Monday, 8 June 2009

End-user innovation

One future for the world of Conductive Education?

The previous article on Conductive World, about Twitter, stemmed from reading an article by Steven Johnson in Time magazine. This article went beyond specific consideration of Twitter, to articulate wider implications of what is happening in the world of IT communication. These are framed in terms of American innovation: they could be applied equally to analysis of the fast-changing world of Conductive Education, in which context they bear important further implications of their own.

In Conductive Education, as in other fields, changes are already well under way. They just need articulating.

End-user innovation

First though, let Steven Johnson introduce the basic point. Think as he does what is already typically happening with so much conductive practice around the world. He starts with the history of the Web itself

... A platform originally designed to help scholars share academic documents, it now lets you watch television shows, play poker with strangers around the world, publish your own newspaper, rediscover your high school girlfriend — and, yes, tell the world what you had for breakfast. Twitter serves as the best poster child for this new model of social creativity in part because these innovations have flowered at such breathtaking speed and in part because the platform is so simple. It's as if Twitter's creators dared us to do something interesting by giving us a platform with such draconian restrictions. And sure enough, we accepted the dare with relish. Just 140 characters? I wonder if I could use that to start a political uprising.

[The recent anti-Communist uprising in Moldova was organised through Twitter.]

The speed with which users have extended Twitter's platform points to a larger truth about modern innovation. When we talk about innovation and global competitiveness, we tend to fall back on the easy metric of patents and Ph.D.s. It turns out the U.S. share of both has been in steady decline since peaking in the early '70s...

We do not have such an 'easy metric' in Conductive Education. Instead we have our own two Gold Standards, with which the present is so often measured against the past:
  • the relatively quantifiable commodity of the 'trained conductor and
  • the somewhat ineffable notion of 'pure Conductive Education'.
But what actually happened to American innovation during that period? We came up with America Online, Netscape, Amazon, Google, Blogger, Wikipedia, Craigslist, TiVo, Netflix, eBay, the iPod and iPhone, Xbox, Facebook and Twitter itself. Sure, we didn't build the Prius or the Wii, but if you measure global innovation in terms of actual lifestyle-changing hit products and not just grad students, the U.S. has been lapping the field for the past 20 years.

And what has been happening in Conductive Education over the last twenty years? We have come up with practice and values compatible with the ideals of inclusion, disability rights and democratic family values, we have conductors working within schools, in community settings, in families, we have begun to implement conductive practices in social and cultural contexts far outside those for which they were originally developed, indeed most beginning conductive programs/services routinely have to adapt ways of working radically different from those of a generation before. Forget those two old Gold Standards, Conductive Education is characterised by the most remarkable innovation, the continuous worldwide creation of what Steven Johnson describes as 'actual lifestyle-changing hit products'. (And do note here that this innovation is to the credit alike of both conductors and those who drive them, largely parents.)

How could the forecasts have been so wrong? The answer is that we've been tracking only part of the innovation story. If I go to grad school and invent a better mousetrap, I've created value, which I can protect with a patent and capitalize on by selling my invention to consumers. But if someone else figures out a way to use my mousetrap to replace his much more expensive washing machine, he's created value as well. We tend to put the emphasis on the first kind of value creation because there are a small number of inventors who earn giant paydays from their mousetraps and thus become celebrities. But there are hundreds of millions of consumers and small businesses that find value in these innovations by figuring out new ways to put them to use.

Perhaps we too have going very wrong, in judging and trying to guide the progress of the conductive movement. Never mind the training schools, and certainly with no thanks to 'the research', we have been looking to the wrong model. The founders of Conductive Education did us and the world a massive favour: they invented a far better mousetrap. Their successors have often looked to 'protect' this by patents, trademarks, closed-shoppery, creating a mystery and hugging its secrets to themselves, just plain lack of proper communication. But out among the grass roots there is irresistable demand for figuring out new ways of using this mousetrap, and there are people bold and inventive enough to give this a try. The numbers are smaller in the little world of Conductive Education, both the numbers of people and the potential financial rewards, so progress is relatively slower, but not that slow and 'small businesses' are figuring out new ways to put the mosetrap to better use by adapting it and creating new applications..

There are several varieties of this kind of innovation, and they go by different technical names. MIT professor Eric von Hippel calls one "end-user innovation," in which consumers actively modify a product to adapt it to their needs.

Mention of Eric von Hippel provides firm academic framework and considerable legitimacy for this process. Here the consumers are both the conductors, who are utilising knowledge and skills from their training, and the parents/ programs/agencies who are employing them.

In its short life, Twitter has been a hothouse of end-user innovation... some of them banal, some of them spam and some of them sublime... All of these adoptions create new kinds of value in the wider economy, and none of them actually originated at Twitter HQ. You don't need patents or Ph.D.s to build on this kind of platform.

Yes indeed, in its somewhat longer but still relatively short life outside Hungary, Conductive Education has been a hothouse of end-user innovations... some of them banal, some of them dross and some of them sublime. Look seriously at those two last sentences in the paragraph above, and think of the lack of esteem (outside their own immediate centres of operation) that innovative conductive practice, and innovative means of conductive service-delivery, enjoy within the little cultural sphere of Conductive Education, the 'conductive golf-fish bowl. Instead, rather than being lauded lauded as the pioneers and potential wealth-creators that they are, innovators often seem to be in a position of bashfully pleading in mitigation, 'Of course, it's not real Conductive Education'.

This is what I ultimately find most inspiring about the Twitter phenomenon. We are living through the worst economic crisis in generations, with apocalyptic headlines threatening the end of capitalism as we know it, and yet in the middle of this chaos, the engineers at Twitter headquarters are scrambling to keep the servers up...

...and in Conductive Education such training schools as remain are struggling to maintain production...

application developers are releasing their latest builds...

...both the PAI and NICE are restructuring their training courses, to fit in with Bologna...

and ordinary users are figuring out all the ingenious ways to put these tools to use. There's a kind of resilience here that is worth savoring. The weather reports keep announcing that the sky is falling, but here we are — millions of us — sitting around trying to invent new ways to talk to one another.

Not millions of us in Conductive Education, and trying to invent (not always consciously) new ways of doing something rather more complex than mere communicating, but the comparison is a compelling one.

Implications for Conductive Education

In no particular order, hardly all original thoughts, and certainly a far from complete list:

  • the grass-roots change-agents in Conductive Education should be recognised for what they are, our cutting-edge innovators creating the new applications (yes, like in IT) to create new systems to meet the requirements and opportunities of the new century,
  • grass-roots innovation and those who do and describe it should be far higher up CE's esteem-ladder
  • this has massive implications for what constitutes relevant professional training, for who does it and where
  • this in turn imposes increasing demands for reformulation of Conductive Education's creaking theoretical structure
  • and this in turn might legitimate the possiblity of preparing different kinds of personnel to spread the benefit of this theoretical approach
  • and at the same time open up a whole new vista for research and development in Conductive Education bringing to bear altogether new academic modalities.

von Hippel's position is that in real life many products and services are actually developed, or at the very lest refined and rendered fit for purpose, at the place where they are implemented and used. Then in the real world, the garden-shed innovators seek to move their innovations back up the supply chain and interest manufacturers in producing the new product.

Conductive Education does, however, seem hung up on a very different paradigm, top-down, centralised and hierarchicalised, with people on the periphery very much at the bottom. This old 'linear innovation model' has knowledge (and any innovation) coming down from the centre and being handed on finally to end-users.

End-user innovation, on the other hand, draws innovation across across to all all stages of the supply process.

All of which makes the transition to the next stage of the development of Conductive Education look all the more interesting.


Johnson, S. (2009) How Twitter will change the way we live (in 140 characters or less), Time, vol. 172, no 24, pp. 28-33,8599,1902604-2,00.html

Sutton, A. (2009) Twitter: potential benefit withing Conductive Education, Conductive World, 8 June

von Hippel, E. (2005) Democratizing Innovation, Harvard, MIT Press

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