Asia has learned a humanities lesson that Europe forgot

Nearly two years ago economics Nobel laureate Edmund S Phelps reflected on how the humanities described the ascent of the modern world and the extent to which the field had the potential to assist individuals lead more productive and fulfilling lives.

In a paper published by the World Economic Forum he said in laying the foundation for a future based on ideas and invention, businesses and governments should consider how new products and methods emerged in some of history’s most innovative economies.

“Innovation was powered not by global scientific progress, but by the population’s dynamism – their desire, capacity and latitude to create – and willingness to allow the financial sector to steer them away from unpromising pursuits,” he said.

It is an argument strongly supported in a new paper entitled Radical Innovation: Humanities research crossing knowledge boundaries and fostering deep change that has highlighted how placing more emphasis on the arts and humanities has the ability to strengthen innovation in Europe.

Published by the Brussels-based European Research Funding Organisations and Research Performing Organisations last month and written by the Science Europe Scientific Committee for the Humanities, the essence is the degree to which innovation emerges from a research environment with the human condition at its core.

For centuries Europe has been the hub of intellectual, economic and technological innovation, essentially creating new methods, ideas or products. However, that leading edge is being lost as the arts and humanities tend to be given “only a marginal role in interdisciplinary research”.

Meanwhile, other cultural and economic regions – including Asia where there is growing attention to innovation – are increasingly recognising the crucial role these sciences play in innovation.

“Social innovation on the one hand and technology-driven innovation on the other are both essential elements in (creating) a new research-centred innovation ecology for the 21st century,” the authors argue.

This is essential for emerging studies in medical, environmental and digital humanities where interaction between disciplines set the conditions for imagination and creativity.

Underpinning their argument is the certainty that innovation precipitates the breadth of human experience, including cultural systems of thinking, belief and values determining who we are and how we feel.

“If Europe aims to nurture an innovation ecology where breakthrough answers may emerge in response to major societal challenges, conditions need to be created that lead to the unanticipated answers capable of producing radical innovation and hence radical changes,” the paper argues.

In 2008 the British National Endowment for Science Technology and the Arts, or NESTA, and the Arts and Humanities Research Council, or AHRC, stimulated the debate in the Arts and Humanities Research and Innovation report, highlighting how the traditional understanding of science and technology-based research overshadows arts and humanities in contributing to innovation.

Yet, in the latest report, the authors outline how southern Asia is now recognising the extent to which human capital – not technological development alone – is at the heart of innovation. Singapore is giving top priority to human capital formation policies that encourage “a holistic education” with its cornerstone in personal confidence, self-directed learning, active contribution and concerned citizenship.

Competence in critical thinking, creative practice, reasoned argument, social engagement and teamwork and character formation are central to the innovation approach.

“In seeking answers for major societal and environmental challenges, we need radical innovation to propel us beyond the narrow confines of a disciplinary field. We need imaginative ways to pool and focus our collective knowledge to solve real-world challenges,” the authors argue.

Integral role

The paper cites several examples where the humanities have played an integral role in innovation. Interdisciplinary research conducted by the University of Neuchâtel Institute of Geography, Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois psychiatry department and University of Basel linguistics department seeks understanding on the direct relationship between the urban milieu and psychosis in young people.

With collaborating geographers, psychiatrists and linguists, the study considered the effects of stressful urban environments on psychosis, strongly emphasising urban settings and patients’ social lives. The outcome reveals not only how people cope with their illness, but also how they live normal lives, essentially providing a new way for approaching healthcare problems that reconceptualises the issue based on social-environmental factors.

Another example uses history and archaeology to assess water and soil usage. The Mediterranean Mountainous Landscapes project introduces historical studies when analysing productivity and resource-use efficiency and signals “a radical approach to natural resources based on the collection and examination, through archaeological fieldwork and ethnographic surveys, of the historical traces that remain fossilised in the landscape”.

That project, the authors argue, propels innovative ways for organising this work by involving interdisciplinary university study areas and local communities from varying cultural and rural associations.

The authors argue that these projects, undertaken by humanities scholars, demonstrate how different mixes of innovative research patterns and actions can produce different forms and combinations of radical innovations.

“These represent the source of deep change in the ways the research questions are dealt with and, in the unpredictable outcomes that emerge, answer societal challenges... they introduce new perspectives for tackling global challenges faced by our society,” the paper argues.

There is little doubt Europe, for centuries, has sustained a rich research ecology fostering innovation and transforming society. However, that research ecology had the humanities at heart.

Lever of deep change

The authors conclude that research based in the humanities is “a lever of deep change for a Europe faced by global challenges”. Thus, managing and understanding the impact of radical innovation is fundamental to creating new pathways and ensuring ethical and productive effects.

A Europe seeking to regain its leading edge on the ascent to modern society will have to carefully consider its next moves. Innovation-driven progress among competitors is seeing regions that have underpinned their technological and scientific developments via the humanities emerge as leaders.

Correspondingly, Europe’s policies and funding programmes are relegating the humanities to “the peripheries of the research landscape”. Yet contemporary challenges will not be solved via incremental developments, but by radically new approaches.

“Radical innovation is an essential element in translating research-led knowledge into real-world impacts that stimulate deep change... Policy-makers have to take measures across the research ecosystem to support integrating disciplines and stimulating a genuine interaction among all of them,” the paper concludes.