David Bowie, slow cities and the art of slow innovation

David Bowie, slow cities and the art of slow innovation

Original ideas and innovation cannot always arrive on our doorstep like a fast food takeaway or an overnight courier service. But most creative professions - science and technology innovators included - emphasize speed as the prevailing driver of growth. In order to create sustainable growth in science and technology, Turkey should look to prolific innovators and ‘slower’ innovation models.

The late David Bowie is a good example. He was respected worldwide for his creative streak and disruptive innovations, defying rigid classification as an English singer and musician and transforming pop culture. Some have claimed that if innovation had a face, he or she would look like David Bowie. From his early works such as Space Oddity and Ziggy Stardust, Bowie kept on reinventing himself, drawing on fields and literatures that do not always come together, such as Japanese theatre, cinema, art, software, Buddhism and the works of Beat Generation author William S. Burroughs.

Bowie was an artist in every imaginable and unimaginable way, establishing brand new genres and transcending them. Had David Bowie been under pressure to produce rapidly, to conform to quarterly progress reports - as most companies, academics and entrepreneurs do today - he might not have been able to fuse together so many diverse ideas.

Another lesson for sound innovation policy comes from various “slow movements” rising worldwide. These include the social movements of “slow cooking” (as opposed to fast food) and “slow cities,” among others. Göynük, a picturesque old Ottoman town in Bolu Province, is a recent 2017 addition to the growing list of slow (and livable) cities, compiled by Italian organization Cittaslow International.

The term “slow” should not be confused with “not doing much” or “laziness.” Slow cities fulfill rigorous criteria for sustainability, responsible innovation and an overall sense of “extended self” beyond self-serving entrepreneurship – a focus on the environment and wider society as opposed to hasty short-term solutions. Environment, infrastructure, social cohesion, urban quality of life, less asphalt and more local shops, a farmer’s market or a school canteen with its own garden, all have special significance in a slow city.

Slow innovation does not necessarily mean stopping innovation or giving up on personal ingenuity. A narrow focus on speed as the core driver of innovation produces three, often overlooked problems.

First, a preoccupation with speed does not stress the importance of stitching together disparate concepts and practices that could create a truly disruptive innovation.

Second, speed does not allow much time for reflection, contextualization and ultimately, an ability to learn from mistakes. Thomas Alva Edison famously noted that he made numerous unsuccessful attempts (some claim 1000) before he finally succeeded in inventing the light bulb. Innovators do fail many times as they navigate their way through unchartered territory.

Third, speed can make us forget about the actual needs of the user communities.

“Slow innovation” forums ought to play a role in the Turkish innovation ecosystem. Universities, civil society organizations, industry groups and funders ought to use them to bolster collective learning, solidarity and networking opportunities, drawing from various slow movements and innovators such as David Bowie and Thomas Edison, in order to develop sustainable, locally meaningful and thoughtful innovation policies in Turkey.

Speed is only one aspect of innovation. Quantity also needs quality. The end-result of innovation - namely relevance to the population – as well as responsibility also matter. If we expand both our own horizons and the time-scale of an innovation, we could find that what initially appears to be slow innovation, may actually turn out to be fast and sustainable in the long term, with fewer false starts and more responsible returns on investments.

* Vural Özdemir is a medical doctor, researcher in social studies of science, and independent writer on politics of technology and innovation in Toronto, Canada.

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