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CHAPTER IV - Innovation by Design

How can we infuse library institutions with principles and approaches that will develop and sustain a culture of innovation?
Like other professions, libraries have developed a culture with a distinct set of values, approaches and behaviors. Library practices have traditionally been centered on the work of building and maintaining collections, and interactions with users and other institutions have been largely transactional although this is beginning to change. As the role of the library evolves beyond access and lending to providing a platform for learning, innovation and creativity, libraries need to think in dramatically different ways and develop new approaches to their work in line with this changing role.

Roundtable participants explored design thinking and its human-centered approach to innovation as a means to understand how libraries can move from a focus on transactions to building networks, relationships and a mindset for innovation.

Michelle Ha Tucker, Portfolio Director at IDEO, has worked for the past three years with the Chicago Public Library and Aarhus Library of Denmark. (This work led to the development of a Design Thinking for Libraries Toolkit.) Tucker led the discussion with a presentation on how librarians can interact with design thinking. [To view a variety of design thinking models within Tucker’s complete presentation, click here.]

Design thinking reflects three general modes of thinking:

framing a challenge.
based off the challenge to generate ideas.
putting ideas out to the world and iterating upon them with other users, oftenthrough co-creation.

The aim is to create lots of different choices and possibilities and then filter and narrow them down. From the fog of synthesis, the user of design thinking identifies the opportunities that are the most rich for impact.

Tucker identified three reasons why public libraries may be exceptionally well suited to adapt design thinking to creating ecosystems for innovation within the institution and the community at large.

  • Libraries are a living lab. They have space dedicated with a steady stream of users to observe, ask questions of and experiment with on a day to day basis. They allow for live prototypes, short cycles of experimentation and co-creation.
  • Librarians are great service designers. Librarians know the community best. “If there’s anyone who is well-suited to evolve what a library is and address the needs that are out there, it is the librarians themselves,” said Tucker. Leaders need to empower frontline employees in a distributed way to create better solutions.
  • Libraries are networked community infrastructure. “The best solutions that arise from design thinking are highly systemic, complex and cross institutions,” said Tucker. Libraries are well positioned to connect these institutions to make those partnerships happen and may even carry out some of the larger solutions that are systemic.

While libraries share a natural affinity with some aspects of design thinking, there are tensions that can arise depending on the specific library and place.

Public Libraries
Design Thinking
Expectations and evaluations of public sector performance are shaped through reflections on historical data and benchmarking. Design thinkers focus on making the future feel more real now.
Research in the library context is often about answering questions. Research in design thinking is about opening up new questions and being comfortable with ambiguity.
Risk-taking is avoided. “Failure” is embraced.
Library staff based in structural and operational teams. Design thinking driven by strategic teams that are multi-disciplinary.

Michelle Tucker provided several “thought starters” for resolving these tensions.

  • Hire X-shaped people. Traditionally, organizations have looked to hire T-shaped people. These individuals have a depth of knowledge and experience in one top area, with an affinity for working well with others down the line. Tucker said that IDEO is hiring more X-shaped people. These are people who adapt their expertise in two industries or disciplines, and then own the knowledge space where that intersection is. Walter Isaacson similarly made the point that some of the most powerful innovators are people who work at the intersection of disciplines like art and science, people who can do both. These will be the leaders of change in libraries.
  • Reframe on innovation.“Innovation” itself can be a scary word given the high level of attention and expectation that surrounds the concept. If “innovation” is reframed as a verb, seen as a continual act of doing rather than as something that is always new, this may alleviate some of the fear. Tucker said that innovation may be as simple as “taking a shiny object and making it appropriately contextualized to your library. This is innovation because it is about reading context,” said Tucker.
  • Think big, but act small. “Change happens by empowering people at a front-line level, and then creating lots of small experiments that eventually bubble up to a large scale movement,” said Tucker.

Chris Barr, Director of Media Innovation at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, agreed that libraries need more people innovating more often but struck a note of caution. “When we think about human centered design, the way it’s presented here as a design process is problematic,” said Barr. “We’re talking about organizations that have tons of processes. What I think is really important is that we talk about design as a way to enhances these processes, what tools we put in place to do the work smarter. Innovation work isn’t a one-stop shop. It’s something that is part of what we do and we are acting with it as a verb—it needs to become a part of the things we do, not a place we go to when we have to solve an issue.” In other words, innovation needs to become part of the library’s DNA.

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