Friday Flashback: Ten Parameters for 21st Century Innovation

BLOG Friday Flashback: Ten New Parameters for Innovation

This is a repost of part of an article I published in the newsletter of the World Innovation Foundation, and later on my blog, two years ago.

 research and innovation

Innovation has addressed basic human needs in past ages of our civilization, and is in the process of doing so to address the pressing human issues of today: chronic and epidemic disease, crime and terrorism, waste and pollution (including global warming), urban decay, famine, overpopulation, biodegradation and ecosystem exhaustion, unemployment, inequity, scarcity of critical resources, loss of biodiversity, economic overextension and unsustainability, chronic violence and war.

In each age of our civilization, however, the scale, complexity and interconnectedness of these issues have grown exponentially. Innovations and interventions that address one of these issues are increasingly inadequate as each new focused solution ignores or even exacerbates (by introducing new threats, vulnerabilities, wastes and opportunities for misuse) other and new problems.

Increasingly, too, the economic system that was designed to introduce and scale innovations has become antithetical to innovation: It is cheaper and less risky for a corporation to buy (or buy out and suppress) an innovation than to develop one itself. Many ‘innovative’ startups are conceived purely for an early sellout to a large corporation often disinclined to introduce it when it threatens its existing brand. Intellectual property laws in many countries allow and encourage the patenting of entire processes and the intimidation, by armies of lawyers, of entrepreneurs who encroach on any aspect of those processes. And corporations are rewarded for schemes that enable them to circumvent social and environmental laws to ‘competitive advantage’, and now arguably spend more energy trying to defeat regulations that were designed for the public good than they spend on initiatives that serve the public good.

So it seems to me that the innovation model that worked in the industrial era is no longer serving us in this new and more complex era, and a new model is needed. What might this new model look like? I believe it must have the following attributes:

  1. It needs to start with achieving as deep an understanding of the current problems as is humanly possible. Things are the way they are for a reason, and many organizations put too little effort into understanding those reasons because it is easier and cheaper to use marketing to ‘manufacture’ the need and consent for a new product. We need to appreciate that  uninformed, myopic attempts to grapple with complex problems cannot work. Before we can make it right, we need to understand what’s wrong. This isn’t completely possible in any complex system, but it’s essential to grapple with appreciating how things got to where they are, to optimize the probability that the innovations we come up with will help rather than making things worse. This is where scientists come in: We need a lot more of you, we need to give you more resources to do research, we need to help you collaborate across geographies and disciplines more effectively, and we need to enable you to focus on issues that are critical to our species’ survival, not issues that offer the greatest short-term ROI to some self-serving and indifferent corporation.
  1. It needs to be holistic and multi-disciplinary. You can’t solve a complex problem with a merely complicated solution. We need to look at the implications of our ideas and innovations across all areas of our society and our world. Cross-disciplinary teams that share a sense of urgency and purpose are the best means to achieve this broader understanding and skill-set.
  1. It needs to be substantially voluntary. That means it must be freed from the for-short-term-profit constraints of the current economic system. The economy in which such efforts naturally belong is the Gift Economy, an economy that is already healthy and flourishing, as exemplified by open source and peer production, by scientific exchanges, libraries, weblogs, wikis, file sharing and other free exchanges of information, by philanthropy without strings attached, and by mentoring done by parents and other volunteers. Innovators must have the time, energy, and passion to pursue ideas regardless of their profitability. To do this we need to recruit the right people. I believe Open Space methodology, and specifically its process of invitation, offers the best mechanism for attracting precisely the people needed to appreciate and address all of the different aspects of complex problems. I also suspect that our greatest opportunity in this regard is to tap those who are retired or close to retirement or working only part-time, who can afford to volunteer their time and who bring a lifetime of valuable experience to the task.
  1. It needs to be self-organized, non-hierarchical and collaborative. Hierarchical systems are inherently bureaucratic and frequently dysfunctional. As nature teaches us, self-organized systems are more adaptable, more flexible, more resilient. We are mostly inexperienced at working in such social structures, so we need to (re-)learn to do so. We have much to learn from indigenous cultures who have been doing this for millennia.
  1. It needs to be experimental and evolutionary. We learn from our mistakes, and the modern corporation has reached the point where promotion and production costs so much that failure is intolerable. Our new innovation model has to not only tolerate, but encourage mistakes. It must try a lot of different things, in parallel (for there is no time to waste) through experimentation and fast learning and then trying something a little different based on that learning, the way nature does. Our main product must be ‘working models’ – solutions that appear to work to solve some of our pressing global problems without exacerbating others. Then we must let them go, push them out of the nest. Some of these innovations may help us live better in the years before civilization’s collapse. Others may only be of use after that collapse, by the survivors who will know what didn’t work and will be urgently looking for alternative models that might, models that will make sense given the terrible knowledge they will then possess.
  1. It needs to involve new ways of thinking. Einstein famously said “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” We need some radical, even crazy thinking. Innovation is not incremental change and it is not arrived at analytically. And we need not only radical innovations; we need radical ways of innovating, more holistic, more intuitive, more collaborative, more discontinuous, more imaginative, and more connected to the wisdom and understanding of all life on Earth.

We need to start now, with a sense of urgency and shared purpose, to invent the future, one that will reach beyond and outlive the collapse of our civilization.

Ronald Wright, in his book A Short History of Progress, summarizes our human destiny by saying “It’s entirely up to us. If we fail — if we blow up or degrade the biosphere so it can no longer sustain us — nature will merely shrug and conclude that letting apes run the laboratory was fun for a while but in the end a bad idea.”

Let’s show Mr. Wright that the apes still have a trick or two up their sleeves.

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