Enabling Innovation: The Role of Systems and Chaos

We have come to love Innovation as the engine of growth and progress. Being innovative is no longer a pejorative, but a compliment; even totalitarian Governments set up innovation ecosystems and Analysts put innovation premium on company stocks. The Corporations want to reinvent themselves as colourful innovation hubs, the universities justify drawing public money for they bring about innovation, and it is not unusual for entrepreneurs in India to pray in front of an idol so that they can be more innovative. In short, innovation is eating the world - and, everyone, with power and money, wants to bring about innovation.

As we celebrate innovation in conferences, it is easy to forget innovation is usually a complex affair. We love to speak about magical discoveries: A naked Archimedes running through the streets as he discovered his law, Galileo figuring out the secrets of the pendulum in one night after observing the Cathedral's chandelier swinging about, Darwin's great insight hitting him at a moment of reading Malthus, so on and so forth. But, each of these stories, as we know now, were invented later: The process of discovery is longer and more twisted than any of these stories suggest. Even these brilliant and epoch-making scientists were talking to others, making mistakes and failing over and over again, before finally making sense of it all. And, indeed, innovation, which is a process of applying these discoveries into the context of use, is even more so: It is hardly an input-output process that our discussions make it look like.

Moreover, innovation is often a fringe affair. Like the golden rule of all newspaper stories being that of men biting dogs, one could almost certainly surmise that the innovators are usually not the ones who talk about making innovations. It is hard to know how and when you make innovation, and besides, innovations are, by definition, disruptive (I shall come to the distinction of incremental and disruptive innovation shortly). If innovation is making no one uncomfortable, is it innovation at all? Therefore, being suspicious of all the celebration of innovation - by universities, governments, businesses and banks - is common sense: They are calling something innovation which it is not.

Which brings me to this question of incremental and disruptive innovation, so neatly formulated by Clayton Christensen and his followers. One has to give credit to them for making innovation such a cool thing, one that even powers-that-be can live with. However, while putting innovation at the heart of value creation, they have also done two other things. First, they have expropriated the label 'innovation' to slap it around everything that the corporations do, making redundant words such as 'improvement' or even 'tinkering'. Second, by making 'disruption' a feature of innovation - and using it in a narrow context of creating new consumers - they took away the discomfort out of disruption, and made it a bottled and homogenised genie. So, anything to do with change became 'innovation', which can be implemented top-down and stopped and started at will, working inside the market forces rather than outside it. This was a great one to make innovation popular and meaningless.

On the other hand, historical reading of innovation paints a different picture: Innovative 'ecosystems' flourished not at will, but unexpectedly; the powers-that-be did not decree them, but, more often, tolerated them; they were brought about by intermingling, rather than through enforcing homogeneous communities (such as that of alumni of elite schools, who would have very similar life experiences); they happened at a time usually when a disadvantaged community was in ascendancy, and they were suddenly enabled to sit at the same table as the privileged one; and their champions were people who were essentially outcasts. And, for this mythology of great universities and schools leading innovation, much can be said, but never better than F M Conford's summary of Cambridge culture: "Nothing must be done for the first time". Post-War America made a virtue of a University-Military complex, which created the tools that spawned innovation by enabling the fringe, but it is easy to forget the fringe and see innovation purely in terms of infrastructure.

Innovation is thus, I shall argue, redefined and rendered meaningless in the current use. One of the great capabilities of the capitalist system has been to invent new demands - who would have wanted to shell out a fortune to drink liquid nitrogen, or to preserve our heads in cryogenic liquid after death, a couple of generations ago - and the i-word has been expropriated and applied in that limited context. Hence, it is no surprise that we continue to create more problems than we solve: Tinkering gets more credit than solving great problems (Peter Drucker, in his observation that the ATMs are the only innovation since the 70s worth mentioning, was almost right - as I would like to add the GPS) and disruption has lost meaning outside its narrow commercial sense.

All of this is counter-productive. The historical experience demands that we create safe and diverse spaces if we really want innovation; but instead, the current approach to innovation encourages institutional expropriation of the word, and hands over the initiative to the consultants who know how to spend Government monies, but not much else. The ideas such as Universal Basic Income are consigned to the socialist realm, and Prime Ministers go around clamping on immigrants and demanding the 'best and the brightest', turning the ideas of diversity and safety on its head, creating a global Elite (I use the term against protestations of journals such as The Economist, which claims that there is nothing called an 'Elite' as it is not a homogeneous category) that claim to have a monopoly of ideas. This is anti-innovation, because not just this is wrong, but this means that if you are not an elite and have something in your mind, it is not an idea. We already know, this is not how history turns out to be.


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