2017 » Keynote speakers



Dr Sarah Beck, University of Birmingham, UK

Dr Beck’s research on children’s tool-making suggests that innovation is surprisingly difficult for children. Her work focuses on identifying new ways in which we can think about problem solving and innovation.

Title: Child innovators in context
Research on children’s innovation (rather than social learning) has tended to focus on individual abilities and has highlighted interesting potential contrast between human children and non-human animals. However, it is important to think about the context in which children attempt innovation: i) children live in an artefact-rich world and may draw inspiration or clues from other artefacts; ii) furthermore, children tend to tackle these problems with an adult and the emotional and motivational context may influence them. I will present a series of recent experiments in which we varied the context in which children encountered a tool-innovation problem. First, we varied the other information that was available to them, specifically including pre-made but non-functional tools. The presence of non-functional tools hindered older children’s (7- and 8-year-olds’) innovation. Second, we compared children’s performance when an adult was present versus the child was alone. Older children (6- and 7-year-olds) performed better under these conditions, while 4- and 5-year-olds still failed to innovate. Finally, we used a spatial priming task which improved performance, possibly through increasing their motivation or enjoyment of the task. Overall, we highlight that the context in which a problem is presented appears to influence older children’s tendency to innovate, both for better and worse. We also discuss whether younger children’s performance may be immune to these context effects because of limited ability.



Prof Kevin Laland, University of St Andrews, UK
Prof Laland’s research combines experimental studies with mathematical/statistical methods to investigate innovations in animals and how novel behaviour spreads through populations.

Title: Innovation and the evolution of culture
Both demographically and ecologically, humans are a remarkably successful species, and this success is generally attributed to our capacity for culture. But how did our species’ extraordinary cultural capabilities evolve? In this talk I will provide a provisional answer. After a brief overview of innovation and social learning in animals, I will describe the findings of an international competition (the ‘social learning strategies tournament’) which sheds light on why copying is widespread in nature, and why humans happen to be so good at it. I will go on to describe some other theoretical and experimental projects suggesting feedback mechanisms that may have been instrumental to the evolution of culture. These include a comparative statistical analysis across primates that revealed that innovation and social learning frequencies co-vary positively with relative brain size, a mathematical model of the evolution of teaching, and an experimental study of the cognitive underpinnings of cumulative culture, in children, chimpanzees and capuchin monkeys. Collectively, these studies imply that the truly unique characteristics of our species—such as our intelligence, language, teaching, and cooperation—are not adaptive responses to external conditions such as climate, predators or disease. Rather, the learned and transmitted activities of our ancestors shaped our intellects through accelerating cycles of evolutionary feedback.




Dr Valentine Roux, French National Centre for Scientific Research, Paris, France
Dr Roux’s research centres on processes of ceramic change in the Southern and Northern Levant between the 5th and the 2nd millennium BC to investigate the spread of innovative technical traits and the implications for cumulative cultural evolution.

Title: Expertise: a necessary condition for invention
In previous studies, we supposed that technical invention was the preserve of experts, namely persons able to explore body-material-energy properties, going beyond the cultural representations that have formed their way of seeing and doing. This hypothesis is here examined on the basis of ethnographic cases which report the introduction of new pottery techniques by experts.
In order to test the role of expertise in the innovation process, field experiments were conducted with the first adopters and the latest adopters of the new technique having diffused in the different villages. These experiments measure on the one hand the understanding of the properties of the tasks, on the other hand the motor skills.
Our results show that the first adopters witness a higher degree of expertise, explaining that only an expert can be in a position to understand the properties of the task in terms of cost and benefit and therefore in a position to borrow/invent new techniques.
We conclude that expertise is one of the necessary conditions for innovation.




Prof Grant Ramsey, University of Leuven, Belgium
Prof Ramsey’s work on behavior in humans and other animals explores concepts such as culture and innovation and how they are translated from the human realm to that of non-human animals.

Title: Toward unified concepts of culture and innovation
Culture and innovation are concepts difficult to define. Part of this difficulty stems from the fact that they arose in the context of humans but have since been applied to nonhuman animals. This leads us to ask whether we should seek single definitions that bridge the human-nonhuman divide, or whether nonhuman animal culture and innovation should be taken to be analogous but not identical with human culture. Another difficulty is that culture and innovation are defined in relation to several concepts that are themselves tough to define, such as learning, novelty, and information. In this talk, I will offer definitions of culture and innovation that apply across the human – nonhuman animal divide. These definitions seek to help unify these concepts and to provide a basis for empirical work on innovation and culture.



Prof Jonathan Sapsed, Newcastle University
Prof Sapsed’s research interests are innovation management and policy. He has been doing research on how arts, technology and business come together in Creative-Digital-IT businesses, describing this ‘fusion’ process and identifying obstacles herein.

Title: Six secrets of interdisciplinary innovation
Combining disciplines is often referred to in research policy and practice, and is believed to have some relationship with innovation, but what is this relationship, and is it a healthy one? This talk will reveal six secrets of interdisciplinary innovation based on research into Creative-Digital-IT industries and how they behave. Drawing on the innovation management and policy field, which combines economics, sociology and geography, the secrets will cover matters of economic performance, work stress, identity, and the conditions to create the mood for innovation.