final reflection is that innovation doesn’t have to be big and bold and announce itself – it doesn’t have to be a “showstopper”; instead it can be small and subtle.

As such, Ben’s article for me prompted a range of thoughts, centering on a more honest approach to degrees of innovation in public service reform, and so about what it ultimately can deliver and achieve.

I’ll pick up other thoughts on degrees of innovation and being honest about what it can achieve through other posts to follow in due course.


[1] – Internet access quarterly update, Q1 2014, ONS

[2] – 1.5billion train journeys were made in 2012/13 (source, pdf). If these were evenly distributed across the British population we could expect around 11.6% of them to be made by disabled people, or around 174m journeys. In 2012/13, around 72m train journeys were made by disabled passengers (source), resulting in a gap of approximately 100m journeys.

[3] – Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, 2014 update, WHO/UNICEF (pdf)

[4] – For those interested in what could be considered “new” in the most absolute sense, Richard Lipsey’s book on General Purpose Technologies – technologies that affect entire economies and societies – is fascinating. Lipsey argues there have only been 24 General Purpose Technologies, including printing, railways, electricity, the internet and nanotechnology.

[5] – Marty Neumeier begins to get at this with his Originality Scale. I think “original” is binary, as is “new”, which is why the language throughout the post above is a bit sloppy when it comes to the use of “new” and “innovative” in a fairly interchangeable way.


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Man of letters & numbers; also occasionally of action. Husband to NTW. Dad of three. Friendly geek.

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