Part 1: On Disrupting Innovation Culture

Tech innovators, entitled with the privilege to think, make, and discover, are responsible for our futures. Their ideas and products have great and/or grave impact on the health of our social, cultural, and natural ecosystems.

Tech innovations, by the very nature of the questions that drive their development, impact human agency. For it is applied, intelligent, and data system innovations that connect us through information, augment our human capabilities, and provide the structures that support how we find solutions for complex glocal (local and global) challenges.

As we evolve so does our relationship to technology. Technologies that were merely design thinking exercises two decades ago are fully developed and integrated into society today. And today, technology research that exists only as sketches in code and hardware or sticky notes on a white board will be integral to the quality of our lives tomorrow.

Sustaining an ecosystem that thrives because of diversity, equity, and inclusion requires the development of new organizational frameworks for our research and innovation enterprises. It requires self and institutional reflection about the roles we and our institutions play in maintaining exclusionary systems to keep our privileged priorities.

Change requires us to deconstruct systems that negatively impact efforts towards diversity, equity, and inclusion by narrowing the pipeline, making it impossible to succeed in the pipeline, and making it intolerable to stay in the pipeline.

To sustain an innovation culture that responds to the opportunities and challenges of today and prepares us for unknown challenges of tomorrow we must:

  1. Expand (ways of knowing);
    support integrative thinking that crosses ideological and discipline divides to solve glocal challenges
  2. Rethink (ways of doing);
    implement policies that strengthen research relationships across academia, federal priorities, and industry capabilities.
  3. Invest (diverse human potential);
    develop initiatives that crack the code of systemic diversity problems in our institutions.
  4. Disrupt (innovation culture ecosystems);
    create science and innovation spaces that thrive because of the diversity of people and the diversity of the ideas.

1. Expand (ways of knowing);
support integrative thinking that crosses ideological and sectorial divides to solve global challenges

Solving complex problems in a complex world requires creativity.

  • Creativity is the root of all cultures.
  • Culture seeds Innovation.
  • Innovation is the bedrock of society.
  • Society shapes what it is to be human.

What it is to be human shifts, morphs, grows, and shrinks through our actions based on our beliefs. We can catalyze change through critical discourse and creative thinking about concurrent histories that have led to dissonant realities in education, wellbeing, economic development, and quality of life.

The Academy

“A good society should enlarge the personal freedom of its members while enabling them to participate effectively in a widening range of public activities. At the highest level, public life involves choices about what it means to be human. Today these choices are increasingly mediated by technical decisions. What human beings are and will become is decided in the shape of our tools no less than in the action of statement and political movements. The design of technology is thus an ontological decision fraught with political consequences. The exclusion of the vast majority from participation in this decision is the underlying cause of many of our problems.” (Critical Theory of Technology, Feenberg, 1991, p. 5)

Our disciplines of knowledge, as we have come to define them in the contemporary academy, are born from historical precedents bound by the priorities of past privileged educated class; the maturity and influence of past forms of understanding the political, economic, social, and technical situations; and pressing challenges of the time. Today, our academic institutions build from that history shaping what, how, and who can contribute to the development of new knowledge and the advancement of institutional agendas.

In most academic institutions disciplines are segmented by perceived similarities in form, material and matter, technique, ideology and ontology, dissemination, and agendas and goals. While this segmentation creates ecosystems of “like-mindedness”, it also serves the instrumental purpose of supporting the management of large unwieldy institutions. While segmentation of disciplines can build strong precedents for particular “ways of knowing” that benefit academics and their institutions, it also institutes separate but not equal precedents where certain “ways of knowing” are deemed to be more valuable than others.

The challenges and opportunities of today are in some ways no different from those of any past or ancient culture. We look to our available knowledge to understand and improve how we eat, find shelter, and clothe ourselves. We seek ways to understand our perceived world through belief systems, and creative and cultural forms of expression. We seek to understand the world beyond our immediate perception with inquiry that is confounded to our available ideologies, methodologies, and technologies.

And yet, our challenges and opportunities today are much more complex than those of the past. We have methods to collect incredibly large amounts of data that simultaneously enrich and confound our “ways of knowing”. Time has been compressed to human perceivable micro-seconds and technology perceivable nanoseconds. We can simultaneously be here and be there, and be anywhere in the world, as our minds negotiate multiple modes of being.

Being human in our increasingly complex world relies on the integration of ways of knowing from the arts and humanities to technology and the sciences. Addressing the contemporary condition and most pressing challenges of living in a complex world calls for the complete continuum of knowledge generation to address:

  • The need for effective forms of capacity building for 21st century societies.
  • The need to cultivate untapped potential for innovation within and beyond our institutions.
  • The need to prioritize cultural and ethical commitments to respect the rich diversity of human experience.

The National Academies of Sciences report, The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine in Higher Education: Branches from the Same Tree was released to the public in 2018. Our committee was formed in 2016 as a project of the National Academies Board on Higher Education funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The committee included academics and business leaders who represented a wealth of disciplines ranging from the visual arts to engineering, to medicine, to women studies from community colleges, liberal arts colleges, research universities, and STEM-based industries.

The charge to our committee was to “examine the evidence of the impact on learning and career outcomes from educational experiences that integrate the humanities and arts with the sciences, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine”. We noted that supporters of integrative learning in higher education believe that an education shaped by disciplinary specialization may not best serve the learning and career goals of most students. Nor will an education based solely in disciplinary specialization prepare future generations to address the complex, and often unpredictable, challenges and opportunities that face the nation and the world. It was difficult to identify large, controlled, randomized testing of the hypothesis that integrative learning leads to educational and employment benefits. This was not surprising given the complexity of mapping evaluation metrics that are developed in academic silos. However, we found abundant anecdotal evidence that matched the broad, national groundswell of interest and urgency in developing integrative learning opportunities.

Our committee investigations and deliberations supported the notion that maintaining academic silos out of habit, convenience, or institutional inertia risks not recognizing and hence missing opportunities for learning, impact, and a diversification of ideas and participants. “Future professionals and citizens need to see when specialized approaches are valuable and when they are limiting, find synergies at the intersections between diverse fields, create and communicate novel solutions, and empathize with the experiences of others.” (The Integration of the Humanities and Arts with Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine, Branches of the Same Tree, National Academies of Sciences)

Are there commonalities of practice across academic disciplines?Historians of higher education have long observed that academia is the catalyst and engine of innovation. (Creating Interdisciplinary Campus Cultures: A Model for Strength and Sustainability, Klein, 2009). However, contemporary academic disciplines are self-segregated by objectives, methods, and vocabularies that generate new knowledge that builds on agreed upon historical precedents. Like tectonic plates, islands of knowledge shift under the force of challenge and priority. New academic platforms form and merge as the demands of political, economic, social, and technical demands of society change.

A thirty-thousand-foot view of the terms and concepts used to define these disciplines reveals a synergy of objectives, methodologies, and driving principles. The wordle visualization presented here is but one possible mash-up of those knowledge production vocabularies. It purposely ambiguates methodology and practice to ask the question of commonality, synergy, and integration.

  • How do artists discover?
  • How do scientists create?
  • How do humanists engineer?

Definitions of the Arts, the Humanities, the Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine are offered in the National Academies of Sciences Branches of the Same Tree report. The definitions, paraphrased below, were collected from National Academies reports; government and non-government organizations; and U.S. legal code and further annotated by committee members.

The Humanities: The humanities teach close reading practices as an essential tool, an appreciation for context across time and space, qualitative analysis of social structures and relationships, the importance of perspective, the capacity for empathic understanding, analysis of the structure of an argument (or of the analysis itself), and study of phenomenology in the human world. (20 U.S.C. 952 (a))

The Arts: The arts teach the tools of creative platforms and methods to expand the creative vision with grounding in a broader understanding of the societal, cultural, and political ecosystem through the study of language and visual systems, critical theories, historical precedents, reflection-in-action, and constructive critique. (Branches from the Same Tree, NAS, pg. 60)

The Sciences: The sciences teach “the use of evidence to construct testable explanations and predictions of natural phenomena, as well as the knowledge generated through the process and methodology of objective observation experimentation, induction, repetition, critical analysis, verification, and testing. (Changing the Conversation: Messages for Improving Public Understanding of Engineering, National Academies of Sciences, 2008; Our definition of science, Science Council. 2017).

Engineering: Engineering is taught by using design as a problem-solving approach that can “integrate various skills and types of thinking — analytical and synthetic things; detailed and holistic understanding; planning and building; and implicit, procedural knowledge and explicit, declarative knowledge”. Engineering fields teach how to identify a need and design an efficient, functional, durable, sustainable, useful process or product that will meet that need. (Engineering in K-12 Education: Understanding the Status and Improving the Prospects, National Academy of Engineering and National Research Council, 2009)

Medicine: Medical fields aim to teach modern medical professionals to employ evidence-based practices by knowing where and how to find the best possible sources of evidence, formulating clear clinical questions, search for the relevant answers, and determine when and how to integrate these new findings into practice. (Health Professions Education: A Bridge to Quality, Institute of Medicine, 2003, p. 45)

Thinking about Einstein’s idea that all human knowledge are branches from the same tree. The trunk of the tree represents the core from which disciplines in higher education are founded. The branches are the location of religion, arts, and sciences. Branches grow away from the trunk, remaining integrally connected to the core strengths of the whole and yet separate from each other. There are natural energies that flow freely through the rigid structure of the tree that fuel the health and/or demise of those branches — from sunlight and water, to insects and parasites. Integration is the fuel that enables our ability to recognize, understand, challenge, and build the platforms from which impact and innovation are realized. Like those natural energies, integration fuels the flow of inquiry across and between the branches to connect and/or challenge our assumptions, beliefs, and knowledge production patterns. From that challenge comes growth as we negotiate the contingencies of the historical conditions of our “ways of knowing” to reveal insightful, enriched, and broader “ways of seeing”, “ways of asking”, and “ways of doing”.

NEXT UP: A Different Kind of Learning — historical and contemporary experiments in integrative learning in higher education.



Pamela L. Jennings, Ph.D.
Disrupting Innovation Culture

Pamela L. Jennings, Ph.D., MBA is a White House Presidential Innovation Fellow and CEO & Founder of CONSTRUKTS, Inc. - mixed reality edTech platform.