Innovation Means Not Copying

Innovation Means Not Copying: In 1987, a young chef named Ferran Adriá became Head Chef of restaurant elBulli, in the remote Catalan town of Montjoi, 170km north-east of Barcelona.  Over the next 20 years he revolutionised the culinary industry and became a globally recognised star, introducing science to the kitchen, overthrowing almost all gastronomic received wisdoms, and taking the now-famous maxim “creativity means not copying” to thrilling extremes.  Restaurant meals served on roofing slates or sauces made into ‘capuccinos’ are (often unknowing) imitations of Adria’s relentless invention (though few will have the audacity to serve up a box of smoke).  “Adriá once told me”, recounts Oriol Castro, Adriá’s right-hand man, “that creativity is seeing what other people do not see.” “But that it also demands perseverance and effort”, steps in Adrià. “Exactly”, agrees Oriol Castro. “Everyday work is the key. You will not wake up one day and raise your eyes to the sky to find wonderful ideas raining down on you. Everyday work and perseverance will do that.” This echoes Clara Avery, Macmillan’s Director of Evidence & Insight, in her interview with me where she says of Macmillan’s fundraising gains: “where we’ve had success is where we’ve done the basics right“.

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This quote should be displayed prominently in 72 point type in every charity boardroom in the land.  There is no magic to innovation.  While hyperbole has surrounded Adriá since the breakthrough years of the late 1990’s, he and his team’s methods were in fact surprisingly simple, and offer clues for all organisations in instilling innovative practice.  Rigorous record-keeping, in the form of ‘creative audits’ where each dish was photographed at each stage of production and the culinary processes used transcribed, were key, as was the ‘creativity means not copying’ principle.  There was also huge investment in innovation, to the point where the restaurant was closed for 6 months a year to allow the team to explore new processes and create new dishes.  Very few organisations can afford to match this commitment to originality, but then, arguably, neither could elBulli – the restaurant itself turned a meagre profit despite receiving 2m requests for 8,000 available places annually, and was subsidised by other areas of Adriá’s business.  But for Adriá, innovation was non-negotiable.  It also helped that elBulli was a tremendously glitzy loss-leader, building the Adriá brand so that other restaurants and hotels, book deals, speaking engagements, TV appearances and cookware endorsements could underwrite the restaurant named as the world’s best five times.

elBulli was a tiny organisation, created in the vision of one man.  After closing it in 2011, Adria as taken on many grand projects, however progress has been uneven, and it seems that the messy real world may not be the place for his ideas to be put to work (he is also prone to hyperbole, including ludicrous ‘G9 Summits’ and ‘Declarations‘).  Nonetheless, he and his team’s extraordinary track-record of innovation, built with an alloy of practical experimentation, careful information management and extreme ambition, are a study in how innovation happens, and why, counterintuitively, if something is worth doing, it’s worth doing badly.
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Safe As Houses?: Red lights seem to be flashing on real estates ‘prime inner London’ dashboard: hedge funds shorted London luxury property developers earlier this year, Savills now forecasts a 9% drop in prime London home prices in 2016, headlines like “London’s Luxury Homes Bubble Loses Air” have begun to appear, and a session at the recent FT Weekend event was called “Has London’s property bubble burst?”.  Increased stamp duty (a British property tax), Brexit and slowing Asian economies are all contributing to the trend.
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British property’s role as a gateway for capital into the EU means the Brexit effect is particularly underplayed.  An anecdotal example is Nine Elms in South London, the largest building site in Europe and home to what the Guardian newspaper recently called the ‘ghost tower’, a skyscraper whose low occupancy is due to majority offshore ownership.  Nine Elms stands out in this Private Eye map as one of the biggest chunks of offshore owned land in London; restricting Britain’s financial ties with Europe will make such projects far less attractive to investors in future, with consequent depressive effects on property prices.  The possible loss of British ‘passporting’ rights for financial institutions will also have a similar effect.  Loss of such rights is specifically mentioned in the (very pointed) Japanese Governments report released just before the recent G20, which says essentially that ‘soft Brexit’/continued access to the single market are essential for continued Japanese investment in the UK.

British residential property is easily the biggest asset class in the country, and therefore absolutely central to national wealth.  There will be significant effects for fundraising, (especially legacies and philanthropy), if property prices cease to be ‘as safe as houses’.

Coalitions: The Panama Papers contains a total of 2.6tb (terabytes) of information. Even before John Doe had delivered the last of it to German journalists Bastian Obermayer and Frederik Obermaier, the journalists had realised not only could they not analyse more than a fraction of it but, for very real reasons of risk and security, the work should be shared as widely as possible.  The eventual coalition was made up of hundreds of journalists across several continents, resulting in a number of major scoops and many more revealing insights into the habits of elites across the globe.
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Almost all data generated in recorded history was created in the last 2 years.  Will fundraising researchers follow colleagues in investigative and data journalism in using coalitions to augment individuals’ skill?  And as we struggle to employ enough data analysts, visualisation experts and coders, are such coalitions a way for charities to fill the data skills gap?

Hamlet Without the Ghost: Looking through agenda of previous years fundraising conferences, there is a notable absence.  The presences are also striking: this is clearly a hardworking, dynamic industry which cares about improving its skills base and the techniques and technologies it uses. But the raison d’etre of the industry is often missing.

The omission is money.  While the very name of the industry contains a synonym for it, discussions centered on income or wealth dynamics are conspicuous by their absence in many public discussions of fundraising.  This is especially odd as the landscape of British wealth has changed markedly in recent decades, with many of the gains from major industries like finance, tech and commodities going to a small subset of the population, and huge (current and forecast) increases in insecure work and unsecured debt for many households.  Ironically, these trends coincide with a golden age in the study of the distributional dynamics of wealth, with academics led by Sir Anthony Atkinson, and including Professors Thomas Piketty, Emmanual Saez and Gabriel Zucman bringing serious academic rigor to the field.  Whole new centres of study are opening, such as the recently-founded Stone Centre on Socio-Economic Inequality at the City University of New York, while existing centres such as the Luxemburg Income Study and World Wealth & Income database  expand rapidly to meet demand.  While Philip Beresford, founding author of the British Sunday Times Rich List, was once called a communist for daring to inquire about the wealth of a new list entrant, inequality and the study of wealth are now centre-stage in academic circles.

This is a welcome development.  Without serious, sustained consideration (and operationalisation) of the social dynamics of wealth, fundraising is Hamlet without the ghost, lacking animating spirit and structure.  We know more then ever before about where wealth is, and where it might be. Will we now use this knowledge to broaden the terms of the public debate, to “go where the money is, and go often“?

Philanthropy Studies: if money is power, why has philanthropy not been a more popular field of inquiry for social scientists?  Lecture halls are filled year after year with students of other social sciences, while philanthropy has been something of an orphan subject, struggling to secure mainstream attention.
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This may be changing.  Renowned social scientist Professor Theda Skocpol recently published a clarion call to arms for her colleagues to take seriously a discipline which has traditionally received short shrift from the academy.  Princeton’s Centre on Philanthropy and Civil Society – working at the “intersection of human centered design, strategic philanthropy, and the behavioral sciences” – has a number of  fascinating research themes.  And the UK’s very own Rogare thinktank, (whose Advisory Board I was delighted to join last month) is doing excellent work on the ethical and theoretical underpinnings of this thing we call fundraising.  Long may the growth in this important area of study continue.

One thought on “Innovation Means Not Copying

  1. Pingback: Translational research about philanthropy - Helen Brown Group

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