Innovation in the Service of What

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We all want our McBurgers, McMansions, and iLives.

My 88 year old father was reading my blog and recently commented to me, “innovation is so overused. Everybody from GE down is touting it”. Periodically, a single word is used repeatedly and applied to everything. Quite quickly, we lose the thread of what we are actually talking about because of over-saturation. Indeed, innovation has become the new everything, everywhere word. It’s our new black, we can wear it with everything and feel like we look great. What I am concerned with is the question, innovation in the service of what?

Beyond the irony, when I listen deeply, what I hear in the volume of the conversations about innovation is a collective and urgent moral cry for change. We desperately need to innovate, because we have a survival imperative to do more with less. Generally speaking, innovation is driven by our quest for improvements in speed, ease, and convenience. Yet, I doubt any of us would list speed, ease, and convenience as our core values. Not surprisingly, it is our pursuit of speed, ease, and convenience, that has brought us to where we are. We all want our McBurgers, McMansions, and iLives.

So, is that what leaders mean when they say “we must innovate”? We need more speed, more ease, more convenience? I don’t think so. Then what are the values that we collectively want to be holding to bring forth the future? What are the principles we want to be animating this tsunami of innovations?

Time to rethink our cost/benefit equations

Everett Rogers, who is a root scholar in the field of innovation, says in his seminal book Diffusion of Innovation (2003), that an “innovation is an idea, practice or object that is perceived as new” (p. 12). It is the perception of newness that forms our impression of innovation, not that it is actually new. Windmills, for instance, have been around since about 300 AD. The first solar water heater was patented in 1891.

We consider something is an innovation when our perception of the thing (idea, practice, technology) changes. We actually begin to see things differently. An innovation may not have anything to do with whether the thing itself is de facto “new”.

In economic language, what happens is that we do a cost/benefit analysis and through a conscious or unconscious calculus, determine that the new thing will cost us less or benefit us more than the old thing. This can be the cost/benefit of a communication device, or the cost/benefit of racism, or the cost/benefit of our energy policy.

I’m thinking, maybe, we don’t need to innovate more stuff as much as we need to innovate how we perceive and think about stuff? Maybe we need to go back a bit and recheck our calculus, rethink our cost/benefit equations?

What are our values?!

At its very essence, innovation provides the functional capacity to create more from less. That’s what makes an innovation and innovation. But an innovation does not intrinsically have to be driven by speed, ease, and convenience.

This definition of innovation, more from less, begins to get at the current moral urgency underneath the cry for “more” innovation. Many of our previous innovations have: 1) squandered our natural (and social) capital and created externalities (unintended consequences) that are threatening our lives and the lives of our children and grandchildren; and, 2) the notion of abject poverty and inflicted suffering on the “other” through ignorance and hatred has become (or is fast becoming) as distasteful and unacceptable as slavery (for instance).

There is a collective moral directive to do more with less, but not necessarily driven by the values of speed, ease, and convenience. Maybe the battle of the 21st century is about the fair and equitable distribution of health (as opposed to the 20th century’s battle around how best to distribute wealth)? Time to ask ourselves, what are our values?

From failed paradigms to new paradigms

One notion about innovation being driven by something other than speed, ease, and convenience is “frugal” innovation. C.K. Prahalad was one of the first that spoke to this in his treatise on bottom of the pyramid. My friend David Green did this when working with Aravind in India, he designed a manufacturing process that could produce cataract lenses. Together they were able to drive down the cost of from $150 to $2 and make vision accessible to millions of people. The innovation was the design process for manufacturing and delivery that cut out unnecessary costs, not the lenses themselves. They were able to create more with less to the benefit of the poor and still create business value. In general, we experience innovation as change. But, importantly, innovations can be adaptive or transformative.

Adaptive innovations help us to maintain homeostasis and to stay upright in the rough and tumble of the waves that pound us daily. Adaptive innovations are what we create when we improve work processes or a product’s design to be more efficient and effective. These are incremental improvements that are essential to regulating and ensuring life (the essence of sustainability). They make our lives easier. I am thinking this is NOT what we are calling out for with this collective moral cry for innovation.

In contrast, transformative innovations suggests a level of change that shifts paradigms. We often don’t choose it, rather it chooses us because of failure, collapse, and misalignment. And occasionally, because of a stroke of genius, due to the right conditions and the right mix of people and circumstance.

For instance, by moving from a failed paradigm around education (who’s Latin meaning is – to lead forth) into an emergent paradigm focused on cultivating children with a sound identity. Beyond “content” and “capabilities”, the later focuses on empathy, conflict resolution, and mindfulness with powerful results. Rather than leading the child, we are teaching the child to lead by having a greater capacity to know themselves and understand others. That is revolutionary. When we transform character we will transform the world.

The democratization of everything

An innovation inherently offers some sort of value to its adopters and depending on its magnitude can shape the outcomes of social and economic systems through new applications and new means of productivity. The more impactful an innovation is on the outcomes underlying the functioning of a system, the greater the capacity the innovation has of transforming personal and social mores, values and norms for good or ill.

As a result of this moral cry for innovation, we are experiencing a fundamental transformation in why we innovate and toward what end. I call this the democratization of everything.

Innovation is the harbinger around which the forward movement of life directs itself in order to seek, create, and select the future out of infinite possibilities. More simply, innovations are the DNA for the future (this is what my dissertation was about). This is particularly true during challenging periods (like now) when there is significant urgency to find what will become the future. Through innovation, we are consciously selecting the characteristics for the future. This is conscious, evolutionary change. May we choose well.

 

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