Tag: communication

complexityinnovationsocial innovation

The Ecology of Innovation: Part 2 – Language

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

Idea Factories or ecologies of innovation?

Although Innovation is about producing value through doing something new or different than before, the concept is far from simple when applied in practice by individuals and institutions. This second in a series of articles on innovation ecology looks at the way we speak of innovation and how what we talk about new ideas and discovery shapes what we do about it. 

“Language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication” – Abraham Maslow

Innovation is one of the few concepts that offers little benefit contemplated in the abstract. We innovate on specific things with an eye to application, maybe even scaling that idea broadly. Humans innovate because the status quo is no longer satisfying, is unacceptable or has changed so we strive to come up with new ways of doing things, novel processes and tools to make the current situation a preferred one.

Thus, we are designers seeking our client, customer and creation through innovation and we do this through our words and actions — our language. Indeed, if one agrees with Marty Neumeier‘s assertion that design is the discipline of innovation and Greg Van Alystne & Bob Logan’s definition of design as “creation for reproduction” then our language of innovation is critical to ensuring that we design products and services that have the potential to reproduce beyond an idea.

Language matters in innovation.

To illustrate, lets look at how language manifests itself in the communication of ideas using an example from public health. In a paper entitled Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems I co-authored with my colleagues Allan Best and Bob Hiatt, we looked at the way language was used within a deep and broad field like cancer control in shaping communications. This was not merely an academic exercise, but served to illustrate the values, practices and structures that are put in place to support communicating concepts and serves to illustrate how innovations are communicated.

Innovation as product

What we found was that there are three generations of cancer communications defined by their language and the practices and policies that are manifested in or representative of that language. The first generation of terms were traced up to the 1990’s and were characterized by viewing knowledge as a product. Indeed, the term knowledge products can be traced back to this period. Other key characteristics of this period include:

  • The terminology used to describe communications included the terms diffusion, dissemination, knowledge transfer, and knowledge uptake.
  • Focus on the handoff between knowledge ‘producers’ and knowledge (or research) ‘users’. These two groups were distinct and separate from one another
  • The degree of use is a function of effective packaging and presentation presuming the content is of high quality.

The language of this first generation makes the assumption that the ideas are independent of the context in which they are to be used or where they were generated. The communication represented in this generation of models relies on expertise and recognition of this. But what happens when expertise is not recognized? Or where expertise isn’t even possible? This is a situation we are increasingly seeing as we face new, complex challenges that require mass collaboration and innovation, something the Drucker Forum suggests represents the end of expertise.

Innovation as a contextual process

From the early and mid-1990’s through to the present we’ve seen a major shift from viewing knowledge or innovation as a product to that of a dynamic process where expertise resides in multiple places and sources and networks are valued as much as institutions or individuals. Some of the characteristics of this generation are:

  • Knowledge and good ideas come from multiple sources, not just recognized experts or leaders
  • Social relationships media what is generated and how it is communicated (and to whom)
  • Innovation is highly context-dependent
  • The degree of use of ideas or knowledge is a function of having strong, effective relationships and processes.

What happens when the context is changing consistently? What happens when the networks are dynamic and often unknown?

Systems-embedded innovation

What the paper argues is that we are seeing a shift toward more systems-oriented approaches to communication and that is represented in the term knowledge integration. A systems-oriented model views the design of knowledge structures as an integral to the support of effective innovation by embedding the activities of innovation — learning, discovery, and communication — within systems like institutions, networks, cultures and policies. This model also recognizes the following:

  • Both explicit and implicit knowledge is recognized and must be made visible and woven into policy making and practice decisions
  • Relationships are mediated through a cycle of innovation and must be understood as a system
  • The degree of integration of policies, practices and processes within a system is what determines the degree of use of an idea or innovation.

The language of integration suggests there is some systems-level plan to take the diverse aspects within a set of activities and connect, coordinate and, to some degree, manage to ensure that knowledge is effectively used.

Talking innovation

What makes language such a critical key to understanding innovation ecologies is that the way in which we speak about something is an indication of what we believe about something and how we act. As the quote from psychologist Abraham Maslow suggests above, language can also be used to hide things.

One example of this is in the realm of social innovation, where ideas are meant to be generated through social means for social benefit. This process can be organized many different ways, but it is almost never exclusively top-down, expert-driven. Yet, when we look at the language used to discuss social innovation, we see terms like dissemination regularly used. Examples from research, practice and connecting the two to inform policy all illustrate that the language of one generation continues to be used as new ones dawn.  This is to be expected as the changes in language of one generation never fully supplants that of previous generations — at least not initially. Because of that, we need to be careful about what we say and how we say it to ensure that our intentions are reflected in our practice and our language. Without conscious awareness of what we say and what those words mean there is a risk that our quest to create true innovation ecosystems, ones where innovation is truly systems-embedded and knowledge is integrated we unwittingly create expectations and practices rooted in other models.

If we wish to walk the walk of innovation at a systems level, we need to talk the talk.

Tips and Tricks

Organizational mindfulness is a key quality and practice that embeds reflective practice and sensemaking into the organization. By cultivating practices that regularly check-in and examine the language and actions of an organization in reference to its goals, processes and outcomes. A recent article by Vogus and Sutcliffe (2012) (PDF) provides some guidance on how this can be understood.

Develop your sensemaking capacity by introducing space at regular meetings that bring together actors from different areas within an organization or network to introduce ideas, insights and observations and process what these mean with respect to what’s happened, what is happening and where its taking the group.

Some key references include: 

Best, A., Hiatt, R. A., & Norman, C. D. (2008). Knowledge integration: Conceptualizing communications in cancer control systems. Patient Education and Counseling, 71(3), 319–327. http://doi.org/10.1016/j.pec.2008.02.013

Best, A., Terpstra, J. L., Moor, G., Riley, B., Norman, C. D., & Glasgow, R. E. (2009). Building knowledge integration systems for evidence‐informed decisions. Journal of Health Organization and Management, 23(6), 627–641. http://doi.org/10.1108/14777260911001644

Vogus, T. J., & Sutcliffe, K. M. (2012). Organizational Mindfulness and Mindful Organizing: A Reconciliation and Path Forward. Academy of Management Learning & Education, 11(4), 722–735. http://doi.org/10.5465/amle.2011.0002C

Weick, K. E., Sutcliffe, K. M., & Obstfeld, D. (2005). Organizing and the Process of Sensemaking. Organization Science, 16(4), 409–421. http://doi.org/10.1287/orsc.1050.0133

*** If you’re interested in applying these principles to your organization and want assistance in designing a process to support that activity, contact Cense Research + Design.

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Is Knowledge Translation In Health Too Important to Leave to Health Professionals?

Storytelling

Knowledge translation — and its affiliated terms knowledge exchange, knowledge integration and knowledge mobilization — was coined to describe a process of taking what is known into what is done in health across the spectrum of science, practice, policy and  the public’s health. As health issues become more complex due to the intertwining of demographics, technology, science, and cultural transformations the need to better understand evidence and its impact on health has never been higher. Questions remain: has demand met supply? How are the health professions dealing with this equation?

Translating knowledge

The Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR), one of the earliest champions of the concept of knowledge translation in research, define it as:

a dynamic and iterative process that includes synthesisdisseminationexchange and ethically-sound application of knowledge to improve the health of Canadians (sic), provide more effective health services and products and strengthen the health care system.

These ideas are expanded below:

Synthesis – Synthesis, in this context, means the contextualization and integration of research findings of individual research studies within the larger body of knowledge on the topic. A synthesis must be reproducible and transparent in its methods, using quantitative and/or qualitative methods. It could take the form of a systematic review, follow the methods developed by the Cochrane Collaboration, result from a consensus conference or expert panel or synthesize qualitative or quantitative results. Realist syntheses, narrative syntheses, meta-analyses, meta-syntheses and practice guidelines are all forms of synthesis. Resources related to synthesis are available.

Dissemination – Dissemination involves identifying the appropriate audience and tailoring the message and medium to the audience. Dissemination activities can include such things as summaries for / briefings to stakeholders, educational sessions with patients, practitioners and/or policy makers, engaging knowledge users in developing and executing dissemination/implementation plan, tools creation, and media engagement.

Exchange – The exchange of knowledge refers to the interaction between the knowledge user and the researcher, resulting in mutual learning. According to the Canadian Health Services Research Foundation (CHSRF), the definition of knowledge exchange is “collaborative problem-solving between researchers and decision makers that happens through linkage and exchange. Effective knowledge exchange involves interaction between knowledge users and researchers and results in mutual learning through the process of planning, producing, disseminating, and applying existing or new research in decision-making.”

Ethically-sound application of knowledge – Ethically-sound KT activities for improved health are those that are consistent with ethical principles and norms, social values, as well as legal and other regulatory frameworks – while keeping in mind that principles, values and laws can compete among and between each other at any given point in time. The term application is used to refer to the iterative process by which knowledge is put into practice.

In short, knowledge translation is about taking what we learn and know from evidence, sharing that knowledge with others and assisting them to make useful health choices in practice and policy through KT.

This often involves communicating across contexts, disciplines, and roles between and from scientists, clinicians, policy makers and to the public alike. In a health environment that is increasingly becoming complex, the ability to communicate across boundaries is no longer an advantage, it’s an essential skill. While we may not always have the right language, we can translate meaning through stories.

But if stories are to be effective they need to be valued.

The value of storytelling

I’ve seen health professionals — scientists and clinicians — roll their eyes when you mention storytelling in a work context. It is as if the only legitimate role for stories is to communicate with children (which University of Alberta researchers are exploring as a tool for sharing health knowledge with parents). Yet, it is through stories that most people share what they know in every other context; why would it be different in health?

Perhaps it is the connotation that stories are ‘made up’ like children’s bedtime tales, but one need only look to journalism to find that we’ve been making ‘stories’ a central part of our life every day. We listen to drive-time radio for stories about the traffic conditions, we watch, download and listen to news stories filed by professional journalists and citizen bloggers alike on mainstream media, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook along with myriad sources across the web. Last week we were glued to various sources to learn storiessome of them false — and create stories about the events of the Boston Marathon bombings.

Stories are what conveys multiple information threads and puts it in a coherent context.

Stories are coherence engines.

Valuing knowledge translation

If knowledge translation is important then it should be reflected in research priorities and evidence for its impact on the system across different disciplines. Dr Shannon Scott and her U of A team recently conducted a systematic review of knowledge translation strategies in the allied health professions and found that the field was full of low quality studies that made it impossible to make firm statements on which methods were best among them . That team has recently proposed a systematic review looking at how the arts and visual methods can further contribute to KT in practice, although it likely the same issue with methodological quality might come into play here, too.

What she and her team are doing is looking at the process of sharing stories and, from a research perspective, sharing stories appears to not have been worth investing in scientifically. At least, not enough to generate a lot of studies and good evidence.

One could argue that knowledge translation is still new and that it takes time to generate such evidence. That is partly true, but it is also an easy prop for those who want to avoid the messiness that comes with communication (and its problematic research context), learning from others, and creating more equitable information spaces, which is what knowledge translation ultimately does. Knowledge translation has also been in use for almost 20 years so in that time — even with the most dismal assessment of the length of time it takes to put knowledge into practice — we should be seeing some decent research published.

KT is fundamentally about sharing. Journalists’ are rewarded for sharing — the more they share and the more people who they share with (as measured by readers, listeners, viewers etc..) the more successful they are in their work. Teachers are rewarded for sharing because that means that they are teaching people. Librarians are rewarded for sharing because that means people are checking out books and using the resources in their library.

We don’t apply the same standard to academic research, even though we have some crude metrics to measure reach and impact,  and there is roughly no metric for the degree to which clinicians share among themselves. Maybe this needs to change.

I have scientific colleagues who are fierce in the face of their most strident academic critics and have delivered keynotes to auditoriums filled with researchers that are nearly paralyzed in the face of speaking to the public. This is not fear of public speaking, its fear of speaking to the public.

Should they be? I don’t think speaking to the public should be expected to be enjoyable for everyone, but neither are doing statistical calculations, completing ethics applications, or presenting posters at conferences, but we still expect scientists to do that. We still expect nurses, doctors, psychologists, medical technicians and social workers to traverse complex social problems to talk to their patients in an open and honest way.

Why is it when scientists are speaking to policy makers, clinicians to scientists, policy makers to the public, or any professional to another from another discipline, speciality or division we decide its not critical for them to make the effort?

Why don’t we do the research to support it? 

Why is it OK not to do KT because its uncomfortable, awkward, difficult or confusing?

Declining interest, rising demand

It is perhaps for reasons like this that knowledge translation is so poorly understood and taken up as a focus for research. Looking at Google NGram data (which tracks mention of specific topics in books and publications) we see a steady rise in citations until about 2003 followed by a levelling off. Keep in mind that the leveling begins before social media became known. In the years after Twitter, Facebook and YouTube — arguably the most powerful communications media we have for doing knowledge translation widely (but perhaps not deeply) — there is roughly no sharp increase.

Below are the citations for the terms knowledge translation, knowledge exchange, and knowledge integration  from 1996 (when the Web first started gaining wide use beyond academia and the military) and 2008, the latest year for which there is available data. Note that the numbers reflect general mentions as a percentage of overall terms, so they are relative, not absolute values.

Figure 1: Google NGram Data for KT, KE & KI: 1996-2008

Knowledge Translation, Exchange & Integration NGram

Is there so much other stuff to talk about in 2013 that the relative importance of knowledge translation is diminished?

A look at Google Trend data using the same terms finds that not only are these concepts not growing, their mention is actually shrinking.

Looking at the three terms we see that all three concepts have declined over time. During these years — 2004-2013 — we saw not only the birth of social media, but the rise of Internet-enabled handheld devices to allow knowledge to be shared anywhere there is a data signal. We now have apps and nearly all of the Internets resources in our pockets and we are seeing a decline in the use of these terms.

Figure 2: Google Trend Data for KT, KE & KI: 1996-2013

Knowledge Term Trends

Where to?

So to review: We have a body of evidence in KT that is problematic and incomplete at the same time we have a decrease in use of the terms, while at the very same time we have a sharp rise in available tools and technologies to share information quickly and a continued, steady demand for more information to make decisions for health providers, patients, policy makers and insurers.

Yes, the data presented here are not perfect. But does it not make sense that there should at least be some trend upward if knowledge translation is valued? Should we not see some shift to more research, better research evidence, and greater interest given the tools and scope of communications we have through social media?

This begs the question: is knowledge translation in health too important to leave to health professionals? 

In future posts this question will be looked at in greater depth. Stay tuned.

* Blog has been updated since original post

businessmarketingsocial media

Too Much Social Media, Not Enough Social Message

Web 2.0 Map

Social media is any networked information technology, tool or platform that derives its content and principal value from user engagement and permits those users to interact with that content. But last time I checked (in), the content stream being produced through my media stream was becoming a lot less social (Web 2.0) and more of a throwback to the media of old (Web 1.0); the implications could be considerable for those wishing to reach new audiences or create them in the first place. 

It’s been a rough ride for social media companies. On Friday Facebook’s shares were at a record low since their IPO a couple months ago. Last month, Twitter provoked much concern after dropping its partnership with LinkedIn as part of its desire to have greater control over its messaging, prompting concern that Twitter might end up closing itself off to 3rd party applications like EchoFon, HootSuite and Tweetbot to ensure quality. This desire for tailoring and control of messages and trends has prompted some to suggest that Twitter may be ruining itself in the process.

The issue is not just one of control, but of a disrespect for the complexity and conversation that makes social media attractive to its users. In short: it’s about the social, not the media.

Social media, non social content

Scanning through my Facebook page its easy to see why their stock is dropping and will continue to do so. In their quest to justify their valuation, Facebook needs to find ways to make money from what people post and pictures of people’s kids, quips about daily hassles and joys, sharing cat videos, and posting check-ins at a local restaurant aren’t enough to justify a $100bn valuation. To do this, they need advertising dollars and deals with game makers and app developers to drive revenue up. Aside from the possibility of games, there is little social about advertising, no matter what kind of spin is offered.

Within a year my Facebook page has gone from a loose collection of social miscellany from friends and family to a steady stream of non-social junk with advertisements in the form of page updates, news stories that require me to accept an app that sends me more ads, and a litany of non-essential information.

The signal to noise ratio has officially flipped from more noise and less signal.

Bit by bit, Facebook is choking its users to death with ephemera and it would not surprise me if in two years we refer to it as we do MySpace today. YouTube is also running perilously close to offering too much media with not enough message as users increasingly have to sit through advertisements or click on banner ads before accessing content. News sites like the Globe and Mail will run a 30 second advertisement before allowing you to see a 20 second news clip, a 150% advertisement to content ratio on some stories.

I remember a few years ago when my email took the same turn. Now, probably 75 per cent of my received (non-spam!) email goes unread and is immediately deleted on sight. This isn’t necessarily spam, much of it is bacn, the kind of updates that I might have subscribed to voluntarily or I receive as part of a professional membership or affiliation. However, it’s severely disabled email’s potential and is now a ‘necessary evil’ instead of a useful tool I welcomed having in my toolkit.

Speaking to colleagues, it is not unreasonable to hear of people receiving messages in the hundreds each day and spending more than 3 hours per day just managing that content alone. How is this helping us communicate better? To learn?

This is one gigantic distraction and is not proving useful to improving our communications or helping us integrate the knowledge we receive and already have. Some claim that the era of big data will allow advertisers to target their ads with such exceptional focus and appropriateness that they will be serving us as much as we are needed to service them. I somehow doubt that.

From Web 2.0 back to 1.0

Consider the definition of what social media is on Wikipedia (as Web 2.0):

Web 2.0 is a concept that takes the network as a platform for information sharing, interoperability, user-centered design,[1] and collaboration on the World Wide Web. A Web 2.0 site allows users to interact and collaborate with each other in a social media dialogue as creators (prosumers) of user-generated content in a virtual community, in contrast to websites where users (consumers) are limited to the passive viewing of content that was created for them. Examples of Web 2.0 include social networking sites, blogs, wikis, video sharing sites, hosted services, web applications, mashups and folksonomies.

When my social media stream is filled with promoted tweets, sponsored posts, ‘like’ requests on advertisements or updates from projects, I lose the social and just end up with media.

Social media is at its best when it is a conversation. Sometimes the conversation involves a lot of talking on one side, but there is a genuine back-and-forth, an unpredictability to it, and a non-linear dynamic that makes it interesting. Straight-to-viewer messages that offer no ways to engage except to watch, click off or ‘like’ don’t make for a conversation.

Imposing Structure and Losing Complexity

In trying to turn a setting where complexity, emergence and non-linearity come alive and work to create conversation, social media property managers are stifling the very thing that makes their tools and platforms so attractive. Creativity is born from serendipity and diverse connections. In imposing structures that remove or highly limit this potential for discovery by adding unnecessary noise, we are a risk of losing some of the best tools for idea testing, discussion, and knowledge translation we have ever known by reducing the opportunities for serendipity.

It is the commercial drive that contributed to bringing these tools in the first place, however that drive can lead to blindness creating an Internet ivory tower rather than a true marketplace of ideas as advocated in the Cluetrain Manifesto, which looked at how markets operate as innovation hubs by promoting conversations.

From markets to artists, the messages that are created by media are related to the media itself. Marshall McLuhan knew that and so did his peer, Edmund Snow Carpenter. Mathematician-artist a Youtube video maker vihart knows this too and spoke to Carpenter’s thesis in a terrific short video below.

In critiquing the push for standard ‘best practices’ in social media, vihart (and Carpenter, by posthumous extension) point to the ways in which the traditional media formats that advertisers desperately wish to use to contain your attention (and limit your feedback) is exactly the opposite of the new media.

Taken from the forward of Carpenter’s book, They Became What They Beheld, (and explicated beautifully by vihart) come some rules of communication commonly pursued by traditionalists and reasons why we shouldn’t pay attention. These rules as noted by Carpenter are:

1. Know your audience and address yourself directly to it

2. Know what you want to say and say it clearly and fully

3. Reach the maximum audience by using existing channels

Whatever sense this may have made in world of print, it makes no sense today. In fact, the reverse of each rule applies.

If you address yourself to an audience, you accept at the outset the basic premises that unite the audience. You put on the audience, repeating cliches familiar to it. But artists don’t address themselves to audiences; they create audiences. The artist talks to himself out lout. If what he has to say is significant, others hear & are affected.

The trouble with knowing what to say and saying it clearly and fully, is that clear speaking is generally obsolete thinking. Clear statement is like an art object: it is the afterlife of the process which called it into being. The process itself is the significant step and, especially at the beginning, is often incomplete and uncertain.

The problem with full statement is that it doesn’t involve: it leaves no room for participation; it’s address to consumer, not co-producer.

One is left watching this video with the question: what happens when social media has too much media, not enough message? 

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Knowledge Translation Lip (Sync) Service

Dancing for a Cure

Researchers and policy makers wring their hands and wrack their brains at ways to get people to take up the knowledge generated through scientific research and use it for social good and further invention. Some, stop doing this and just make it happen and YouTube and the Internet are showing us how.

Designer, strategist and broadcaster Debbie Millman, host of the Design Matters podcast, signs off each episode with a great quote:

We can talk about making a difference, we can make a difference, or we can do both

It seems when talking about knowledge translation, there is a lot of talk about how to do it better and then there are some who just do it better. McGill University and some of the researchers associated with the Goodman Cancer Research Centre have partnered up with filmmakers, volunteers and a medical supply company to ‘dance for cancer’ as a means of promoting their work and raising funds for cancer research. (The company, Medicom, has offered to donate per click so if you’re interested in donating and being entertained, click the link below).

Besides being catchy (Taio Cruz‘s club hit, Dynamite, is the song that these researchers and cast are dancing to) and well-produced, the video unscores the potential that video and some creative use of the arts can offer the scientific community in showing the world what it does and how it does it. The video shows what life is like (in a singing-and-dancing way) in a lab and showcases some of the people who do it, making them real humans rather than some mysterious “scientists off in the lab”.

They are designing a knowledge translation opportunity that (so far) has been viewed nearly 30,000 times as of this writing. I suspect that number will triple in the coming weeks. When some of the best, most cited research articles in the world are read (viewed) by maybe hundreds of people, the attention of thousands in such a short time should give pause.

Further, of the thousands that view the video, it is safe to say that most are non-scientists. For many, but certainly not all, of the studies we do in public and population health, the audience for this video is almost the same as ours — or at least includes many of the same people. Not all studies or research projects will yield the kind of data that are video-worthy or inspire photosharing, but some are. Many more than we acknowledge. And if we want the public engaged in science, if we want to reach practitioners and inspire policy makers and researchers alike to pay attention to the evidence being generated, this video might offer some suggestions for a way forward.

While you think of that, enjoy the choreography and lip sync skill of McGill’s brave super-translators and support a good cause in the process:

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Creating Campires For Innovation and Knowledge Translation

Gather round

A campire has been a beacon for human life for centuries and may provide the ideal analogy and literal tool to engaging people in creating new things. The opportunities for it to shape our thinking and actions is enormous.

The campfire is a place where we go for warmth, intimacy, safety, light, food and inspiration. As camping season comes upon us in the Northern part of the Americas, it seems fitting to consider the ways that the campfire might be used to stoke the sparks of imagination and flames of passion (pun firmly intended).

Metaphors and analogies are commonly used in systems thinking and complexity science to illustrate concepts that are, on their own, relatively complex and awkward to describe literally. A campfire provides both a metaphor for bringing people together, but also a literal tool that could be used more effectively in work with groups struggling to innovate, collaborate and contemplate together. From a design perspective, campfires and the social system that they create around them provide an opportunity to enhance intimacy quickly, allowing for the potential to explore issues in ways that are more difficult to do in other settings.

Consider some of the following properties of the campfire.

Lighting has been found to have a strong environmental effect on many behaviours and moods, and the type of inconsistent light that is thrown by a campfire is similar to that which induces relaxation and intimacy (PDF).

It can be argued that storytelling has been our most powerful vehicle for sharing what we know throughout human history. Research on narrative effectiveness has found that emulating the environments created by a campfire (PDF), the close-in, small-group, open dialogue sharing kinds of spaces, leads to more effective communication in business contexts.

The sensory richness of a campfire — the smell of wood and smoke, the crackle, the sight of sparks and flame, the feeling of heat — all create an environment that differs from much of what we are used to, provoking psychophysiological stimulation that has been associated with learning outcomes. Research linking environmental design and architecture has explored the phenomenon of sensory richness and how modern designed environments reduce this and (potentially) limit learning.  (See program example here).

Another quality of a campfire is that it creates space for meditative inquiry. Anthropologists and psychologists have speculated that it was the campfire and the meditative rituals that it created that led modern humans to separate from Neanderthals. The  focus on something like a fire draws attention away from the chaos of the world and channels into a circle that is generated through the campfire.

One of the benefits of a campfire is the circle that it creates. Leadership scholar Meg Wheatley, Christina Baldwin and Ann Linnea reflected on their use of the circle and how it has been used historically as a means of creating a common space where participants are on more equal footing with one another as a means of leadership promotion. In a circle, everyone can (usually) see everyone else and no position is held as more important than others, which privileges all participants and not just some.

Lastly, the campfire creates not just internal peace, but social intimacy as well. Indeed,modern social media has been compared to the campfire (PDF) in its ability to potentially replicate the focused, shared space that a campfire occupied for much of human life. For the reasons listed above, the social media effect is likely limited, but nonetheless the metaphor may partly hold in light of a lack of alternatives.

In practice, lighting a chord of wood in the middle of an urban setting might be problematic, but it is worth considering for those of us looking to create those social spaces where people can gather. Taking a break and leaving town might be worth doing as well. Failing that, what are the campfire-like spaces that we can create with what we have.

Designers, health promoters or anyone seeking to bring together ideas while working in complex spaces may wish to give this more thought — or meditate on it, which might (as it has done before) spark a new evolutionary shift attributed to the campfire.

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What If Research Was Like the Restaurant Industry?

A model for research?

Spend some time engaging with the service industry reveals a stark gap between what they do to deliver a product that satisfies and what research does and maybe there are lessons to learned for those of us in the scientific world. 

I’ve recently had the privilege to spend a week in the Sonoma and Napa Valley areas of Northern California. If there ever was a place devoted to food and drink, it is this part of the world.

Spending time sampling wine and exotic locally produced, handcrafted foods, beyond being enjoyable, also raises awareness of the craftsmanship that goes into a good drink or meal. From the way a food is grown or raised, prepared, delivered and consumed, it is hard not to appreciate the amount of effort that goes into making that meal a good one. Add in the restaurant, its ambiance, design, and the people there to serve the food to you and soon you are prepared to say “thanks” before every meal whether you are religious or not.

Sitting at a table looking at all that was around me, I couldn’t help but notice the finer details of my experience and wonder about why we have no equivalent in research. Whether it was the texture of the linen table cloth, the arrangement of flowers on the table across from me, the blown-glass lantern and flickering light it produced on my table, to the smell of the food, its temperature, its presentation and, of course, the taste. What about the cadence of the service? How about the way that the server introduced the menu and commented on the options for pairing a wine with each course? Restauranteurs create experiences and products and work to make sure that they are matched to what I want and how I want it now.

In research, we spend at least as much time thinking about how to produce a product that is worthwhile as farmers, ranchers, and vintners do, yet once created we do comparatively little to further develop a worthwhile experience for our end user — if we think about them at all. When was the last time a researcher — or knowledge producer (it could be a clinican sharing their knowledge — helped you to gain a deep appreciation of what they had to offer by working with where you were and what you kind of experience you were looking for?

I can say confidently that this has never happened to me. And why shouldn’t it have? Or better yet: why haven’t I done it for my audiences?

Anticipating some answers that others might give, I offer a back and forth / Q & A:

1. Position: That is not a researcher’s job. We are trained to do research, not sell ideas.

Response: Times change. I can’t think of another role, job or position that doesn’t have to adapt to changing times and where there is no accountability for the outcomes of that job to someone else. I am not suggesting that a researcher, particularly those doing more basic/foundational research, will, can or should know the myriad possible applications of that research, but the idea that they ought not have thought of some possible, eventual application is problematic. I have heard time and again that such applied thinking undermines discovery, but there is no evidence that this is the case, nor does it seem reasonable when those who pay the bills are the public. Even a discovery that makes it easier to make further discoveries is an application of translational thinking and it is time to change.

2. Position: Others don’t understand my research; it’s too complicated to explain.

Response: Any service organization that is unable to explain its purpose goes out of business. There are a lot of ideas that seemed complicated at first, but became easier to grasp once those offering such services reached out. Investing and mutual funds are two examples of complicated business models that have gained widespread purchase. Nearly every concept can be broken into pieces that can be understood by someone else. For a great example, look at the Academic Minute program on WAMC Radio where academics take one minute to share their research with the world. It can be done.

3. Position: The time I spend selling my ideas takes away from generating knowledge. I will be far less effective if I have to do one more thing.

Response: This might be true, but that is only if a researcher does all her or his own knowledge translation and communication. The service industry uses many models. Great chefs aren’t always out on the street wearing a sandwich board trying to convince you to eat at their restaurant, or romancing a dish at your table, there are specific roles that do that. But a great chef is always prepared to play that role if needed and at many great restaurants, the manager or chef surveys what is going on in the front and back of the house to make sure things are going well. In research, we don’t do this much at all. We produce knowledge and maybe share it with other producers, spending little time with other audiences and even less wondering whether we produced the right kind of research for the.  There are some models that are promising, like the knowledge broker , who can play the role of the sommelier for research , but like restaurants that have a role like this for wine, they only work when the system is in place to use those talents well. The analogy here is that there needs to be the right stock of research, the right options for using it, and a mechanism to connect the knowledge broker to the audience.

4. Position: Selling research cheapens it and makes it like a commodity and it is so much more than that.

Response: If you don’t think that there isn’t some commodification of knowledge, then maybe you need to consider what is happening to academia and the trends in research, education and publishing.  Louis Menand‘s great historical review of the North American university views the battle for ideas as a marketplace shows that this isn’t even a new phenomenon, rather its just looking different than it did before.  He has gone further to discuss the problem with PhD’s, echoing recent work published in the Economist on the disposable academic,  pointing to the commodification and professionalization of academia. Researchers may like to imagine that their ideas and work are pure, but the reason we get funding is that someone is interested in what we do for reasons that go beyond reason and science and into passion and some acknowledgement that something will be better because we ask the question. Yes, knowledge is greater than just its application, but we must acknowledge than we compete for attention and that when people pay attention to what we do, we have greater impact than if they don’t.

5. Position: There is no support for this kind of selling of research.

Response: Have you looked at the Internet? Walked into a bookstore? Perhaps turned on the TV? There is research being used all the time. Do the major grant councils pay for this? Not always. But times change (see point #1). The idea that knowledge translation should be funded by grantors is new in itself and will evolve. We need to evolve with it and, if it is not supported, do it anyway. Tweet, blog, share. There is too much information available out there to not be active in its promotion or use, otherwise our intended audiences will choose to use something else.

Restauranteurs know this. They know that no matter how good they are, there are hungry (literally!) customers and competitors who will walk down the street to another place. A Michelin star or Zagat rating this year doesn’t mean that you’ll be successful next year.

Take a moment and envision what research could look like if we handcrafted it to meet the needs of our audience, still taking the time to create art like great chefs, warm our day like a host, and treat us like royalty like a great server. What might that look like and why should we not take some queues from the diners we visit and the restaurants we visit as models for a tasty future for knowledge generation and translation.

Making our customers feel good about our product

** Photo Waitress at Il Folletto by boocal used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

** Photo Sandwich Board by zappowbang used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

art & designcomplexitydesign thinkingpublic healthsocial systems

Art / Design / Science / Literacy

Szonyi Istvan: Man Reading (artist's father)

Literacy has many forms and art is one of the ways in which these forms come together and present some of the best opportunities for engaging diversity in complex social systems.

The relationship between art and science has been long noted by those looking at the history of discovery, and the nature of creativity and human innovation. In theory, the idea that two creative ventures that use different methods and media as the vehicle for expression should fit together is natural. But that is where theory and practice diverge sharply.

From my perspective, art and design are not perspectives warmly embraced within the scientific community. There is much suspicion among scientists about the validity, reliability and practical utility of art and design in solving important problems. Aesthetics may be nice for culture, but science tackles serious things.

Yet, one of the more serious matters for science is the concept of literacy. Scientists have been worried about the inability of people to pick up and understand the basics of how science works and its implications for society, prompting this to become an educational priority for some.

Science literacy can be defined as:

PISA (Program for International Student Assessment) 2006 defines science literacy as an individual’s scientific knowledge and use of that knowledge to identify questions, to acquire new knowledge, to explain scientific phenomena, and to draw evidence based conclusions about science-related issues, understanding of the characteristic features of science as a form of human knowledge and enquiry, awareness of how science and technology shape our material, intellectual, and cultural environments, and willingness to engage in science-related issues, and with the ideas of science, as a reflective citizen.

This definition is highly referential to the concept of science, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as:

science |ˈsīəns|

noun

the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment : the world of science and technology.

• a particular area of this : veterinary science | the agricultural sciences.

• a systematically organized body of knowledge on a particular subject : the science of criminology.

This term is rooted in the Latin scire, which is to know . If one looks at the first definition on its own, independent of the second definition and conjunction with the most popular applications of the term science, there seems to be little room for art and design. Yet, when revisiting the definition of science itself, the idea of the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment, a door opens up to some new possibilities.

Design is largely about the study of human situations and interacting with people, ideas, and space to create solutions that emerge within those spaces. Unlike science, which has a focus on observation and understanding, design is about taking such understanding and applying it to problem solving. Milton Glaser describes design as intervention into the flow of events and the introduction of intention into human affairs.

Art is a means of expression and for exploring the intangible and making it so. It is for such reasons that art + design go together so much.

Reading the different definitions of literacy and considering what science, design and art do, it seems to me right that we contemplate the ways in which they come together. Art and design are part of the normative scientific lexicon, but perhaps they should. As the human-centred problems that science aims to tackle become more complex, abstract and intangible — climate change, chronic disease, food security, social inclusion/exclusion and mass migration/globalization — the need to visualize the problems in new ways and create (design) solutions based on science becomes imperative.

The only way this will take place is to have greater literacy on how this can be in order to recognize the opportunities that science, design and art present and the ability to transform that into true positive intention into human affairs.

** Image used under Creative Commons Licence from Flickr Pool, by freeparking. http://www.flickr.com/photos/freeparking/2351767932/