The Long View on Innovation Labs

I’ve been giving some thought recently to the old adage that ‘there is no such thing as a new idea’. I guess I’ve been thinking about how perhaps in the past I’ve tended to confuse being innovative, with coming up with a new idea. I’m starting to understand that actually innovation doesn’t have to be all about new ideas, but can also be about the way that existing ideas can be re-interpreted or re-invented to produce better solutions to existing problems.

For the past two years or so, I’ve been working on the development and deployment of a social facing innovation lab. I’m pretty passionate about the iLab and I’m a big advocate for the use of innovation labs within the public sector and social sector — but they aren’t a new idea. Being a fan of Radio 4 this got me thinking; what if I could take ‘The Long View‘ on innovation labs? What could I learn?

A short while ago I was listening to ‘In Our Time‘, another Radio 4 program. In the episode, Melvyn Bragg and guests were discussing the life and work of Robert Hooke (1635–1703), curator of experiments at the Royal Society. I’d been a fan of Hooke ever since I heard Charles Leadbeater talk about him at the Nesta Lab Works conference in early summer 2015, and he’s become a bit of a hero of mine. Hooke was the father of innovation labs and one of the first if not the first person to base his work around hypothesis — starting from a point of proposed explanation made on the basis of limited evidence, and using it as a platform for further investigation. The more I learn about him, the more I can empathise with some of the problems he encountered.

Hooke worked at the cutting edge of scientific exploration at a time when science wasn’t fully understood or accepted. It’s hard to imagine that at that time the Royal Society was so disruptive in it’s thinking, it was perceived as something of a joke. Popular plays were written to ridicule the work of the society and its members. Looking back on his work today it seems quite logical, but in the 17th century what Hooke was doing was well and truly on the fringes of accepted learning practice. Hooke was an early proposer of a theory of evolution, discovered light diffraction with a wave theory to explain it, discovered the cell, and did pioneering work in gravitation, palaeontology, architecture, and more. But of course, Hooke wasn’t the only person experimenting at the time. Other scientists such as Isaac Newton were also working on the same themes at the same time, but whilst Newton might be remembered, Hooke is less well known and was rarely attributed the credit for his discoveries. When Hooke is remembered it’s often more for his disputes with Newton than for his work. The pair constantly wrangled over intellectual property (IP). Whilst Hooke was undoubtedly a great experimenter, he wasn’t a mathematician. Hooke developed the hypothesis and others like Newton often used the hypothesis, plied on the maths and provided the solution; Hooke used his labs to provide evidence to support theory whilst Newton used maths to provide a definitive answer, gaining recognition for his ‘discoveries’ in the process. Looking back it’s often hard to find the true genius of a time. Hooke and Newton were working as part of a larger movement, each a part of a scrum slowly pushing forward toward a common goal. Was it an unfortunate twist of fate for Hooke that he lived at the same time as Isaac Newton or was it serendipity? I guess that depends on your perspective. I’m pretty sure Hooke found it distinctly dissatisfying, but we’ll never really know if he could have done what he did without Newton and vice versa.

So what can I learn from the long view on innovation labs? I’ve jotted down a few of my thoughts:

  • People might not always understand what you are trying to do, but don’t be put off by what they might say. The left-field lab of today could be the Royal Society of tomorrow. Seth Godin put it perfectly when he said “many people have told you ‘no’, and many of them were wrong. Not wrong about what they wanted — perhaps what you have isn’t for them, but wrong about what you could contribute”.
  • Don’t get hung up on IP. The power of innovation comes through collaboration. Newton may not have credited Hooke in his discoveries because he may have truly thought that he had had the initial idea. He may not have recognised Hooke had planted the seed. Indeed in some instances, it’s possible to see that whilst Hooke thought he had planted the seed, Newton’s diary suggested that he already knew. It’s the fabled case of chicken and egg. It’s sometimes difficult to separate unconscious inspiration from conscious collaboration when you’re surrounded by noise; inspiration is everywhere. When you can, attribute credit where it’s due, and if you feel hard done by just iterate and do it better.
  • Movements have always been necessary to bring around change. We’re living in interesting times. We can all be part of a new type of revolution that sees the world use technology to collaborate and solve problems in a way that has never been possible before. That’s pretty powerful. Embrace collaboration and build networks for social change.
  • Recognise that people have different skills to offer. Some people are great at ideas, others are better at developing them. If we understand and embrace what people are good at, we can bring together collaborative teams that are able to work together for common advantage. Work with the competition rather than against them and be generous with your time and your recognition.
  • There is no such thing as a new idea. We just bounce the same theories around within our own movements, slowly moving forward towards a common goal, like rugby players moving a ball in a scrum. Maybe the point isn’t about what happens within the scrum, but where the ball ends up — if it ends up between the posts, does it really matter how it got there? Perhaps only to the people who played a part in getting there — Maybe we need to learn to be more in love with being part of the scrum, than being the person who eventually carries the ball over the line.

I’m sure that I’ll develop my thinking as I continue along my innovation lab journey, but perhaps the most important takeaway from my ‘whistle-stop’ long view on innovation labs is that no matter how hard it gets, we need to keep pushing forward, and if we’re in this for recognition we’re probably in the wrong game. Quite often our hard work will be nothing more than a whisper in the wind. Whilst some others might get the credit for changing the world, they won’t have done it on their own — after all, behind every Newton, there’s a Hooke.

Originally published at on March 18, 2016. Updated for Medium.