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Real innovation comes from a merging of domains.

Technology, innovation and deep craft

In the news media industry technology is often seen both as the driver of innovation and also the solution: social and mobile technologies have disrupted the media business meaning publishers need to innovate by creating new, technology-driven products that meet audience needs. Good design research and design thinking is one way of identifying opportunities and creating products that people want.

One issue with this approach is the asymmetry between media companies and technology companies. The loss of revenue and audiences to social platforms has put media companies in a position where they are no longer drivers of innovation and are instead constantly adapting storytelling practices to accommodate new digital tools developed by Facebook, Google, Apple, among others.

A few things are happening:

Another way of thinking about innovation is to focus on practices and expertise, rather than technology.

Redomaining and radical innovation

One of the thinkers I like on innovation is the economic theorist W Brian Arthur. In his book The Nature of Technology, he argues that real innovation comes from a merging of domains. Domains are a way of configuring things, they have their own language and practices.

We might think about journalism as a domain with particular ways of discovering news, making judgements about information and how to tell stories with that information. Journalism has its own way of doing things, its own principles.

Arthur’s argument is that radical new ideas, or technologies, come about when we use principles from one domain for a new or different purpose.
This is a process of redomaining. And this is powerful because it provides a wholly new way to do something. But this is different from adaption. He explains it this way:

“Think of a new body of technology as its methods, devices, understandings and practices. And think of a particular industry as comprised of its organisations and business processes, its methods and equipment — all technologies in the broadest sense. These two collections of individual technologies — one from the new domain and the other from the industry — come together and encounter each other. New combinations form as a result.”

This is more than adaptation or adoption. The process of redomaining can result in new industries.

“… industries adapt themselves to a new body of technology, but they do not do this merely by adopting it. They draw from the new body, select what they want, and combine some of their parts with som of the new domain’s …”

Arthur identifies two themes of innovation:

  1. the constant finding or putting together of new solutions out of existing tools and practices;
  2. industries constantly combining practices and processes from new domains.

The result of this is new processes and arrangements; new ways of doing things, not just in one area of application but across economies.

This idea of combining, configuring and exploring takes time, so radical new ideas are unlikely to emerge from chasing and adopting the next shiny thing.

Deep craft

One other aspect of Arthur’s thinking that I particularly like is the idea of deep craft. This is about deep knowledge and understanding of a given domain, or practice.

Deep craft is the expertise that is an important driver of innovation and Arthur suggests that advanced, innovative technologies stem from a context of knowings: knowing how to manipulate newly discovered or poorly understood phenomena.

“Deep craft is more than knowledge. It is a set of knowings. Knowing what is likely to work and what not to work … “It also means knowing how to manipulate newly discovered and poorly understood phenomena, a type of knowing that comes from practical experimentation and research …”

Journalism has this deep craft. Journalistic practice is underpinned by values, principles, and core tenets of practice that give meaning to journalists do.

The challenge is to translate those practices to new formats, processes and experiences — shapes that may be quite different from those we are familiar with.

This process of combining, configuring, and exploring takes time, but can lead to radical innovation rooted in deep expertise. For media companies, it means valuing core principles and practices alongside audience needs and technological possibilities.