Traditional Research seeks to understand how things are, but we also need research that explores how things might be, and especially how things might be better: Innovation Research.
The theoretical and experimental natural sciences search for fundamental, unvarying, universal principles and relationships, and where they exist all future possibilities are already included in generalizations from the way things are now. But when the social and applied sciences take on this natural science paradigm they too easily focus only on understanding what is and fail to pursue research into how things could be.
Literature, art, design, and engineering more naturally seek to go beyond the actual and construct visions and prototypes of the possible. Their constructions depend on deep knowledge of the actual, both what has been historically and what currently is. But they much more often point us toward what could be and in fact take steps toward bringing new possibilities into being.
In the image above, we see a "convivium" at an outdoor local produce market, part of a design of the Nutrire Milano (Feeding Milan) project of a group of Italian social service designers. They imagined, designed, and prototyped a better future (see their design planning image below).
It may not be true that whatever we can imagine we can eventually do, but it is certainly the case that we are not likely to produce better futures that we have not first imagined. Imagination, conceptualization, envisioning, and design are the first steps. Beyond that we need to build prototypes and experimental systems and explore their workings in real contexts of use, because the complexity of our interactions with anything does not allow adequate purely theoretical prediction of all the entailments of our innovations.
The relatively new field of Design Research has been exploring these issues for some time now (e.g. Koskinen et al., Design Research through Practice, 2011), bringing together insights from the natural sciences and engineering, industrial and interaction design, and the arts. A key contribution has been the development and refinement of tools for Innovation Research, and I believe that the further development of such tools, including the use of video and multimedia, sketches and narratives, computer and role-play simulations, virtual worlds and scenario gaming, and the construction and deployment of prototypes not only of artifacts, but of systems and activities, can be the foundation of productive Innovation Research.
Contemporary society is producing new technologies at an unprecedented rate, but our ageing social institutions, from schools and universities to governments and corporations are rapidly becoming obsolete, unable to perform the functions we expect of them. Innovation Research needs to address such critical problems as alternative modes of learning and education beyond the old-fashioned classroom and lecture-hall models; more effective ways of apportioning decision-making among different levels of government; more flexible networks of small-scale enterprises to replace behemoth global mega-corporations. Our healthcare systems are not becoming more effective in promoting positive health, they are just becoming bigger and more expensive. Our schools and universities are not helping students learn to think and create, they are just mass-producing more and more credentials that mean less and less. Our governments are centralizing power in larger and more numerous bureaucracies which are unable to perceive much less help solve the everyday problems that actually matter to people’s lives. Global corporations are producing unprecedented concentrations of wealth in fewer and fewer hands while offering us gaudy beads and trinkets and deceptive investments instead of goods and services that would really make our lives better.
Yes, there is innovation already, but there is no systematic enterprise of innovation research for the betterment of life that addresses the need to re-design basic social institutions as well as add new technologies to our collection of social tools.
Traditional research will continue to help us understand how things are and how they have been in the past, and innovative engineering makes great contributions to the techniques of getting us from here to there.
What we need is systematic and creative Innovation Research to help us answer the more basic question: From here to Where?