Is innovation fair?

No. Next question?

I went to an excellent lunchtime discussion organized by non pareil connector Sylvia Paull today with the topic, “Is innovation fair?” The discussion was led by professional controversialist Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur. What made the discussion so good wasn’t the quality of the question, which I really think answers itself, but the quality of the people around the table, who had a more nuanced, historically aware perspective than Keen.

To be fair, Keen did touch on an issue that I do think is important. Given that innovation isn’t fair — it creates winners and losers — what can we do as a society to ensure we don’t create a permanent underclass? That’s worth considerable debate, and there’s no easy answer. Providing universal Internet access may be part of the answer — Keen seems to argue elsewhere that it’s the answer — but I think it’s a minor part of achieving greater equity in society. The alleviation of poverty and access to better education, to take two modest goals, are vastly more critical to a better distribution of innovation — and its potential rewards — in our society. Over and above that I believe that societies will need to find new ways to provide a safety net and the necessary retraining for those truly displaced by the shifts occasioned by some innovation. Have a look, for example, at Denmark’s flexicurity for one innovation that seems to be working in that direction.

But I also think a misunderstanding of both innovation and the particular moment we’re at in terms of innovation was voiced by a number of people at the lunch. First, innovation isn’t just the kind of stuff that happens in Palo Alto and Mountain View. It doesn’t necessarily involve corporate or wealth creation. There’s extraordinary social innovation happening globally today. And there’s plenty of malevolent innovation as well — look what financial innovation has wrought.

Second, I don’t think it’s historically accurate to say we’re in an age of unprecedented innovation. We may be more aware of the innovation that is occurring — that is certainly one of the impacts of the Internet’s instant, pervasive communications. We also are witnessing historically dramatic innovation in a particularly visible sphere — media. It’s unsurprising that the media — whether traditional or new — provides a particularly urgent view of that change. Many other fields, however, have undergone their periods of cataclysmic change at other times. We see amazing innovations in medicine, for example, but are the leaps greater than Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin or Ignatz Semmelweis’ work on the importance of hygiene?  The nineteenth century leaps provided by, say, the Erie Canal or the railways, were other periods of bewildering innovation and change.

Finally, there’s a misunderstanding of how innovation happens. Keen asked several times, “Can you teach innovation?” If people know where to look, there’s an enormous amount of rigorous work that has been done examining how innovation really happens. I particularly like Andrew Hargadon’s How Breakthroughs Happen.  Innovation happens in teams, it happens with diversity of ideas, it happens by recombining old ideas, more than the Hollywood image of a lone genius who gains a sudden, stunning insight. We probably can’t teach innovation as such, but we can help people and organizations develop cultures, structures and reward systems that make innovation more rather than less likely.

3 thoughts on “Is innovation fair?

  1. Brian Hughes

    Much of what is passed off as innovation would more accurately be described as development or evolution. It’s those that really are going an an excitingly rapid pace.

    I recall talking to my grandfather, who was born in 1888 and had worked with Rutherford before becoming a professor of physics himself, about all the changes he’d seen in his long lifetime. Ah yes, but they will seem as nothing to those you’ll see in yours – he wisely predicted…

  2. Pingback: Innovation With L.O.V.E. « ZenStorming – Where Science Meets Muse…

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