Originality and innovation can be achieved by moving an ‘obvious’ idea from one context and applying it in another

Modern societies place a high value on innovation, and for good reason. ‘Nothing was ever yet done’, said John Stuart Mill (in On Liberty), ‘which someone was not the first to do. All good things which exist are the fruits of originality’. In the modern era what constitutes an innovation has also become clouded by the myths around the ‘race to individual discovery’ in science, or the retelling of highly unusual ‘digital business breakthrough’ stories.

Yet in academic research almost all work is actually collective and incremental. Ernest Boyer cogently argued that scholarship is far more than just discovery. He helped to give a proper perspective to the ‘value added’ of collective academic work, by pointing also to

  • the scholarship of integration making sense of necessarily fragmented discoveries and fitting them into an evolving paradigm)
  • the scholarship of application, taking university research and making it applicable to external contests; and
  • the scholarship of renewal, all the collective ways in which scientific and academic professions reproduce new generations of creative thinkers and researchers. (Boyer called this ‘teaching’, but now that is not the only way renewal works any more).

In other recent work, my co-authors and I have pointed to three additional areas of collective academic effort — bridging across disciplines (an increasingly salient function); local integration in universities (especially productively between STEM sciences and social sciences in fields like health care, and IT and software engineering); and ‘academic service’ where academics carry out joined-up tasks for government service and professional development.

Set against this background, much of the existing and popularised discussions of originality and innovation can seem disabling. They are perhaps more effective in convincing you that you can’t be innovative, in creating impossible hurdles for you to surmount, than effective in helping to see how you can be.

So what is originality, value-added or innovation?

Famously a requirement to do ‘original work’ is still built into the conception of the PhD in the world’s best universities — certainly at the London School of Economics (LSE) where I teach. But of course the university regulations never tell you what this actually means. Most descriptions of what’s needed are actually circular — explaining only that originality is what the examiners determine as being original. The LSE’s doctoral regulations, themselves largely inherited from the University of London, provide a couple of better hints on how originality can be achieved

  • either by ‘the discovery of new facts’,
  • or by ‘the exercise of independent critical power’, or
  • (ideally) both.

What no regulations ever tell you is that for a really good doctorate, and for later academic success in post-doc research, you need both:

  • an interesting and original question or topic, and
  • an interesting and original answer.

The skills for getting to each of these are rather different. Lots of training is provided on methods and skills for developing a professionally reputable answer. But advice on picking a good topic in your disciplines is always scarcer and least systematized. This is a craftsman’s art that you must still pick up chiefly by sitting around watching what other people in your discipline do — that is, professional ‘socialization’.

If you’re in an innovative time in your discipline and in a setting supportive of innovation, surrounded by colleagues who push the envelope, and with a tradition in the department or lab behind you, then things are easier. But even highly prestigious departments can be dominated by big projects tackling very conventional (even by now formulaic) questions. Such a climate can be resistant to innovative PhD work or ECR projects. And in many departments and labs there is often a ‘house’ view of key issues, sustained by the gathering together of like-minded principal researchers, which can be difficult to deviate from. Finally, the university climate is often limiting, with institutional and bureaucratic imperatives tending to stress ‘safe’ topics with geek-only appeal or marginally better chances of getting grant-funding.

So in STEM disciplines and some ‘techno’ social sciences new PhD researchers too often end up settling on what they will do as a fait acompli, given their research principal’s ideas or the department’s views. Meanwhile in the humanities and some social sciences, the process of choosing and defining a topic can still follow a ‘random to chaotic’ search process, mitigated only by the need to keep committed supervisors on board.

One or two useful attempts have been made to write down the knowledge we do have about finding a more interesting topic, including Uri Alon’s advice on ‘How to choose a good scientific problem’. And in another blog I suggest a systematic framework for helping you evaluate two or more alternative topics — assuming that you have the luxury of choice. But picking a question is still risky and tricky. ‘There is nothing so easy as what was discovered yesterday, nor so difficult as what will be discovered tomorrow’, said Jean-Baptiste de Biot.

Like other manifold areas of social life, innovation in academic life is ‘anything new that works’ (in Geoff Mulgan’s pithy dictum). Focusing on value-added helps us be realistic and not disabling in in what we ask of creativity and innovation. Let no one say that I have said nothing new…’, said Blaise Pascal. ‘The arrangement of the subject is new. When we play tennis, we both play with the same ball, but one of us places it better’.

What the Gherkin can teach us

To dig a little deeper into what innovation means, and to show how it does not necessarily have to be something brand new, I want to look at the award-winning ‘Gherkin’ tower block in the City of London — more formally known as 30 St Mary Axe, opened in 2004. Let’s focus on the contrast between it and the ‘bog standard’ office blocs that litter all our cities across the world.

Here’s a picture that highlights one problem with the run-of-the-mill blocks.

The most prominent part of any tall building is its roofline— the top bit you can see for miles. Yet modern high rise block often look unfinished at their summits, as if the architect stopped working and just cut off the design in a blank stop. Alternatively many blocks are finished off with a random set of lift houses, water tanks, cell phone aerials or other impedimenta.

In these respects high rise offices compare very poorly and oddly with other older buildings, where architects took pains to achieve designed rooflines, often as here in a classical mode. Look at the contrast between the ‘temple’ effects in the foreground here and the dreary inconsequential summits of the buildings behind.

Even the smallest effort to finish off the tops of high building can seem distinctive, compared to previous lack of attention — here is the first tower built at Canary Wharf surmounted with a little peaked ‘hat’ — but looking that much more designed than earlier and later blocks around it. Even such a small change is enough to achieve something distinctive in this context.

On a small-scale a building with a defined, curvilinear overall shape is also distinctive, as here in the building for the Greater London Assembly and Authority. Many similar, small domed buildings have been built — for example, in Berlin’s redesigned Reichstag. So the ‘meme’ here has been around a long time and been used a lot.

Applied on a large scale, to a high rise block essentially the same concept transforms high rise offices, as here in the 41 storey Gherkin.

No sooner is an original idea implemented, than it visibly obsolesces its neighbors. Here the Gherkin stands out from its surroundings with a symmetry and clarity of roofline design that is immediately apparent.

An original idea stands out against its background, and compares well with earlier epochs.

Originality is also striking even amidst legacy constraints that impede a holistic view — it’s visible even in parts

And genuine originality often carries through into the implementation of all aspects of the project, including details and micro-aspects.

Originality keeps working in well-finished implementation and memorable experiences at smaller scales.

So what’s the key lesson to learn here? Originality or adding value, involves making new connections. Pick up a familiar idea in one context, take it for a walk, put it down somewhere else, and then make it do some (useful) work. New connections look simple, once made. It wasn’t rocket science to design a skyscraper with a curved roofline, interesting shape, innovative windows and great detailing — but it just had not been done before.

Academic innovation can be simpler than you might think. That doesn’t (ever) make it easy. But it does put originality back in the realm of things that are feasible if you work intelligently at them, saturate yourself in knowledge of a field, make the effort to search and think creatively, and have a modicum of luck.

If you’d like to think some more about these ideas, my book: Patrick Dunleavy, ‘Authoring a PhD’ (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003) has a relevant chapter.