Innovation in Arts and Humanities Paper

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  • Arts & Humanities in Higher Education

    2015, Vol. 14(1) 924

    ! The Author(s) 2014Reprints and permissions:

    DOI: 10.1177/1474022214533890


    Is innovation a usefulconcept for arts andhumanities research?

    Magnus GulbrandsenNordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and

    Education (NIFU), Oslo, Norway; TIK Centre for Technology,

    Innovation and Culture, University of Oslo, Norway

    Siri AanstadNordic Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and

    Education (NIFU), Oslo, Norway


    This article argues that innovation may constitute a useful perspective on the link

    between society and arts and humanities research. Innovation is here seen as some-

    thing new put into practical use, and there are two reasons why it can be relevant for

    humanities. First, there has been an expansion of what innovation refers to; it is now

    commonly used for non-economic change processes in public, private and non-profit

    organisations. Second, arts and humanities are not unique in their contribution to

    innovation: good teaching, research, dissemination and external relations are the central

    contributions for all university disciplines. But this does not mean that it is easy to

    promote innovation at universities in general and in arts and humanities in particular.

    Through examples from a historical case study at the University of Oslo, different

    tensions are analysed related to indicators, infrastructure, teaching versus research

    and quality. All these need to be handled in such a way as to avoid fruitless conflicts,

    misunderstandings and poorly designed policies and university strategies.


    Arts and humanities research, bias, employability, indicators, innovation, universities

    Introduction the plea for innovation

    Innovation is one of the global buzzwords of our time, and the phenomenon hasgained a lot of scientic interest (Fagerberg, 2005). Firms hail it, universities tell

    Corresponding author:

    Magnus Gulbrandsen, University of Oslo, PO Box 1108, Blindern, Oslo 0317, Norway.


  • success stories about it and policymakers want to encourage it for the good ofsociety and the economy. Innovation is invoked as an imperative also for aca-demics in universities (Mowery and Sampat, 2005). A simple denition of innov-ation is that it is something new that is put into practical use. The term itself emergedas an explanation for dierences in economic performance and social developmentbetween countries and between industrial sectors (see Fagerberg, 2005). Early stu-dies were in particular oriented at technological change and technical disciplines(Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994), but later, many other social and cultural phenom-ena related to learning and competence building in a much wider sense have beenincluded (Lundvall et al., 2002). Higher education institutions (HEIs) and theiremployees are often given a prominent role in innovation, and policymakers havedemanded more relevance and more social and industrial engagement from them(Mowery and Sampat, 2005).

    It is fair to claim that in many countries, some arts and humanities scholars havebeen confused, provoked and discouraged when confronted with these demands andmaybewith the innovation concept itself. They seem tond little relevance of the termfor their own professional activities; they deem that it is mostly related to the hardsciences; or they see the plea for innovation as yet another sign of lack of respectand understanding for their disciplines special character (e.g. Belore, 2015;Benneworth, 2015; Olmos-Penuela et al., 2015). A conventional view equatesinnovation with technical and industrial collaboration and economic growth, evi-denced by patents and creation of rms, which are rare and unimportant in arts andhumanities research (Abreu and Grinevich, 2013; Bullen et al., 2004; Hughes et al.,2011).

    This article challenges the conventional view and argues that innovation can be auseful concept for arts and humanities scholars, not least because it is closely relatedto what they are already doing. The strong current attention to it may even constitutea great opportunity for them to gain support among policymakers and to improvetheir societal impact (Bullen et al., 2004; but see Belore, 2015, for a word ofcaution). However, it is crucial that innovation processes and the parts that HEIscan play in them are properly understood.Misunderstandings about such issues arewidespread, and innovation is often mistakenly equated with creativity and entre-preneurialism. There is a gap between what research on innovation and HEIs con-tribution to it tells us and widely held beliefs in policy and academic communities.This article aims to ll the gap by using conceptual and empirical investigations of so-called universityindustry relations, which deal with how HEIs interact with theirsurroundings, supportedby examples fromahistorical case studyofNorways largestuniversity inOslo. Themain contribution of the article is to illustrate the tensions thatemerge when applying an innovation perspective to the humanities and under whichconditions it is useful to do this. The empirical foundation is a 3-year research projecton the public value of arts and humanities research in Norway involving analysis ofthe public debate and public documents, interviews and workshops and a historicalinvestigation of theUniversity of Oslos engagement in innovation between 1960 and2011 with comprehensive archival material.

    10 Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 14(1)

  • After a brief discussion of how innovation can be dened, the subsequent sec-tion deals with the role of HEIs in innovation. What are the main activities andchannels of interaction, and how do they work for the humanities? The ensuingsection discusses some of the typical biases in practical attempts to promote innov-ation. Using a comprehensive historical case study of the University of Oslo inNorway, activities, tensions and biases are further discussed in the section that thenfollows. The nal conclusions draw out some preconditions for the usefulness ofthe innovation concept for the humanities, including dealing with tensions relatedto quality, indicators and the teaching-research balance.

    The condensed literature review begins with a discussion of the innovation con-cept with emphasis on how the term has been expanded to encompass a wide set ofphenomena. The main section deals with the role of HEIs in innovation, includinga short review of common misunderstandings seen in HEI and policy initiatives.Often, misunderstandings seem to be due to narrow or biased views of innovation.

    Defining innovation

    There are many classications of innovation in the literature, but the simple one ofsomething new that is put into practical use may cover them suciently(Fagerberg, 2005). This means that new research results, discoveries and break-throughs are not innovations in themselves. For science-based innovations, there isoften a lag of decades between discoveries and practical applications, and the pathbetween the two is lled with strange turns and loops (Rosenberg and Nelson,1994). Even technological and natural science research is rarely a direct drivingforce in innovation processes (Kline and Rosenberg, 1986), and it can initially beassumed that this is also the case for social science and humanities research.

    The current perspective on innovation furthermore favours a wider set of phe-nomena than new technological products and ways of making them. Innovationresearchers have consistently shown how innovation can be found in low-techindustries, service industries and outside of private rms (Pavitt, 2005; Tidd andBessant, 2013). Public sector and non-prot organisations and services can berenewed, reshaped and improved in ways that t the basic idea of innovation assomething new implemented in practice (Tidd and Bessant, 2013; Windrum andKoch, 2008). This perspective is not least seen in Europe and in the InnovationUnion strategy from 2010, establishing a public sector innovation scoreboard, aresearch programme and an international prize for public agencies (EU, 2013).Innovation is furthermore no longer seen as something that needs to imply com-mercial value. For example, the term social innovation is often used to denoteactivities in which the social aims take priority (there may be economic aspectsinvolved), such as fair trade, e-learning and microcredit in poor countries (Sharraand Nyssens, 2010). The implication is that innovation has become more relevantfor all scientic disciplines, not least the humanities, where many of the graduateshave traditionally found work in public and non-prot organisations.

    Gulbrandsen and Aanstad 11

  • It should also be mentioned that many organisations struggle to achieve innov-ation (Christensen, 2011). It is often met with resistance and understood poorly(Pavitt, 2005; van de Ven et al., 2008). Innovation processes are risky, uncertainand with political characteristics; they require support, championing and alliance-building. Societies that want to promote innovation resulting in improved publicservices, new jobs in the private sector and strengthened social capital, need can-didates from the education system good at dealing with these types of processes.Innovation capacity therefore requires a fundamental understanding of the humandimension to change and that is partly where the humanities and the highereducation system more broadly comes in.

    HEIs and innovation

    As seen so far, scientic research and higher education candidates matter forrenewal in industry, the public sector and non-prot organisations. But what ismore concretely the role of universities and other HEIs in innovation? Generallyspeaking, there is a bias in the academic literature and policy documents in favourof research activities, based on a awed belief that scientic results are the primaryinput into innovation processes. In particular, commercialisation of academic sci-ence through patenting, licensing and the creation of spin-o companies is anactivity that receives too much attention compared to its volume and signicance(Abreu and Grinevich, 2013; Bekkers and Freitas, 2008; Mowery and Sampat,2005). But this form of contribution to innovation is an exception and seldomhappens with much success outside of a minority of well-funded HEIs. From aninnovation perspective, training of a nations future workforce is a more crucialactivity than basic research. Common to both these activities, however, is that thecontribution to innovation is indirect; teaching graduates who later becomeinvolved in innovative work and providing for a general public knowledge thatcan be accessed by anyone with a problem to nd potential solutions(Gulbrandsen, 2011).

    Yet, there are strategies where HEIs can get involved more directly, and theindirect role they most often play does not mean that innovation happens auto-matically or uninuenced by HEI actions (Rasmussen et al., 2013). Innovation isa phenomenon that largely takes place outside of universities and colleges inprivate rms, non-prot organisations, civil society and the public sector. A generalrecommendation from the innovation literature is therefore that HEIs need to beopen to many kinds of societal interaction to become engaged in innovation pro-cesses (Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994). The idea is not primarily that HEIs shouldbecome better at transferring their results and perspectives, but rather that a con-tinuing interaction may lead to subtle changes in the way teaching, research anddissemination are carried out. Interaction with society can be benecial to researchquality: for example, academics with industrial or other societal collaboration gen-erate more, and more highly cited, publications (e.g. Gulbrandsen and Smeby,

    12 Arts & Humanities in Higher Education 14(1)

  • 2005; Larsen, 2011), as long as extreme levels of commercial or societal engagementare avoided.

    The universityindustry relations literature has conceptualised interaction asinvolving various channels of communication between the two parties (Bekkersand Freitas, 2008) leading to dierent forms of impact (Spaapen and vanDrooge, 2011). Some channels are indirect, for example when users read publica-tions by academics, which is a very common form of knowledge exchange.Collaborative research is an example of direct interaction. Empirical investigationshave shown that academic researchers and industry respondents are very much inagreement about the most important channels: regular scientic publications andpopular science publications, followed by transfer of students and other personnel(Bekkers and Freitas, 2008). Conversely, patenting and other direct commercial-isation activities are rarely deemed crucial, whereas collaborative research andvarious types of consultancy and advice are seen as moderately important.Impacts are often indirect and happen after a considerable time lag (Spaapenand van Drooge, 2011). Although one should not underestimate tensions betweenacademics and societal actors concerning aspects such as time frames and perspec-tives on utility, the central expectation from key societal actors is still that aca-demics should concentrate on high-quality teaching and research (Mowery andSampat, 2005).

    Traditionally, the most innovative HEIs have been quick to change teachingprogrammes and curricula in response to new societal needs, not least in the engin-eering disciplines, mostly related to developing specic subjects rather than anexplicit emphasis on innovation courses (Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994). In recentyears, there has also been an increase in courses for social science and humanitiesstudents in innovation and entrepreneurship, but the courses are often small, andtheir eects seem to be limited (Gulbrandsen, 2011). One important context forchanges in curricula and research orientation is that the capacity and capabilities ofexternal stakeholders are in many cases a more severe bottleneck in fruitful know-ledge exchange than the relevance of the academic activities (Cohen andLevinthal, 1990; Rosenberg and Nelson, 1994). Given that the challenge of innov-ation processes is rarely a lack of ideas (they tend to proliferate) but the corres-ponding ability to put ideas into practice (van de Ven et al., 2008), courses focusedexclusively on creativity may have little impact.

    Are these observations and ndings also relevant for the humanities? All scien-tic elds make some claims to exclusivity, and there are certainly dierencesbetween them. But when it comes to societal engagement, a main argument isoften that the hard sciences, unlike the humanities, are seen to yield immediatebenets and engage in frequent direct interaction with external stakeholders(cf. Olmos Penuela et al., 2015). The brief literature review in this article showsthat this is not the case. The indirect and long-term nature of scientic impact andthe low importance of technology transfer and commercialisation a...


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