Defining Innovation in the Context of Studying Hive NYC

One of the challenges of studying innovation here in Hive Research Lab is that the word has become so loaded in our discourse. Its ubiquity often Sprout Lightbulbrenders it meaningless, and so as researchers working with this idea we need to be clear on what exactly we’re talking about when we say innovation.

The first thing to say about innovation is that, like many other words, it exists in our language in various forms. For example, take these four ways of using the word in context:

  • “Our organization needs to produce more innovations!” (noun form)
  • “Our organization needs to do more innovation!” (verb form)
  • “The thing that organization made is totally innovative!” (adjective form modifying a noun)
  • “The experimentation that organization does is so innovative!” (adjective form modifying a verb)

So when we say we’re studying innovation, we have to be clear about which form of the word we mean, because that has implications for how and what we track as part of our research process. For the purposes of this post, I’ll focus on the noun form, i.e., the “things” that we might call innovations. (In a future post, I’ll discuss the the verb form, which comprises the actions and processes that lead to those things.)

In reviewing the academic literature, we’ve found five dimensions that are usually referred to in some way when characterizing an “innovation”:

  • “Value Added”/Beneficence of an Innovation – this dimension speaks to the normative qualities of an innovation. Is a given practice/technology/idea “better” than what came before it? This begs the questions of according to whom, and by what measure? Definitions that focus on “value added” imply an evaluation of some sort.
  • Novelty of an Innovation – almost all definitions focus to some degree on whether something might be considered new, though novelty is acknowledged as variable based on context (“absolute” vs “relative” novelty). New to an individual, new to a team, new to a firm, new to a field, etc. can all be considered and specified within a definition of innovation. Also referenced here is “perceived” novelty by a given actor.
  • Form of an Innovation – innovations are often grouped according to some form that they take, such as product innovations, process innovations (which refers usually to innovation processes themselves, eg – a rapid prototyping approach, assembly lines, supply chains, etc.), or organizational model innovations. This can be extended in other ways, delineating various forms like technologies, practices, program models, design principles, etc.
  • Origins of an Innovation – was the innovation internally conceived or externally adopted, or some combination? Obviously, on a micro level, all innovation is some combination, but various ways of operationalizing and measuring could likely determine whether an innovation has an external or internal basis in relation to the unit of analysis (individual, team, organization, field, nation, etc.).
  • Degree of an Innovation – is an innovation a radical departure from existing approaches within a unit of analysis, or an incremental improvement? Again, degree can be contextually determined. Something might be a radical departure from existing practice in one organization, but is considered just an incremental improvement from the level of the field.

In getting to a definition of innovation, each of these dimensions is something we think about, with a general rule of thumb being to ask ourselves the questions “Is that aspect of innovation something that actually matters to us in studying Hive NYC? Does it do work for us in our investigations?”

While I’ll talk more in later post about innovation processes and practices, one emerging hypothesis concerning innovation and Hive NYC is that membership in the network mediates exposure to, circulation of and experimentation with ideas, technologies and practices relating to learning. Because of this hypothesis, we’re looking to operationalize innovation in a way that allows us to identify innovations in order to investigate the nature of that mediation. The focus on the practices/processes of circulation, exposure and experimentation for us imply a need to use a definition that focuses on perceived novelty and, potentially, perceived beneficence (value-add), rather than some sort of “objective” evaluation of novelty or beneficence. This allows for a greater focus on the processes surrounding an innovation, given that it is easier to decide that something is an innovation and then track how it’s treated and related to without having to conduct an extensive evaluation of the internal qualities and/or efficacy of a given innovation by some objective measure.

Based on these considerations, the working definition we’re using here at Hive Research Lab for usage within the context of studying innovation within the Hive is the following: An innovation is an idea, practice, principle, technology, or other mediational object perceived as new and of value by an individual, team, organization, field or other entity.

Given that definition, there are a variety of things that might then be considered innovations in the context of Hive NYC:

  • Learning technologies, some developed outside of the network and then adopted (like MIT’s Scratch) and others developed within member organizations (like The LAMP’s Media Breaker).
  • Disciplinary oriented pedagogical practices, like youth game design, citizen science, youth journalism, etc.
  • Program Models and/or Curricula, like NySci’s C3 citizen science work, or Global Kids’ NYC Haunts series of programs.
  • Design principles, like creating learning environments that are interest-driven, or production centered.

The key here is that according to the definition we’re using, none of the above are innovations by default – it’s always contextual. Does a given organization or individual we’re looking at see one of these are novel and of value? Because we’re looking at a network where there’s lots of experimentation with and circulation of ideas, we wanted to make sure that we could focus on the contextual nature of innovations for different actors, and see how the network intersects with those.

We’ll post soon on innovation processes and practices, which we see as a central part of understanding how Hive NYC operates.