Cultivating Demand for Innovation
By Adam Barton (Visiting Fellow/Luce Scholar, Asia Pacific Initiative)
20 10 2020
Cultivating Demand for Innovation

In the rapidly depopulating island town of Ikata, Japan, classrooms are full. Teachers lecture to suit-clad students, who furiously scratch out notes as a blood-red sun recedes into a darkening sky. It is a Sunday afternoon, but this sight would be the same on a Saturday, a Monday.

Curiously enough, this weekend teaching constitutes an act of rebellion. The district recently mandated that teachers take at least one day off per week. The rationale, in part, is that if teachers buck tradition by ceasing voluntary weekend tutoring sessions, students might spend that time developing broad interests and skills not assessed by rigorous testing regimes.

But, according to one local teacher, this is simply not how things are done. “The older way is the right way,” she says. “After all, why change what’s not broken?”

This resistance to change permeates Japanese education. But it is not unique to the policy space, nor is it unique to Japan. Across the world, cases of resistance to change abound. In Brazil, private efforts to introduce a renewable biofuel were hindered by citizens’ weariness of associated land-use policies. In the United States, efforts to improve educational quality through the multi-billion-dollar School Improvement Grants program failed to produce any net learning gains—a disappointment often attributed to schools’ reluctance to change teaching practices in line with program guidelines.

It is in this context that a unique Japanese concept has emerged. Known as shakaijissou (“social implementation”), it refers to efforts from government and civil society alike to make new ideas work in practice.

At the Asia Pacific Initiative, a Japanese think tank, we have interviewed dozens of creators, leaders, and would-be innovation users on their experiences with social implementation. These conversations converged on the notion that supply-side logics are too often at the heart of change resistance; innovators design new tools and policies with assumptions about what citizens want, balking when they are uninterested in or unable to integrate this newness into their daily lives.

One solution to this challenge is to quit our focus on constant creation and instead turn toward the process of making meaningful innovations that work in practice. Fundamentally, this is about generating the demand necessary to co-create with citizens—and in so doing develop responsive innovations that are not resisted, but demanded.

But how might we empower an innovation-demanding society? Innovation demand is a cultivable social practice relying on a diverse suite of skills, knowledge, and attitudes—the cognitive capacities to recognize gaps in today’s practice, for example, or an attitude of curiosity that propels innovation-seeking. Stemming from this insight, we might conceive of a progression of human capacities required for such demand.

Over the past months, I have dived into literature from the learning sciences to marketing in order to understand innovation design, implementation, and adoption. The result is an additive, stepwise model dubbed the “adoption capacities pyramid.”

At the pyramid’s base is a host of dispositional capacities—intrapersonal characteristics driving one’s decision to seek out and adopt new practices and products. This stems from the recognition that innovation demand is a behavior, and that attitudes, inclinations, and beliefs drive behavioral change. In accord with decades of innovation science literature, for example, a parent who deeply values convention and routine might immediately reject a teacher’s decision to educate their child through nontraditional, self-directed learning approaches—and certainly would not look for opportunities to collaboratively design new schooling techniques.

The technical skills and knowledge to recognize an innovation’s value and incorporate it into daily life inhabit the pyramid’s second level. These are cognitive capacities to identify how newness might solve a daily challenge, such as pattern recognition to note when a new ride-sharing platform might help one save money or time over a commute on public transportation. They are also the abilities and understanding needed to action an innovation, just as an educator might require familiarity with teaching and a suite of learning-to-learn skills in order to demand and action a new pedagogical practice like problem-based learning.

As innovation can hardly be successful in isolation, the tip of the pyramid represents the social tools for diffusing a new idea throughout one’s social milieu. Behavioral science has long held that people are more likely to adopt a new idea or practice when their social network values it. The ability to negotiate values, perceptions, and meaning with one’s community, then, can alternately halt or accelerate innovation; on the positive end, for example, an individual’s communication skills and teamwork ability might allow her to discuss local challenges with a neighbor, negotiate the need for new waste disposal systems, and rally around a new plastics recycling service.

Preparing society for a fast-changing world is easier said than done. Socially responsive innovation is elusive, and buy-in is perhaps even more so. Though just one piece of the social change puzzle, this pyramid could pave the way for global leaders to devise educational opportunities that might empower an innovation-demanding citizenry. With society prepared to demand change, we are one step closer to ensuring a brighter, more just future.


Fig. 1: Adoption Capacities Pyramid


The Author:

Adam Barton is an educational researcher studying global innovations that can help all learners thrive. He is particularly interested in participatory design, defining and aligning educational values, and the dynamics of social change.
He is currently a visiting fellow and Luce Scholar at the Asia Pacific Initiative, a Tokyo think tank, where he researches "social implementation" — harnessing community demand for change in order to design and action sustainable social innovation.Before this, Adam served as a researcher at the Center for Universal Education at the Brookings Institution. There, he studied and advised global policy leaders on the potential of global education innovations. He recently co-authored a book on the topic, Leapfrogging Inequality. Adam has worked extensively in Brazil, Bolivia, and Washington, DC, as an English educator, ethnographic researcher, and educational program director.

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