Prof. Chris Bailey

The Civic Trust were delighted in early April 2021 to explore the theme of innovation and innovators in a York context. This took place via a virtual panel discussion and presentations, which included invited panelists from a range of sectors in York.

The discussion was adeptly chaired by Prof. Chris Bailey, Clerk of York’s Guild of Media Arts, who has kindly contributed this fantastic summary of the event for anyone who was unable to attend.

Innovation is clearly a powerful force. A standard 20 foot long box, the shipping container, has changed the economic geography of the entire world (thank you John Lanchester, London Review of Books, 22 April 2021), while the hamburger changed diets around the globe, and arguably population health and the environment into the bargain.

But what causes innovation? Around this time last year the chief adviser to the Prime Minister, Dominic Cummings, announced that some adverts for civil service posts were going to appear, inviting applications from ‘weirdos and misfits with odd skills’. These people Cummings assumed, would shake things up, so that No 10 could ‘change fast’ that is, innovate. The idea destruction must precede creation is also implied by the title of a Mark Zuckerberg biography entitled ‘Move Fast and Break Things’.

From what we know of innovators throughout history, many were indeed mavericks, outsiders, and deeply unpopular with the establishment at the time. But Cummings’ prescription ‘hire weirdos, get innovation’ is a basic fallacy. Having a wayward haircut doesn’t make me Einstein.

A recent panel discussion convened by York Civic Trust presented expert views on innovation past and present, and future. Two YCT staff, Duncan Marks and Joshua Scarlett, showed how York has innovated, and which innovators we choose to celebrate. Then an artist, Rebecca Carr, two social innovators, Kelly Cunningham and Catherine Scott, and the University of York’s PVC for Partnerships and Engagement, Kiran Trehan, opened up some radically different ways to think about how we change things, processes and systems.

The Life, and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner…” by Daniel Defoe, 1719.

In his historical introduction Duncan Marks acknowledged the stereotypes, such as the fictional ‘survivor’, Robinson Crusoe ‘of York’, in his survey of lesser known innovations that began in York. Innovations can quickly become so ubiquitous we forget they had to be invented in the first place – the Portakabin and the Portaloo, or the first metal-hulled boat. York Civic Trust’s Blue Plaques serve to commemorate people for a range of reasons, one of which is innovation of all kinds. Joshua Scarlett’s five case studies included the urban transport revolution that was the Hansom Cab, but also Samuel Tuke’s foundation of a new kind of hospital, The Retreat. In part, this caring institution was established as a response to the cruelty meted out to the ‘mad’ in eighteenth century asylums, but the approach to treatment adopted owed everything to the respect for others that Tuke learned through is adherence to the Society of Friends, the Quakers.

Perhaps this points to a distinctive root of York’s tradition of innovation, for York welcomed Quakers when many other cities regarded them as troublemaking dissenters and excluded them. The Rowntree family, which supplied another of Joshua’s examples, seem often to combine innovation and social reform. Joshua described the simple shape-sorting test used to help select workers for the chocolate packaging department. This could be seen as a forerunner of time and motion studies, sacrificing employee welfare for business efficiency. But, as a simple test of dexterity, it skirts round the social bias of the requirements job applicants otherwise had to meet, such as tests of supposed ‘good character’. Over time it proved to be socially progressive, giving working-class women, who might lack education, a route into stable employment.

This Moorees formboard was used at Rowntree’s chocolate factory in York around the 1920s to select chocolate packers. Copyright image. By permission of the Science Museum Group – Twitter @sciencemuseum

The national organisation UnLtd claims that one in four new businesses are social enterprises. Certainly that ratio seems realistic in York, where many young graduates are looking for ways to put their knowledge and skills at the service of the community. One of the connectors of this network is Kaizen Arts Agency, founded by artist Rebecca Carr. She prefers not to distinguish between creativity and innovation, arguing that the values you adopt will attract collaborators and steer the work in a worthwhile direction. For her, learning is also crucial. One reason she gives for setting up the successful York Design Week in 2019 is to provide a platform in for ‘activists’, from a breadmaking regeneration project in Liverpool, to a creative thinking guru from California.

Some of the York creatives behind York Design Week 2020. Image: YorkMix

Like Rebecca, the organisers of the York MCN Network aim to fix, rather than break, things. Kelly Cunningham and Catherine Scott wanted to know why the system fails so many homeless people. They recognised that ‘multiple, complex needs’ implies many specialist organisations and services having to coordinate their dealings with a single individual. Getting this right every time requires change deep within every organisation.

The importance of lived experience in helping improve services, and the need to overcome the structural barriers to collaboration, are two of the most obvious ways to make life better for people whose existence is made needlessly miserable by the way things are currently being done. MCN goes beyond inviting diverse voices and views to join the debate, acting to tackle inequality by involving users and providers in making the changes. Kelly and Catherine brought out two important features of social innovation; that it is about iterative processes rather than quick, one-off fixes, and that getting on and doing things, while thinking critically about it, actually increases the chances of success.

A slide for Kelly & Catherine’s MCN presentation covering the importance of interaction in modern innovation.

The Chat function in Zoom is all too often a pointless distraction, but not so on this occasion. A request for ‘actual concrete’ examples of social innovation in action was answered immediately by participants citing beneficial changes in the environment and in everyday life around the city.

Kiran Trehan described her aim in making external partnerships as to ‘create the conditions for successful enterprise’, literally building institutions of learning around the process of innovation. The University of York having been founded on the idea that its goal is ‘public good’, it is no surprise to find that the Science Park, Science City York (in partnership with York St. John University and City of York Council), and the incubator project Phase One, have been home to many successfully innovative companies.

If innovation is a good thing, then how should we make sure there is more of it and that it serves a useful purpose? Removing barriers to communication between people, service providers and service users, groups and organisations, and between levels perceived or real, seemed to be a pre-requisite. Worldwide, cities like York are encouraging interdisciplinary approaches to the trickiest of urban problems. Our membership of global networks such as UNESCO Creative Cities and the US based Cities of Service also helps us refresh our thinking.

An artist’s impression of York’s Guildhall after its transformation. Image: City of York Council

The imminent launch of the remodelled Guildhall, and the more distant prospect of a ‘tech accelerator’ possibly located within York Central, hold out the prospect of a bright future for York as a UK centre of innovation.

Chris Bailey
April 2020

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