Innovation is Human(ist)

We often think of innovation as being the domain of the widget, the whozit and the whatnot.

Of robots, lasers and cures.

(And, don’t get me wrong: robots can be ridiculously cool.)

redcultural_1_croppedBut, to innovate is to simply come up with something new, or a new way of doing things. We innovate daily. Home to a leading research-intensive university, a college, a broad hospital network and many innovative companies, this is especially the case in Canada’s London.

While new gizmos can often seem more immediate or accessible, innovations in arts, humanities and social science-based disciplines are often the stitches that hold together the fabric of our society, culture and economies. The questions we face as we step forward in an increasingly complex world require ever-human answers.

In a twist of circumstance, though, technology has begun playing an increasingly important role in bringing these answers to life. Western’s new, unique-in-Canada Digital Humanities program, for example, allows students to examine some of the world’s oldest questions – using the newest technologies. Now, more than 300 years after they put pen to paper, the works of Shakespeare and Milton are studied, discussed and dissected on an iPad.

In the process, art and literature seep through the wires.

So-called ‘light bulb’ moments at the CulturePlex Lab are both metaphorical and literal, as teams of students and researchers build digital technologies that shed light on such big-picture questions as globalization and our original social networks – our cultures.

Adoption of technology is not really anything new; it’s just moving at a greater pace. In fact, Western economist John Whalley pioneered the use of SONY DSCcomputer models to analyze the effects of public policy change during the 1970s. There weren’t enough fingers in the world to perform the analysis by hand, so Whalley had computers put his thoughts to work and established policy rules that would guide the Canadian government’s response to interest rates and inflation.

By adapting to new tools at their disposal, humanists and social scientists are able to manipulate, share and mash-up data, theories and literature in new, innovative ways. Information is, of course, the new currency. And, we need to know how to interpret it.

Political scientists and researchers in Western’s Faculty of Information and Media Studies mine ever-evolving social media for clues about how our cultures and political systems are changing, and how political activism and social justice activities can mobilize entire populations. Try telling citizens of Egypt this doesn’t matter.

New- and old-world literacy exists at a busy intersection where both traffic lights are set to green, and future students are growing up with these forms of literacy embedded in their DNA.

This has led to innovative ways of teaching. Education professor George Gadanidis has taken to YouTube to “break the negative cycle of math,” by using ‘performance math’ – song, dance and theatre – to make numbers fun again. In the process, he is helping destigmatize numeracy by engaging children and getting parents to shed their baggage, packed as it so often is with fears of integers, fractions and multiplication tables.

To Gadanidis, math does not need to be the ‘Big Bad Wolf.’

The logic goes: if learning can be fun again, we’re more apt to do it well.

Sometimes, that just takes a little innovation – with a human(ist) touch.

Posted by

Douglas Keddy

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