The Sound of Innovation

My creative and business partner, Andres Fortino, and I recently launched a Kickstarter project on innovation from our new office in the heart of Baltimore’s innovation district near the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA).

Andres and Bob
Dr. Andres Fortino and Dr. Robert Harris

Here is the announcement that went out to our email lists:

Dear friends, colleagues and fellow innovators:

We invite you to be part of an exciting social media project on innovation. We are writing a crowd-sourced book on innovation by collecting authentic innovation stories for the book and sharing the credit and cost of producing it. We are using the established website Kickstarter to ask for your support for the project by voting with your funding pledge and submitting your innovation story. Share our excitement by watching the video on Kickstarter.  Visit our story collection site for more information at Innovative American Mind.

Since the subject of our crowd-sourced book is innovation stories we challenged ourselves to describe what an innovation experience is like–what does it look like and feel like? The look (chaotic) and feel (inspired) parts were pretty straight forward; then yesterday Andres wondered what innovation would “sound” like. Being a good creative partner, he found a You Tube that stimulated our thinking: The Sound of Invention— a single instrument constructed from a small mountain of interconnecting guitars that somehow all played as one. What an innovation!

I was still unpacking boxes in our new Baltimore office and came in this morning ready to unpack more books, the echo of “sounds of innovation” was still alive in the back of my mind. While stuck in traffic, my mind drifted off to wondering  why, if innovation was such a big deal in society (as we think it is), hadn’t someone written a musical or play about it?  Maybe a comedy of errors would work since innovation is basically funny a trial-and-error process. I finally got to my office opened the first book box. The first book I picked up to shelve was entitled: On Innovative Musicians. How weird, I thought. How did this book find its way to me out of about 1500 books to be unpacked at the precise time I was musing about sounds of innovation? I did not even remember buying this book 24 years ago.

It was written by Richard Kostelanetz in 1989 as a collection of essays that summarized his work from his previous 20 years of studying, teaching, playing and writing about music innovation. I felt myself getting sucked in as I decided to sit down for a few minutes before getting to work shelving books.  I thought I would just scan the table of contents. My eyes fixed on two consecutive chapters at the end of the table of contents: (1) “On Being a Composer Who Can’t Read Music,” and (2) Notes on Americas’ Game. I felt as if I was on the trail of something really important. Shelving books could wait; I had trapped a more interesting prey. In reading these chapters, I had stumbled upon two valuable insights that informed the fundamental questions about the nature of innovation that our work is all about.

Insight #1: Our life is the Art we Compose From our Experiences

The first insight was about the deep and universal connection between art and innovation. When Kostelanetz was asked, as a multi-faceted artist, which of his artistic endeavors he preferred, he said, “There is only one art, which is Art; The qualities we admire in one art are largely the qualities we admire in other arts, whether they be invention, for those with avant-garde tastes, or the fulfillment of conventions, for conservatives; tastes of all kinds are always prepared to acknowledge a unique handling of the materials of any art.”

Andres and I define innovation as the act of creating something wholly original in form and/or function from that which usually exists in plain sight. See concept below using Picasso’s Bull Head sculpture as an example.

At its core we believe that innovation is fundamentally an expression of creativity at many levels across KostelanetPicasso's Innovationz’s spectrum of “conservative” to “avant garde,” or in the language of innovation, we might say “from a incremental improvement to a “home-run improvement”–but with each innovative step always creating something new in form and/or function bootstrapped from that which already existed. Since the raw output of Creativity is Art, and an act of innovation is an act of creativity, all innovations are defacto, Art. If life in all of its forms is generally viewed as an innovation, then sentient life can be thought of as its unique opportunity to “compose” its life experience as its work of art. For humans, this means that denying ourselves, or being denied, from having this creative existential experience means literally squandering the opportunity of a lifetime.

Insight #2: The Sounds of Baseball are the Sounds of Innovation

Kostelanetz had begun to compose a series of audio tapes that were initially about the sound of certain subjects of his experience. The first one was in 1981 about the sounds of the language of prayer, a work he called Invocations. He audited and mixed prayers spoken by 60 ministers in 24 languages into a musical piece. He “organized the sounds into solos, duets, quintets, and grand choruses using the musical framework of Bach’s St. Matthew Passion” to make a certain kind of ‘cultural music of prayer’ (my notation) from all of the prayer sounds.

All of this to say that when he wanted to capture his American experience in 1988 in his composition, Americas’ Game (note ALL of the Americas are included), he turned to baseball after considering all other major sports as a source of authentic american sounds. Baseball is an original American innovation invented by a group of New York City Firemen in 1845 who formed the New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club and created the basic rules used today.  Kostelanetz collected the quintessential disorganized sounds of the American baseball experience, including the buzz and eruptions of the crowd, the smack of baseball on bat and into glove, the players rallying conversations, and the boos and insults from fans.  He then organized them into the ‘cultural music of baseball’ (my notation’) once he found a suitable musical struture.  In searching for this structure he experimented with different kinds of music from jazz to opera and settled on the form and structure of Gershwin’s masterpiece song from Porgy and Bess, Summertime, with its languid pace that matched lazy summer afternoon baseball games.

Innovation  seems to speak in many voices and languages–a theme explored in the work of innovation. Perhaps the sounds of baseball games are the sounds of America’s innovative culture expressed on a diamond field.

The Self-Similarity of Innovations

One of the lessons of complexity science is that the more things seem to change the more they seem similar at a deep fundamental level for many of life’s innovations. For example, the so-called “self-similarity of fractals” of snow flakes is generated by the same non-linear algorithm that makes each snowflake unique in detail yet gives all snow flakes a similar appearance. It is in this sense that Kostelanetz’s Invocations organized in a Bach fugue format represents to us a 20th century American innovation culture characterized by a predictable and ordered structure of a deterministic world view evoked by a top-down industrial economy, an innovation which has served humanity for a long time. Kostelanetz use of baseball (an open system with unpredictable outcomes) and Gershwin’s Summertime music represents to me the culture of an America that embraces a complex open and flowing innovative world view that is highly adaptive and characteristic of the 21st century evoked by a new and different bottom-up knowledge-based economy; two innovations for two different ages serving the same  enduring purpose.   I can’t wait to hear these two compositions.

Self-Given, Self-Driven Work

We see the open free-flowing innovative creativity in the stories from everyday people from cultures. Much of this activity is brought on by new demands of our rapidly changing world in which non-living “smart” machines are displacing living smart people workering in America and throughout the world. Working people are losing the race against the machines because people cost more to do the work of these jobs than increasingly smart machines that do the work faster and cheaper; and this trend is moving up the food chain on a path to replace routine professional skills as well. A key driver pushing this trend is the pace of accelerating technological change, which is outstripping the pace at which individuals can be retrained and/or educated to take on the sophisticated development and management jobs these smart machines and big data analytics require.

See the 60 minutes documentary, Are Robots Hurting Job Growth?, from Sunday September 8th 2014 for the current status of this trend. This program signaled the rapidly increasing trend of  people taking the road to self-employment that has been less traveled until recently. Robots are hurting job growth, but “Jobs”, as “work given-to-be-done,” are no longer the answer for many people with 40% of the workforce projected to be self-employed by 2020 [Intuit Institute of the Future 2020 Report]; self-given and self-driven work is the answer, and innovation fueled by self-initiative is the personal engine to make it happen.  [Our Kickstarter book project of innovation stories was overtaken by the concurrent publication of Walter Isaacson’s Innovation, and did not received sufficient funding for completion.]

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