Between a hard rock and a soft space: design, creative practice and innovation

10 Jul 2008

Executive summary This paper discusses the contribution that the arts, humanities and social sciences can make to innovation systems and innovation policy by embedding design and creative practice in innovation.

Innovation policy is a major economic development strategy - a strategy that is being adopted and implemented by cities, regions and nations to achieve economic results, measured as positive changes in employment, income, exports and productivity.

This paper argues that innovation policy should reflect broader perspectives, and the contribution of the arts, humanities and social sciences to innovation.

We do not attempt to cover all contributions the humanities and social sciences can make to innovation (for example, contextual historical, economic or geographic analysis). However, by focusing on design and creative practice, we make a more general argument that innovation comes from deploying a wider range of disciplines in research than is often considered.

Innovation is not only the province of scientists, engineers and economists; it has also captured the interest and attention of researchers in the creative, visual and performing arts and in what the European Union refers to in its Framework 7 research program as the 'socio-economic sciences and the humanities'.

Some periods in history have been characterised by rapid economic, social and cultural change associated with developments and breakthroughs, both in science and in the arts. However, in addition to these 'supply' factors, 'demand' factors have been at work as well. Often, changes in underlying economic, social and cultural frameworks have allowed the generation, application and adoption of new ideas.

For example, the rapid growth in production associated with the Industrial Revolution was driven in large part by increasing demand, brought about by breakthroughs in public health (which extended life expectancy), new market opportunities (created through international trade) and financial innovations (such as the limited liability company).

Two centuries later, demand stimulated by the United States Defense Department was a key driver in the 1990s 'technology boom', which subsequently spilled over into consumer electronics. That boom was made possible by the 'invention' of venture capital as an investment vehicle for financing start-up companies.

Innovation policy is increasingly concerned with innovations in design and creative practice, and there is growing recognition of the contribution of the 'creative' industries to economic prosperity, particularly in cities and regions. Competitive challenges are forcing traditional engineering-centred companies to transform themselves into experience-centred companies: design and creative practice have a critical role in that transformation.

Today, successful design requires a convergence of technology and the social sciences and humanities - including sociology, psychology and economics. Competition drives research into consumer behaviour, society and culture more deeply than ever. In this context, design is seen as the 'creative synthesis' of the disparate functions involved in the innovation process - R&D, marketing, supply chain management, and product lifecycle management.

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