Innovation: one of ‘those’ words

At the Watson conference, as can happen lots of places, ‘innovation’ was heard with an economic inflection. The word is often associated with technical improvements to commercial processes; increasing efficiency; lowering costs and driving up profitability. Indeed, in the discourses of public service reform, ‘innovation’ can even be a cover for privatisation or at least marketisation; a way of writing off the public sector as an anachronism. Good neoliberal stuff.

But there is another meaning for innovation within the public services, a meaning that is perhaps more commonly used in the northern European literature. Daglio et al (2015), writing for the OECD, captured some of this meaning with the statement ‘public sector innovation is about new ideas that work at creating public value’ (p. 4). But there are a few researchers whose work is extremely useful at capturing a sense of innovation as an expression of human agency, the exercise of collective creativity, and a means by which change can help to develop human capabilities, strengthen bonds of mutuality and improve society.

Almost a case study of these processes in action is Miettinen’s Innovation, Human Capabilities and Democracy (2013).  Miettinen traces the growth of Finnish society and economy after the second world war and a planned shift from an essentially agrarian economy to a more diverse, modern and technological one. Showing how the Finnish state has seen itself as essentially enabling, regarding economic growth as a means of developing society, Miettinen explains the success of the Finnish school system, in particular, taking a long and multifaceted historical view. Innovation, human capabilities and democracy really are key words in Miettinen’s analysis.

Bart Nooteboom’s Learning and innovation in organisations and economies (2000) is  a tour-de-force that draws on psychological studies of human development, educational analyses of learning, organisational theory perspectives on collaboration, and business strategy to show how new ideas emerge within both commercial and public sector bodies, ideas that be capitalised in order to create both private and public value. It is a book that sees Vygotsky next to Carlile next to Csikszentmihalyi next to Johnson & Scholes … and so on. Startlingly eclectic.

Catching Ourselves in the Act by Horst Hendriks-Jansen rejects the traditional cognitive science explanations of scripts and task descriptions in favour of ‘genetic’ (in the developmental sense) and historical analyses of human collaborative activities. Drawing on robotics, ethology and developmental psychology, Hendricks-Jansen elaborates ‘interactive emergence’ as a key concept and one that emphasises both the collective creativity involved in the identification and implementation of new ideas and the common bonds between people that are required in its realisation.

These books are good at getting at the social dimension – both in the local sense of how individuals work together to generate new ideas but also in the larger sense of how ideas can shape societies. For these authors, innovation is not a dirty word tarnished either by market capitalism nor the discourses of education reform.



Daglio, M., Gerson, D., Kitchen, H. (2015) Building Organisational Capacity for Public Sector Innovation. Background Paper prepared for the OECD Conference ‘Innovating the Public Sector: From Ideas to Impact, Paris, 12 – 13 November 2014

Hendriks-Jansen, H. (1996) Catching Ourselves in the Act: Situated Activity, Interactive Emergence, Evolution, and Human Thought. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press

Miettinen, R. (2013) Innovation, Human Capabilities and Democracy: Towards an Enabling Welfare State. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Noteboom, B. (2000) Learning and innovation in organizations and economies. Oxford: Oxford University Press