Conversation #9 Part 1 — Antony Beckett and Dave Jarman, Teaching Fellows, University of Bristol

Photo by Jonathan Simcoe on Unsplash

For this conversation, I spoke to Antony Beckett, the Undergraduate Programme Director and Dave Jarman, Postgraduate Programme Co-Director for University of Bristol’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Both are Teaching Fellows and responsible in part for designing the pioneering innovation degree programmes now being offered at the University.

Talking to Antony and Dave was memorable for a number of reasons: most importantly, I’ve always really enjoyed connecting academic literature and research with the practice of innovation, so talking to two people who are doing exactly that was fascinating. Antony’s practice approach to innovation is one that deserves more air time than I could give it here, and Dave’s extensive experience with entrepreneurship and the business of start ups makes him a really interesting subject. As a cross-pollinator myself, I also loved the idea of giving students exposure to all sorts of different disciplines and subjects to spark innovation.

It was also the first time I’ve interviewed two people at once, and the interplay between them gave the conversation an added dimension. And finally, I suffered a total tech failure and it’s only thanks to the Voice Memos app on my iPhone that you are reading this at all. Thanks Apple!

This interview came out quite long, so I’ve split it into two parts: read Part 1 if you’re most interested in innovation and entrepreneurship generally, and Part 2 if you want to hear about the new degrees being run at the University’s Centre for Innovation and Entrepreneurship. Or just go wild and read both, go on.

What do you understand by innovation? I know that’s a beast of a question….

AB: That’s a terrible, difficult question, because innovation can mean so many different things. Is it about doing something new? Something different? I use a practice lens to look at innovation so for me it’s about how a new product or service or idea changes people’s lives.

DJ: I distinguish innovation against two other things: creativity and entrepreneurship. Creativity is generating ideas, but they don’t have to be any good. Innovation is about taking those ideas and acting on them and ideally there’s a quality aspect here — it’s a good idea that has impact and is applicable; and then entrepreneurship is about creating a vehicle for that idea. The entrepreneur creates an organisation or a structure for that idea to be realised.

You can be creative without generating innovation — you might come up with ideas that have already happened before or that don’t have any viability or impact. Equally, you can be an entrepreneur who isn’t innovative in that you are good at hustling an existing set of ideas, but there’s not been a dramatic innovative step.

Do you think creativity is something that anyone can do?

DJ: I think everybody has the capacity to be creative, but there’s a difference between craft and what you might call a more conceptual creative step. There are artists who can produce fantastic photo realistic paintings, but there has not necessarily been a creative step, in the same way that a musician who plays someone else’s music however note perfectly is demonstrating craft but not necessarily creativity.

I could go home tonight and do the washing-up in a creative way. It might not be a very efficient, effective or impactful way — I might never choose to do it with my feet ever again, but I can approach almost anything creatively if I choose to. Creativity is sometimes just permitting the silly and if you permit the silly, there’s always all these other ways of doing anything.

AB: But you could also say that creativity operates in the very fabric of our daily lives. You could make an argument that we are all being creative and innovative all the time. People change the way they do things and adjust their ideas to enact life the way they want to.

So how do you teach Innovation and Creativity? How do you translate all that into a course curriculum?

AB: The traditional way is to examine the management of innovation: how organisations have set up themselves to generate a stream of innovations. That’s one angle you could take. Another one is to look at the processes they employ to try and generate new ideas. Another one might be to look at the innovators themselves. None of these are terribly interesting for students, and there’s a question about how useful it is to talk about other people’s biographies, and how translatable those ideas are to general applications.

There’s a vast literature about the first two, but it’s generally written by academics for academics. We have had to come up with a way of thinking and conceiving of innovation in a way that makes it come alive for students, which is why we use the idea of practices.

Can you explain what a practice is?

A practice is something like cooking: it’s an amalgam of material elements like saucepans and cookers, competencies that people have such as how to chop or fry, and knowledge. It also has a set of norms and meanings attached to it, like making cake on birthdays. You can change any one of these and change cooking over time, so you might look at how innovations have changed how people perform cooking.

New materials and products are important — the microwave oven has had a dramatic impact on people’s understanding of cooking, on the competencies that people use when they’re cooking, and it then sparks a whole set of innovation around microwaveable meals, which didn’t exist before. These allow people to defrost stuff and eat it quickly, which affects how the practice of cooking and eating interacts with working and leisure practice.

So how do practices inform innovation?

By working through that practice lens, you can think about how the practice is performed and what frustrations people might be experiencing. Or how new technologies can be drawn into that practice in the way that they weren’t before.

Often innovation comes from experts in a particular practice because they understand how the practice is performed and then they either have frustrations that they can’t do certain things, or they’re open to new ideas and incorporating new technology into their particular practice.

A good example came from one of the students on a different Masters’ course. He was an architect and knew that engineers on building sites often have problems with using site plans to find utilities — gas and water pipes and electrical cables. If a site has been cleared it’s very difficult to orient yourself using a plan to know where the utilities are, and of course if you bring in a digger and cut through a mains pipe that gets very expensive.

He created an app that superimposes the utility plan onto a map so your phone shows you roughly where the pipes and cables are — it’s not perfect, but it reduces the time it takes you to locate the pipes, and then you can cross-check with the detailed plans.

DJ: What’s interesting there is how you then find the missing parts to solve the problem. If you understand the practice, you can identify the gap, but equally you need the person that can bring in something used in another domain that could be transplanted here.

Part of how we teach this stuff is with tools and insights that help students get to grips with innovation on a practical level. We teach Human Centred Design and Systems Thinking; there’s also a body of academic content that includes the practice element that Antony mentioned, so the students have got a theoretical underpinning of how it might all fit together.

And then there’s also an element that’s specifically about venture creation, how to engage with people, how ideas might come up or how you might make yourself more likely to have breakthrough ideas and how to go and operationalise those.

AB: The other thing that we want to do is expose students to new ideas. For example, how is a technology like synthetic biology developing and what are the opportunities, how are the new material sciences developing? The advantage of being embedded in a University is that we can go and find people who’ve got those experiences and expertise and can come and talk to the students about it.

DJ: One of the things which increases the rate of innovation is having access to a good scrap yard of parts, so if we can use the wealth of the University, its people, its ideas, the research it’s got under its belt then we can show our first year, second year, third year, fourth year students spare parts that the rest of the population is not going to see; they might be the first people to put those things together in new ways that are genuinely transformative and radically innovative. But of course they have to not just be possible and innovative, but also something people want.

Just because we can do it, doesn’t mean people want it. And even if people want it, are they willing to pay enough for it, often enough to cover our costs of doing it? There are businesses that are just expensive hobbies. They’re good ways to lose money over time, because some people find the product quite attractive, but not enough to pay for doing it.

AB: Driverless cars for example — will they ever work?

That’s interesting. Because a lot of people are betting they will.

AB: The question is — are people going to use it? Are people going to be able to pay to use it? Is it ever going to work? Because it can’t work 99.99999999% of the time, it’s got to work all the time. This whole discussion cuts through the notion of ‘what is artificial intelligence?’ Artificial intelligence is actually working with colossal data sets. But that’s not how we think. We are not a computer with a body; we have the ability to look at someone and to deduce through looking at them what they’re about to do. That signalling is something a four-year-old starts to be able to do, but you can’t programme a computer to do it.

DJ: I can see autonomous vehicles working in a slightly more controlled environment where you are effectively closing off some of the parameters. There might be a bit of a city where you don’t let humans drive, so it’s only autonomous vehicles. Even if this starts to work in California, how long is it going to take them to get it to 100% of American roads?

AB: The other issue is very interesting: one of the arguments around autonomous vehicles is that it allows you to create a new business model so people don’t need to own motorcars anymore. Your autonomous vehicle will come and pick you up and take you to work and drop you off and then come and pick up someone else; well you’ve just described Uber haven’t you?

At the moment you’ve got Uber with a driver, the driver is being paid — I don’t know — £20 per hour? Is it financially worth it to build a piece of technology so complex to replace someone earning £20 an hour? I doubt it.

DJ: There are many examples of countries that have suppressed automation in their industries because of the knock-on cost of putting people out of work. It’s still cheaper to use people in some of these economies than it is to bring in automation.

Possibly the single biggest issue of our time may yet still turn out to be: how much stuff can we automate and what do people do once we’ve automated all this stuff? The danger is that a small group of big technology oligarchs will no longer need people in their business, so they’ll continue bringing in the money and people will have to go and find something else to do, despite the fact that there is nothing else to do and no way of earning a living.

What will be interesting is what falls out of that process. The destination may not yet prove to be the most valuable thing, but the by-products of that research may yet be useful. There are lots of examples of big programmes that aimed to do one thing….

AB: ….and ended up doing something else.

What would be more interesting is if government decided that car sharing was the way to go and started to put real money behind it and subsidising people to give up their car and to use car clubs. Then you would suddenly see a real step change. [The city of Oslo is making big moves in this direction, removing parking spaces and closing streets to car traffic in a three phase approach — Ed.]

DJ: It’s one of those examples of innovation practice where people sometimes get very hung up on a problem and need to step back and think about what the final outcome looks like. The classic example is a friend who’s designing the better mousetrap and you say “Well is that a sharper blade, a quicker catch, a bigger piece of cheese?” but the objective is getting rid of the mice, so you might just buy a cat.

And on that note, we had to call this part of the conversation to a close — always good to end with a cat 🐱 .

If you enjoyed this, why not read the second part of my conversation with Antony and Dave, where we discuss the challenges of building the new innovation degree programmes at University of Bristol.

This article was supported by idea management platform Solverboard. Do check out Solverboard Work, their suite of idea management tools that help organisations inspire, capture, measure and reward the collective intelligence of their people.

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