Who doesn’t love innovation? For years we’ve been taught that it is a magical engine of goodness, bringing amazing technologies and wonderful services to one and all. For many of us it has been a cornucopia, a horn of plenty, always ready to make our already comfortable lives a little easier, a little smoother, a little more amazing. No wonder that we have celebrated it as much as we have. It has brought us great things, and promised us even more fantastic things to come.
That said, not everyone has benefited equally from what some have called the golden age of innovation. Today, if you are a well-to-do urban professional, there is no end to the things you can beckon at the tap of an app button – food of all kinds delivered, a chauffeur to your door, and as many handymen and cleaners as you like. Nor is there an end to the noise-canceling headphones or smart home technologies you can buy. Feel like having an apartment in Paris or a villa in Tuscany for a while? Tap, tap, tap, done. Don’t feel like walking, but want some fresh air? Here, have an e-scooter. Don’t worry, you can dump it anywhere when you get bored of it…
At the same time, there is a growing number of people, even in rich countries, who are subject to food poverty (4+ million adults and children in the UK alone). This year alone, more than 700,000 children will die globally from diarrheal diseases, illnesses we’ve long been able to efficiently and cheaply combat. Or, if these examples seem too radical and unpleasant, consider the now very normal case of single parenthood. How many innovations, apps, and new services are directed towards this group, particularly when compared to the number of such that are targeted to people like… well, me – middle-aged, middle-class, melanin-poor but means-having men?
The fact of the matter is that although we rarely discuss it, innovation isn’t free from bias, nor is it unaffected by privilege. Venture capital flows most freely to white or Asian young men with engineering degrees from the top schools in the US and the UK. The attention economy of innovation is focused on a select few cities deemed “most innovative” by way of self-fulfilling prophecy. Whilst inequality deepens, the world’s most innovative organizations (as selected by the business journalists who would very much like to join one) battle for the attention and the Apple Pay wallets of the top 15% – and those willing to get payday loans to emulate them.
In part all of this is understandable. Companies have to go where the money is, and prefer customers who have plenty of it. Young men create startups that solve the problems that they themselves see and experience, or create products that they themselves would wish to use and buy. On a micro level, there is little to criticize, as companies should be allowed to target the clients they want to target, and work on the solutions they wish to work on. The challenge is how we, as a society, deal with such skews and biases.
This, as innovation isn’t just a magic machine that creates fun new things for us. It is a human system, and today one that commands great resources and a lot of attention. Even though it is exceptionally difficult to exactly assess the total amount of annual global innovation expenditure, I have taken available data (from e.g. the OECD) and come to a minimum sum of 3,000,000,000,000 USD. That is three trillion US dollars, or about 2,5 trillion British pounds. The actual sum is in all likelihood far greater than this, and could be at least a trillion higher – in either currency. The attention innovation garners, be it in politics, media, or any other arena, is likewise massive. For any comparable system, it would be natural that there was a rigorous, probing debate about the impact such a system, particularly if unchecked, has. Just compare the debates we’re currently having about Facebook and Twitter. Curiously, when it comes to innovation we’ve been very quiet.
What the world needs now, then, is not just innovation-as-usual, but rather innovation critique. Not the wholesale condemnation of innovation, as this is still our most potent weapon in the war against the wicked problems that challenge our life, our societies, and our world, and this makes innovation far too important not to discuss, not to critique, not to take to task. Not just because we spend so much time and money on it, but because it is the one thing that can truly help us to survive as a species. Yet, if we keep believing in it as a god, and trust blindly in it, we are not doing it justice.
We laugh at the cargo cults of Melanesia, who built make-believe airports to try to attract more care packages dropped from US airplanes. Yet our way of talking about innovation is very similar. We think that all we need to do is to go through the motions, repeat the incantations to St Jobs and St Musk, do the rituals of the business model canvas and present offerings to the lean startup methodology, and that good things will come to pass. Yet innovation is not a god, and cannot be appeased simply by repeating the motions that books from US business schools prescribe. Still, countless corporation today think that innovation is to do a particular rain dance, choreographed by innovation gurus. What they and society at large seem to miss is that by doing so, we’ve abdicated out innovation agency to books and gurus who have no understanding of the context we’re in. Nor, necessarily, a desire to make the world a better place for anyone except themselves…
What is needed today, then, is not more talk about innovation – there is plenty enough already. Too many books, too many tweets, to many inane LinkedIn-groups. What is needed is a better innovation discourse. One that doesn’t just celebrate everything that everyone else in celebrating. One that takes inputs into consideration, and which looks critically at issues such as for whom people are trying to innovate. Not to condemn, nor to belittle, but in a way that requires a living, vigorous conversation about what innovation can be, at its very best.
We need innovation. As consumers, as organizations, as a society. Yet we also need to see that not all innovation is created equal. There is bad innovation out there, and pointless innovation, and worthless innovation to boot. There’s innovation that costs a lot, yet only benefits a tiny minority of humanity, all whilst far more deserving groups remain marginalized and unserved. Our world today requires an innovation discourse that owns up to this fact, and which can be honest about the challenges that remain.
It is easy to love innovation. What’s not to love? Today, however, this love needs to be tempered with a seriousness of purpose. Innovation is too important to be left only to the pundits, and too consequential to be squandered on only those privileged few who are already living lives of luxury. There are simply too many problems that are going unsolved, too much value left to be created, for us to be content with an innovation discourse focused on self-congratulation and hailing yet another e-scooter startup. We can do better – for ourselves, for our societies, and for innovation. Innovation critique, and a more rigorous debate on what innovation resources should be focused on, will be the first steps taking us there.