Speculations on innovation

Whatever innovation meant to me before this year, it means something different now. Being part of a committee on innovation means repeatedly encountering the word innovation and thinking about its possibilities.

As a group we have read and discussed numerous works that attempt to define, demystify, or describe innovation. Some focus specifically on innovation in primary or secondary or higher education. Some focus specifically on innovation in institutions or companies. Many draw connections between these disparate areas, but all are invested in the conditions and culture necessary to allow for people to engage in innovative work.

But I still have more questions than answers about innovation. And I wonder what innovation means to us here at Poly now and what it will come to mean in the future.

A common theme in books on innovation is that stripping away the accouterments of institutional education may inspire passion in our students and free them to follow their desires, take intellectual risks, and be more creative. In “Nature” Ralph Waldo Emerson described a complete person as someone who “has retained the spirit of infancy even into the era of manhood.” While that may sound remarkably naïve, Emerson indicates “the spirit of infancy” entails the capacity to balance “a wild delight” with “real sorrows.” His romantic insistence on the necessity of embracing a childlike wonder suggests a way of thinking about innovation.

Innovation involves encountering real challenges, and both degrees of success and degrees of failure may lead to the wisdom that derives from experience. Perhaps the “wild delight” and the “real sorrows” are inextricably intertwined.

Perhaps an innovative mindset involves a return to our collective infancy. Perhaps creating a culture of innovation requires supporting students as they take risks. Perhaps such support involves returning to what may the oldest model of education — learning alongside someone more experienced in the art of solving the problem at hand.

In “The Argonauts”— a remarkable autobiographical and critical work about the nature and persistence of family and love in a changing world — Maggie Nelson writes that “sometimes one has to know something many times over. Sometimes one forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets, and then remembers. And then forgets again.”

Perhaps cycles of remembering and forgetting are integral to innovation too. Perhaps innovation involves continually remembering and renewing our sense of purpose. Perhaps renovation and innovation are the Castor and Pollux of creation.

As we continually reground ourselves in our shared values and shared goals, we draw on our common understanding of the past to shape the future. Our predecessors founded Poly to educate students for a new century full of challenges they could not fully anticipate. Through a process of continually remembering and forgetting, their school has become our school. And at Poly (the same school and yet different) we now help educate students for a world we cannot fully anticipate.

Innovation is a noun that denotes an action.

Innovation is a noun that comes from Latin and has been continually renewed in English.

Innovation is a noun that suggests not a static thing but a dynamic process.

Innovation involves incremental acts that, taken together, constitute larger acts.

Innovation is relational and involves collaboration.

Innovation embraces possibility and welcomes the new and the different.

Innovation participates in creating an emergent world more profound and welcoming than our current world.

Innovation involves not only being, but also — and always — becoming.

Innovation involves breaking free from traditional boundaries to reinvigorate ourselves, our students, our community, and our world.

To innovate is to be our best selves and strive to become better.

To innovate is to say that while I have not succeeded so far, I will succeed soon.

To innovate is to entertain possibility, to muse about how we might be able to try, to ask what if, and to turn from hesitancy to action.

To innovate is to be neither chastened nor subdued by repeated challenges but reflective and resilient in the face of adversity.

To innovate is to face new challenges with wisdom drawn from the past and hope for the future.

To innovate is to believe in our ability to shape the world so that it sustains our hopes and dreams.

So what do we even mean by innovation? Should we even try to define innovation? Does innovation mean invention? Does innovation mean disruption? Does innovation mean continuity?

Do innovative people think of themselves as original? Do they think of themselves as clever? Do they think of themselves?

Does innovation involve creating, renewing, or creative renewal?