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How Psychologists Define Innovation

By Shlomo Maital

 innovation-1

 

   “In the physical realm, a behavioral innovation is a new, useful, and potentially transmitted learned behavior, arising from asocial learning (innovation by independent invention) or a combination of asocial and social learning (innovation by modification), that is produced so as to successfully solve a novel problem or an existing problem in a novel manner”. *

     The Latin root of the word “innovation” is “nova”, or novel. This is of course a necessary condition for something to be called an innovation, though novel is definitely moderated by geography — I tell my students that if they introduce an idea proven successful elsewhere, but that does not exist in their town, city, region or country, it is still an innovation.   But child development experts have offered a new dimension to innovation – that of social learning. The definition above appears in a recent article in Child Development. (My wife drew my attention to it). I think it contains a hugely significant point.

       Innovation can be ‘asocial’, or non-social. (Note, this is NOT anti-social!). That is, an individual comes up with a powerful innovation, on their own. A “eureka” moment. But I believe most innovations are a combination of asocial and social learning – once you have an idea, you need to share it, discuss it, test it, build a team… this is a social process.

         Innovations solve problems. This too is an essential part of the definition. An innovation that is brilliant, complex, technical – and solves no problem, or creates no value, is not an innovation.

       A key point emerging from this article:   Global benchmarking.   Countries share social problems. E.g. aging, poverty, inequality, corruption, ….   They tackle problems in different ways. Some are innovative and successful. Some are innovative but fail ultimately.   Countries do not sufficiently learn from one another. For instance: The world faces a huge problem with job creation, as robots emerge to do much of our daily work. How to deal with it? Finland is trying an experiment, in Oulu, a far-north city with a great university.   They are paying a monthly sum to everyone, to encourage them to take risky jobs, with startups, without worrying about the salary.   The world should watch this experiment closely.

     Countries everywhere, and cities, and regions, and towns, should be trying social experiments… tackling tough social problems with creative innovative approaches. Many will fail. Some will work. There should be a global network of such experimenters.   This is evolution put to work in the service of humanity. Yet in my experience, countries try hard to invent their own wheels.. and mainly do it badly.  

       Social learning is not just an individual process, it is also a process in which whole countries can learn from one another. But do they?   Not nearly enough.

* “Eureka!: What Is Innovation, How Does It Develop, and Who Does It?” Kayleigh Carr, Rachel L. Kendal, and Emma G. Flynn, Durham University.   Child Development, Sept.-Oct. 2016

Jerome Bruner: Possible Worlds

By Shlomo Maital

Bruner

Jerome Bruner just passed away. He was 100 years old.

Bruner changed forever the way we see the world and the way we understand human thinking. As a pioneer cognitive psychologist, he helped us rethink the mind as what he calls a “hypothesis generator” – the human can envision “possible worlds” (the title of one of his most famous books.  

   As a child he recalls being influenced by one of his teachers, Ms McNamara, who taught him that “the world is an open question”. And that is how Bruner viewed psychology.   If you deal only with what exists, he noted, then psychology has nothing to do with life.   In giving advice to young psychologists, he urged them, “get out of your office and get into the real world.”  

   His older sister Alice influenced him strongly. She was smarter than me, he recalls, and asked him, “why are you always guessing?”   But Bruner saw the mind as a “hypothesis generator” – as something that asks questions, rather than spews out answers.

     He had a lifelong love of sailing. Sailing for him was a metaphor of life. You sail in an unpredictable environment, when the wind can change at any moment, and you have the illusion of control,   adjusting the sails, etc., but it’s only an illusion.

     I personally embrace Bruner’s landmark article The Narrative Construction of Reality (1991), because I’ve come to believe, as Bruner showed, that we understand reality by telling ourselves stories – about ourselves, about others, about how things work. And some of those stories are fiction, made-up, “possible worlds”, this is called creativity and entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs make up a possible world and then make it happen.

   My colleague Arie Ruttenberg defines creativity as “widening the range of choices”. That is,   imaging new possibilities, possible worlds. Bruner supports this.

       From childhood, Bruner had limited vision. But it never hampered him.   He brought common sense and a spirit of rebellion to his discipline, and embraced all other disciplines that he felt were related.   We will miss him.

Blog entries written by Prof. Shlomo Maital

Shlomo Maital
May 2020
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