As a researcher at the Innovation Unit I am often asked to conduct horizon scanning research for a wide variety of different projects. Horizon scanning is a research technique which uncovers international examples of innovative practice. These are used to stimulate creative thinking and ideas generation with our clients.
The assumption that underpins our extensive use of horizon scanning is that innovators in the public sector can learn a huge amount from those who are doing similar work under different system conditions. In my view the most effective horizon scanning should not limit itself to public sector case studies, or even innovations driven by a social purpose.
A number of councils on the Creative Councils programme are adopting open innovation techniques as a means of generating different, better and lower cost service ideas. Many of the most interesting examples of open innovation come from the private sector. Consumer products companies such as P&G and technology companies such as Google have developed extremely sophisticated approaches to open innovation, from which local authorities can learn a great deal, despite obvious differences in their motivation.
Fundamentally the importance of horizon scanning to innovators is not in the case studies themselves, but in what exploring and evaluating the case studies tells them about their own innovations. I am extremely interested in how we in the ‘social sector’ can learn from innovators in a wide variety of sectors. Nowhere is this more relevant than in the cutting-edge gastronomy of Ferran Adria, world famous chef at elbulli in Barcelona.
In the early 1990s Adria flipped the world of haute cuisine on its head by applying ideas, techniques and principles from physics and chemistry to the creation of new recipes – molecular gastronomy. Adria was innovating in an industry that was dominated by extremely well-entrenched views about technique, in which excellence was defined by your ability to recreate classic recipes.
Not only did Adria question the basic assumptions of haute cuisine, but he challenged the hierarchies and structures that dominated kitchens the world over. The door at elbulli was always open to visitors, in particular young chefs passing through town. Unlike the traditional model, in which a chef would closely guard his secrets, openness was an important concept for Adrià, as was the creation of a network through which ideas could be circulated.
Three Michelin stars and five separate years as ‘world’s best restaurant’ later and Adria decided to close elbulli. In its place Adria declared his intention to set up the elbulli Foundation, ‘a centre for innovation allied with digital technology that would rethink haute cuisine in a way that would offer other creative endeavours a road map for innvoation’.
The Foundation is driven by Adria’s desire to understand where ideas come from, and how to best foster them. As well as recording all the work of the Foundation’s team of chefs online, through an interactive platform that will allow other chefs to experiment collaboratively, ‘sensors will be used to track people within the building so that the provenance of a dish can be traced by seeing how and where the collaborators interacted: users will be able to watch videos that demonstrate the evolution of a dish and analyse the process of serendipity to see if it can be replicated.’
The questions to which Adria seeks answers, and the answers he hopes to find, will be of interest to any organisation that hopes to better harness the creative power of its employees. Adria’s story has lessons for innovators across the public sector, from those who are seeking to fight against entrenched cultural practices, to those who are seeking to create the systems conditions for innovation.
I agree with Adria, that a mash-up of different disciplines (from science and technology to philosophy and the arts) will create ‘today’s most valuable raw material - - creativity and talent’. Exploring the work of innovators such as Ferran Adria can help to stimulate creativity and talent in the public sector. If you agree I suggest you read this article in Wired: