The Problem(s) with Innovation[This is my keynote at the Bronx EdTech Showcase on 5/9/14 — (reconstructed) text of the talk here,with access to the slides by clicking on the image. The upper-case headings are also slide titles — so, should you want to see  the slides while reading the text, those headings will signal when to go to a new slide.]


I feel I need to justify the title a bit. I’m coming to you with problems? What’s that about? First of all, since all you folks are innovators, let me say that you are not the problem(s). On the contrary.

But if I ask how many of you feel as noticed and supported and impactful as you’d like to be, you’re probably aware of something we might call the problematics of innovation. More on that directly.

Second, this is not just an exercise in problem definition. I do want to get on to some steps toward solution(s). But it is better to define a problem before trying to moving on to a solution

So the Problem(s) with Innovation can be traced to a larger institutional problem — the reasons innovation doesn’t take hold are also the reasons institutions are notoriously slow to change.

I won’t deny for a moment that we are talking about complicated dynamics (or lack thereof) , but I’m a great believer in simplifying (if not oversimplifying).


So one way of looking at the problem(s) is to realize that we are dealing with a set of tensions — specifically, tensions between how innovation percolates up and how resources filter down.

Basically, we are talking about tensions between innovation being centrifugal and resource management being centripetal.

Innovation happens at the edges, is dispersed, scattered, disruptive because it happens outside of the established status quo.

Resource management is jtop-down: organized hierarchically, in clear chains of responsibility and control, subject to audits and so highly documented and monitored. (Anyone tried to get a purchase requisition through lately?)

Admittedly, there’s nothing epecially revelatory about seeing that ideas and money don’t flow the same way.

What’s worse, looking at it this way can induce apathy and even despair.

If we are going to think of what, if anything, we are going to do about this situation, we need to get to the bottom of these tensions.



The famous journalistic questions are supposed to help us analyze situations, but here I think they’ll just get us lost in the weeds. It’s time for simplification again. The key question is WHY? If these are differently motivated (as well as differently located) behaviors, what motivates them?


In a word, RISK.

  • Innovation is all about taking risk. It’s being experimental, trying things out, testing hypotheses, being able to fail, revise, re-try.
  • Effective resource management is risk avoidance. Resource management is essentially risk management.

The question is what happens when risk avoidance becomes risky.


It’s worth dwelling on the picture on this slide for a moment; it’s about Education, a bridge over Ignorance, and “Safety First” leads to the Road to Happiness.

Playing it safe might have been the Road to Happiness in 1914, but not in 2014.

The argument could be made that we have reached a game-changing moment when the most dangerous thing you can do is play it safe.


There’s an interesting analogy with not just what Steve Jobs said but what he was facing when, confronted with what seemed like insurmountable problems, he said ““The way we’re going to survive is to innovate our way out of this.” This was after he’d been kicked out of then brought back into Apple, post-bubble (and mid-recession, if not the Great Recession), with a sense that the excitement had gone out of technology while the pricy-ness and corporatization had escalated. In that crucible, we got Mac OS, the iPod and iTunes, the iPhone and iPad, IOS, and so on.

Jobs was not himself an innovator, of course, but he was a supremely effective driver, supporter, and vetter of innovations, roles that will be relevant to what I getting to.

In the meantime, think about where we are in higher ed:   Funding from all levels is receding. A degree has never been important, but resources are ever leaner. Technology promises solutions but also higher costs and complications. Calls for reform abound as the challenges, especially stories of crushing student debt, raise concerns that institutions of higher education are unresponsive, inefficient, unable to change. Whatever else higher ed does, it can’t do nothing.


That, of course, is part of the problem. Higher ed can be seen to be doing all sorts of things, but they are beginning to look like exercises in throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.

Dan Greenstein coined the term “Innovation Exhaustion” to describe the point this has brought us to, specifically with respect to MOOCs, which went through a huge hype cycle – talk of “campus tsunamis” and “revolutions” gave way to disappointing results and shrinking expectations. I don’t want to get off on a MOOC tangent, but the really significant thing about that explosion of hype and activity was that MOOCs, by definition, don’t need the mobilization of faculty: they are the printing press revolution of our time, a dramatic scaling of reach and access to content – like the lectures of a single professor (just as the printing press could widely disseminate the views of a single author). MOOCs function on the star system; you just need a celebrity prof and a platform or provider. In short, you can circumvent the system. Resource management can just fund some “hot” someone or something, doesn’t need to innovate or even foster innovation.


This is against the Law – or at least “Carlson’s Law”  (Curtis Carlson being the head of SRI Int’l – one of those acronyms that doesn’t stand for anything, though it used to stand for Stanford Research Institute).  This is what Carlson says about how innovation works — these days, at least:

 In a world where so many people now have access to education and cheap tools of innovation, innovation that happens from the bottom up tends to be chaotic but smart. Innovation that happens from the top down tends to be orderly but dumb.

As a result the sweet spot for innovation today is “moving down,” closer to the people, not up, because all the people together are smarter than anyone alone and all the people now have the tools to invent and collaborate.

This is pretty interesting (and verifiable) when you think about it. Access not just to knowledge but to tools (not least of all the tools for tapping into “the wisdom  of crowds”) ought to foster innovation, at least as long as we don’t have things getting in the way.  The critical thing is figuring how far we should be “moving down.” (Quite a ways, perhaps, but how far is too far?)

THE (GOLDILOCKS) POINT – what’s not too high up, nor too low down

That’s not just a place – remember that we’re talking about not just the location but the motivation of behaviors.

So, let’s think about what we want from Innovation and Resource Management. [Two more  mind maps.]

In both cases, we are thinking about two things – rights and benefits. (You could also call them expectations / goals & outcomes, especially if you’re doing Middle States work.)

Bottom line: Innovation needs Freedom and Flexibility; Resource Management (RM) needs Accountability and Evidence.

Above all, they need each other: Innovation is like a plant that needs watering; RM is like a watering can that has no reason for existing if it doesn’t support growth. They meet at Visibility: Innovation needs to get noticed; RM needs to notice what to support (if that watering can is not just going to soak the entire landscape — and remember that water here is a metaphor for money).

Steps in this direction

Let’s take ANOTHER LOOK AT CARLSON’S LAW, specifically what he says about the “sweet spot.”

Innovators have to notice each other, work together, realize that a rising tide lifts all their boats. They may be distributed out there at the fringes, but they need to find a way to find each other, work together, collaborate. So what are the ways?


The CUNY Academic Commons is  a great example of providing the means and  the tools to invent and collaborate. It was itself built by collaboration. Memorably (I still get teased about it), I had told the team, “If you build it, they will fund” – and they did. By the time we got funding, a team had put together a beta version that had literally hundreds of people in it, banging away at it. I’m not sure that’s the model, but it is a model.

You’ll be hearing later, in the lightning panel, from members of one of the largest and most active groups on the Commons, the CUNY Games Network. If you think for a moment about the many skills sets entailed in  educational gaming – you need design specialists, pedagogy people, programmers, and, yes, gamers – you realize that you have to tap into many fields and folks to get what you need. You pretty much have to work collaboratively. They do. The conference — the CUNY Games Festival — they put on in January was amazing.

Speaking of conferences, think how much collaboration this one represents, and how much use it made of the Commons platform.

I could go on, but I need to go on.


This survey is the brainchild of another group on the Commons, the Innovative and Disruptive Technologies group. Realizing that supporting innovation, especially disruptive innovation, is probably not going to be a matter of telling the powers that be, “Give us money and we’ll do cool things,” the IDT group has accepted the challenge of documenting innovation that’s already out there and at work in CUNY, the better to build on that.

The trick is that this also requires collaboration. Enter the CUNY Innovation Survey. The approach taken is through self-reporting. We’ve reached a point in the survey responses where we have representation from all the campuses, and you can browse through the projects that way, but you can also view by category, type, and time of submission.

The point is giving the requisite visibility to what is going on — avoiding reinventing the wheel, failing to find synergies, but also learning from diversity (e.g., different approaches to eportfolio), and there are many things we can learn from each other.

In fact, one of our greatest resources in CUNY is each other. We are a multi-campus system that can and should learn from multiplicity, should share and diversify but also consolidate and reinforce effective practices and innovations.

Logical next steps (not yet taken because they have to be endorsed above my pay grade, and at this exquisitely transitional moment for CUNY, but there are encouraging signs that they may be): 

  • Structures for funding local innovations, start-ups, and plans. (I’m not speaking of external grants, which contribute to the ephemerality of innovations — the money stops flowing and the innovative practice dies or goes dormant; instead, I’m speaking of opportunities for CUNY to invest in its innovators — and invest further if successful innovation seems worth scaling up.)
  • Structures for developing springboards for collaboration: participatory MOOCs and workshops and roundtables or seminars that ready faculty to learn more, get to the next level.
  • Opportunities for mentoring – both to do it and to have it done unto you, and in environments where everyone has the time to do this.

I’ll leave you with means of contacting me, and how better than through MY CUNY PROFILE, a major feature of a major upgrade of the Commons. What you’re seeing is just the top: you can also find my bio there, my publications, my interests, my positions (more than you want to know, really). It’s something everyone should use, particularly for a point of connection I’ll draw your attention to – the CUNY.IS/your-name-here URL shortener. This is not an act of hubris but an acknowledgement that, like the hundreds who use the same kind of CUNY.IS/_____  quick link (may there soon be thousands) we are all CUNY: together, collaboratively, we are what CUNY is.

That’s one the thought I’d like to leave you with, that and

Innovation is not tech; Innovation is people.

The solution is not a hierarchy; the solution is a network.


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