"Inventing the New" Conference Tackles the Dynamics of Innovation

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April 11, 2016

Some of academia’s brightest minds gathered at Northwestern University recently to discuss live-streaming gamers, punk bands, and independent film festivals. Why?

Because each is uniquely demonstrative of the power — and puzzle — behind innovation.

These were just a few topics discussed during Inventing the New: Innovation in Creative Enterprises, the theme of this year’s dynamic Lambert Family Conference at the School of Communication.

Sociologists, lawyers, communication professionals, and engineers from across the world spent April 8 and 9 at the Allen Center discussing how, why, and where innovation takes place. Funded by the generous donation of Bill and Sheila Lambert, the annual Lambert Conference was organized by Claudio Benzecry, an associate professor of communication studies, and Pablo Boczkowski, AT&T Research Professor of Communication Studies and director of the Leadership for Creative Enterprises master’s program.

“This conference started as a conversation on innovation across different fields,” Benzecry said. “In Pablo’s case it was his research about news production and consumption, organizational change, and the gap between the new consumption habits and how production was organized. In my case, it’s innovation in mass-market shoe making, an industry based on mimicry and replication, but where every little change opened up the possibility of something new to flourish. We started thinking of combining our work and had a discussion about what kind of scholarly production was taking stock of innovation and creativity. Like school kids trading cards we started asking, what have you read? What is interesting? What is — no pun intended — new about innovation?”

Thus, Inventing the New was born. The conference began with a keynote address by Pierre-Michel Menger, the chair of Sociology of Creative Working Process at the Collège de France and author of Creative Labour and The Economics of Creativity: Art and Achievement under Uncertainty. He discussed how creative geniuses often worked hard, balancing monetary and nonmonetary means of reward as they created their art. Rodin, for instance, might experiment with up to ninety different versions of a sculpture before finishing one.

“Such work might take years,” Menger said. “And there was always a risk that work could be abandoned and not finished.”

This hard work, experimentation, and fragmentation of art often led to innovation, he argued.

Andrew Abott, sociology professor at the University of Chicago, responded to the keynote by arguing that perhaps creative geniuses aren’t geniuses at all, but simply craft workers.

“Mozart did not think of himself as a musical genius,” Abott argued. “He was busy being a working musician.” In fact, Abott said, someone must be at the top, and therefore it might not be genius that led Mozart or Rodin there, but might be part circumstance, or even luck.

This spirited debate about whether innovation might come from genius or might simply be a matter of luck or practicality was one of many discussions about how we might better understand creativity. Boczkowski says the talks were divided into three basic questions: What is Innovation? Where does innovation happen? And who does the Innovating?

From the Maker Movement, or the small-scale manufacturing in homes now made possibly by 3-D printers and other new technologies, discussed by Fred Turner, chair of the Department of Communication at Stanford University — to how broadband revolutionized the way we watch TV, presented by Amanda Lotz, a Communication Studies and Screen Arts and Cultures professor from the University of Michigan — the conference took on a broad a range of issues, bringing together people from an array of fields. T.L. Taylor, a Comparative Media Studies professor from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology discussed live-streaming video game players, some of whom garner impressive audiences just to watch them play and comment on a game.

Mukti Kahire, an entrepreneurial management associate professor at Harvard Business School presented her work on how third party intermediaries like the Sundance Film Festival are revolutionizing the film industry. Fernando Dominguez Rubio, an assistant communication studies professor from the University of California at San Diego, discussed how digital art, once cutting edge in the 1990s, becomes obsolete today, and how modern artwork lives with the threat of disappearing because of rapidly changing technology.

Boczkowski says the School of Communication makes innovation a priority with such programs as the Master’s of Science in Leadership for Creative Enterprises.

“It’s great to see people who might not otherwise talk, connecting,” Boczkowski says. “We’ve got art historians talking to communication professors, talking to legal scholars and social scientists. The energy is great, and the talks have been fantastic.”

By Cara Lockwood