Michael Burns

How many museums out there with participatory spaces designed around “innovation” actually believe one of your visitors will invent an entirely new concept, or method, or product in your space? I’d guess you’d say that’s not your intention.

Many of today’s science and tech museums push the idea of “innovation” in their crusade for STEM learning, and their quest to support creative problem solving. If we are going to take on the multitude of challenges our world poses people need to be better at innovation, right? Not really.

Innovation may involve creative problem solving, but it actually means producing “new things”. The term people should be using is ingenuity. Ingenuity literally means creative problem solving. It’s not only what we use to create innovations, it’s what we use to make them better (or, in some cases, save ourselves from them).

By focusing on the term innovation educational institutions are stressing a term that has become popular through our obsession with new shiny things, devices, commodities, rather than cultivating the sensibilities of creative problem solving – that’s ingenuity!

Don’t get me wrong – innovations (cool new things) are great! I love my cell phone (or whatever you want to call the supercomputer in my pocket), but I would venture to say that the message science museums and other educational institutions are trying to telegraph when they use the term innovation is less about introducing something brand new like an invention, and more about the ability to solve difficult problems using the power of creative imagination.

It may be that the term “innovation” has become so pervasive that the idea of ingenuity gets wrapped up with it (that’s a different discussion about semantics), but if we mean what we say lets apply the right terminology if only to communicate our actual intensions.

That programmed space in your museum with “innovation” in the title may be more accurate replacing it with the word “ingenuity”.