Innovation for Jobs

Innovation for Jobs

Innovating a human
future of work

The People Centered Economy

Innovation Means New Shared Language

By David Nordfors

With all innovations come new words and stories. It can be a product name, a story about what the innovation does, experiences of using it, and so on. Many may see this as an effect of the innovation.

IJ Journal snapshotBut let’s think of the new words and stories as a part of the innovation instead of merely an effect of it. There will be no innovation if there are no words or stories. Indeed, the words and stories about the innovation may have to precede it, not follow it. Words and stories are required for formulating the vision of an innovation and making it happen.

Our ability to shape new, shared language is an aspect of our ability to innovate. If spreading new words and stories are a part of the innovation process, then our limitations of spreading new words and stories are limitations to innovation. Perhaps we can not innovate faster than we are able to generate new shared language. When discussing what limits rates of innovation in a society, the speed by which that society is able to generate new, shared language may be considered a factor.

A society forms a shared language as shared language forms a society. Society is an ecosystem that develops language. The language is an ecosystem that develops society. The co-evolution of language and society is about shared culture, negotiations and norms. This makes sociolinguistics an important discipline for understanding innovation.

Societies that develop new shared language effectively can be masters of change. Those that can’t will be its victims.

A concept requires a name, to be called by, a definition of what it is, and stories, so that people can relate to it.

These things are found in dictionaries or encyclopedia for any concept that has entered the vocabulary of a community. With this, people have a shared language and can communicate.

The question is how novelties get established so that they will get into the dictionaries. Innovation may seem to be a hen and egg problem in this sense.

To introduce something new, it must be communicated. But it is difficult to communicate something new because people don’t know have a shared language for it. They are not familiar with its name. It is uncertain they know what it is, and they may not know how to relate to it or put it in context. 

Mass communication, particularly journalism, offers a part of the solution. It makes/spreads new words so that the new things can be included in our language, can be discussed and introduced. It speeds up the introduction of new things, enabling people to discuss them before they are widely spread. This facilitates introduction.

Familiar examples of journalism accelerating innovation is product review publications such as PC World or CNET Such publications increase the rate of innovation by accelerating the introduction of new, shared language for innovations, such as a new gadget or a new service.

But to improve how we innovate, we must generate new, shared language not only about the innovations. We must also be able to generate new shared language about the innovation processes and ecosystems that produced them. This is addressed by innovation journalism. It enables the formation of language around issues like how innovation happens; who does what, and why, in the innovation ecosystem; our ability to innovate and our competitiveness; what stops us or enables us from innovating; what we can do about it; who wants to do what about it (politics of innovation); or innovation trends and happenings.

Obtaining a shared language for discussing issues of shared interest is far from trivial. Innovation is not about science or technology or business or politics, etc. It is about their connection. But people in different professions will often discuss the same things without understanding each other, because they use different language. Specialists in one field do not have words for what other specialists are doing: few politicians understand radio engineering and most radio engineers do not understand political science. Everybody cannot know everything. Building an efficient, shared language between the people who deal with one another in innovation ecosystems is a challenge. It is highly uncertain whether it will happen by itself.

The concepts of ‘attention workers’ and the Innovation Communication System introduce incentives and mechanisms for creating shared language for innovation between different sectors and professions.  Journalists are good at telling stories about how people relate to each other. They have incentives to go for large readerships. So journalism should have incentives to tell the horizontal stories that cross the vertical sectors, since this is a way of expanding a readership. The experts will often have good knowledge of what goes on in their own disciplines. They have a natural focus on the peer community. They often don’t have the time or resources to know how they hang together with the rest of the ecosystem. This is a good job for journalists, who can give the bigger picture in a popular language that all stakeholders will understand equally well. Furthermore, it is beneficial for journalists to fill a different space of storytelling than the ‘vertical’ experts do.

Journalism is well positioned to be the key player. It specializes in generating public attention around issues of public interest. It represents the audience rather than the stakeholders in the system. Experts will often represent stakeholders, and PR will almost always do it. This puts journalism in a better position than others to acquire loyal attention and good reputation with its audience, provided it can live up to the principles of journalism and the demands of the audience on providing high quality coverage.

Innovation communication systems, with innovation journalism at the center, may add to the competitiveness of innovation economies, with the right balance and incentives, catalyzing the formation of new shared language that optimizes the creation of new value.

We need to understand much more about how innovation and attention work integrates if we are to understand the most important mechanisms of value creation in the innovation economy.

Developing broad understanding is related to how processes of cognitive sense-making and sharing of naturalized forms of understanding occur in innovation systems. A key question: how do journalists write about things that do not exist? In many new technologies, the thing does not exist at the invention stage, early in the eventual innovation process. How do innovators and inventors naturalize a thing that does not yet exist? One way is to use metaphors, in accessible language. Both entrepreneurs and journalists use metaphors to make intangible technology or ideas tangible to public audiences.

What cues or facts create these metaphors? Some approaches may take specific ways of thinking about a new technology. Others offer access via metaphor or analogy without locking recipients to rigid behaviors based on knowledge or expectations. What choices capture or exploit existing understandings and extend them to a novelty without binding the ‘audience’ to them or blocking audiences’ acceptance of the new? These are not just academic questions. They strike at the heart of what innovation journalism can do and how it can work. This is where research comes in, covering not just technique but the underlying business models that finance all public communication.

(This is an excerpt from “Innovation Journalism, Attention Work and the Innovation Economy” – click HERE to read the whole article)

David Nordfors

David Nordfors is CEO and co-founder of IIIJ and the chair of the i4j Summit. He was previously co-founder and Executive Director of the Center for Innovation and Communication at Stanford University. He was one of the World Economic Forum Innovation 100 in 2009, and has served on WEF Global Agenda Councils. He serves on advisory boards of the Poynter Institute, Discern Investment Analytics and Black & Veatch. He is an adjunct professor at IDC Herzliya in Israel, a visiting professor at Tallinn University, the Tecnologico de Monterrey, and the Deutsche Welle Akademie. He was advisor to the Director General at VINNOVA, the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems, where he co-initiated the national Swedish Incubator System and set up a bi-national R&D fund between Sweden and Israel for mobile applications. He was Director of Research Funding of the Knowledge Foundation, KK-stiftelsen, administering an endowment of $300MUSD, building a funding framework underwriting over a hundred innovation initiatives between universities and industry. He initiated and headed the first hearing about the Internet to be held by the Swedish Parliament. He has a Ph.D. in physics from the Uppsala University and did his postdoc in Theoretical Chemistry in Heidelberg, Germany.