This was our design challenge, set by the Office of Innovation and Science Australia (OISA) as part of developing a long-term Strategic Plan for the Australian Innovation, Science and Research system. We knew from the beginning it was going to be tough. The system is difficult to define, the boundaries unclear, the participants change daily, and we knew that every reader would expect to see themselves reflected in the visualisation.
Starting in a similar pattern to previous innovation system visualisations, we focussed on compiling known information into actor maps and causal loop maps using data and statistics. Collaborating with our ThinkPlace colleagues in New Zealand, we drew inspiration from their experience of visualising the NZ transport system.
Our early low-fidelity prototypes quickly showed us was that applying a ‘mapping approach’ to the innovation system would date immediately after publication. It would be highly inert and, most importantly, it would be difficult to explain the complex interactions.
To overcome this challenge, we worked closely with OISA to develop an entirely new approach; directing our focus on the human experience of the innovation system. We wanted to know what the people who are innovating and interacting with the system believe it to be, and wanted to uncover new undocumented information about it based on their own experiences, not just use provided data and statistics.
What we overwhelmingly heard was that the innovation system was rarely an independent experience, but rather a series of interactions across a complex environment. Even when an individual had a clear goal for their innovation, a network of people, skills and expertise were needed to achieve their ideal. A lack of communication and available collaboration resulted in high counts of setbacks and dead ends.
This got us thinking, these experiences sounded a lot like travelling through the aisles of an unlabelled supermarket; you know what you want, but you don’t know where to find it. After testing this concept, we quickly realised that the analogy wasn’t complex enough. Instead, the innovation system gave the appearance of landing in a foreign city; it’s exciting, but you’re not sure about what to do or where to go. You have a lot of questions, but it can be difficult to communicate because you don’t speak the language. It can be daunting, highly chaotic and oftentimes an isolating experience.
Visualising any system is complex. To move beyond simply understanding the facts and figures, taking a human-centred approach with low-fidelity prototyping will help you push beyond the known.
We embraced that mindset, mapping individual pathways through the innovation system. Through our visual interpretation, we were able to present situational examples of people who were forced to rely on the imbalanced networking scheme that often resulted in their entire projects or companies failing. We were also able to represent where people entered and exited the Australian innovation system, ultimately recognising that people did not believe in the notion of an Australian system, rather Australia is simply a player in the global innovation system.
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