The crisis of ‘innovation’

Seven years ago Roger and I put out a book called The Crisis of Innovation in Water and Wastewater. Our thesis was that, whilst other human endeavours were radically re-shaped by the sheer scope and scale of new and interconnected products, processes and knowledge during the twentieth century, the water sector languished in a recognisably Victorian state, mainly ‘pouring concrete’, and harnessing outmoded technologies and management approaches. We presented evidence on the privatised water industry of England and Wales in particular then a year later we bolstered our stance with Barriers to Innovation work for UKWIR. In 2008 we submitted evidence to the Cave Review and to the All Party Parliamentary Water Group. Since then we’ve continued making presentations on this topic, and gathering further evidence.

Throughout we’ve tried to present a collaborative and multi-stakeholder view of innovation. We’ve outlined it as a shared responsibility of the (UK) water sector, and have highlighted that successful innovations have involved cooperation between water companies, suppliers, regulators and policy-makers. Where there has been ‘blame culture’ towards one party for not adopting new approaches, innovations have failed. When there has been joint setting of standards and technical parameters, agreement of needs and priorities, and tailoring of the ‘pitching’ or ‘packaging’ of an innovation to the risk-averse culture of the sector to enhance its appeal to various professional/disciplinary constituencies, things appear to have gone well. Crucially where there has been open and informed partnership during demonstration and scale-up of promising inventions then seem to have often gone on to become accepted, successful innovations in wide-scale use. Normally you’d also have far more user-involvement and consideration of demand-side aspects. This is still a relatively new area for the UK water sector, as sustainable consumption and production issues have only slowly gained some traction, as even recent events – like Future Water 2012 – have sadly shown.

Overall we have essentially been talking about ‘innovation management‘ and related R&D management within and across firms and regulators. We’ve tried to avoid using ‘innovation’ in the abstract as a fuzzy, catch-all buzzword. In 2012’s high profile public water gatherings so far you’ll have struggled to hear this kind of nuanced take on ‘innovation’. From my (limited) experience, the term is being bandied about with fashionable but reckless abandon. Immediately this makes me question how successfully we’ve communicated our research over the years. Beyond this, the core concept has been in the public eye for decades now and one would hope it might be better understood. The modern field of innovation studies has become international and vast over the past 60 years or so, expanding and branching into more sub-fields around the world.

Roger and I should assume (some) blame for the proliferating (mis)use of the word in the UK water sector, I suppose, given the primacy of our work though. In an attempt to claw back some clarity on the topic then, here’s a quick, off-the-top-of-my-head reflection on the term:

  1. Talk of ‘innovation’ might be best prefaced by qualifications like ‘management of’, ‘attitudes to’, ‘culture of’, ‘adoption of’, ‘barriers to’, ‘incentives for’, ‘risks of’ to capture it as a multi-faceted process;
  2. Innovation is the exception not norm – saying ‘the water sector has been very innovative‘ when one means ‘the sector water has been very busy with business as usual‘ (or has just spent a lot of money) is unhelpful;
  3. Innovation can fail – with adverse consequences for an individual, group, organisation, whole economic sector or beyond. It will fail far more often than it will succeed. Some people also see it as an amoral process. That may mean it does not have socially or environmentally beneficial outcomes when it succeeds. People focus disproportionately on innovation success – but happily there’s a new book on failure cases, Challenging the Innovation Paradigm (we didn’t go too ‘pro-innovation’ in our UKWIR work, thankfully, as the research design involved success/failure pairs to tease out why differing developments that could address the same issue made it or were abandoned);
  4. Innovation is not just about technical devices etc.; it’s about products, processes, services or knowledge new to the world or to a sector (others have defined it fully, e.g. in this handbook, this onethis textbook series, at the BIS website, and via Nesta’s fascinating innovation work portfolio) – this includes management and cultural practices by definition, so there’s no need to talk of them separately and assume people mean gadgets and widgets when they mention ‘innovation’;
  5. ‘Innovation’ will not just happen because one person or organisation calls for it to do so; local, national and trans-national settings and traditions, policies and regulations, financial and investment conditions, user concerns, market failures, intra- and inter-organisational cultures and structures, intra- and inter-sectoral collaboration approaches, activity portfolios, procurement approaches, management and recruitment practices, and many other things, all play a role (and have been actively researched) – defying simplistic design and deployment of ‘incentives’;

I’m sure I’ll disagree with some of these points myself in the months and years to come, as this is an evolving topic. Nevertheless at least this little cautionary summary can be in the back of my mind the next time I encounter someone at a water event making excessive, unqualified use of the word ‘innovation’…

Duncan Thomas

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