It is the buzz word. Innovation. And in a world of accelerated acceleration, unless you are innovating you are going to be left behind. For the most part. (I would like my beach vistas and forest walks to be left as is, thank you.)
But like any word ‘de jour’, we humans can cavalierly throw Innovation like a blanket across most anything, without actually questioning what it actually means, when it might apply, and who is really doing it.
We have a world in crisis. One could argue that we have always had a world in crisis. What cannot be argued is the rate of change, which is generally accelerating. (Some things are stagnating or decelerating. Incumbent political parties, most corporations, democratic systems for example.)
Level 1 Innovation: Incremental Innovation
Just to keep the lights on, to maintain the status quo, we need to keep innovating. In any natural system, stasis is akin to decline.
This type of innovation is a response to the forces of increased population, decreased wages, increased automation, increased wealth disparity and climate change. JUST to managed existence. LED lighting might come into this category. Vertical farming would be another example. Creating a new app to do a thing like turn the lights off at home when we are out would be another example. (Most app’s would fit into this category.) Facebook, Airbnb and Ebay all live here.
Level 2 Innovation: Disruptive Innovation
Disruptive innovation changes the direction of human possibility (for good or evil). Driverless cars/drones/weapons might fit into this category. Massive deployment of distributed renewable energy sources would also be included here. Effective cryptocurrencies would have a place. The ability for a full participatory democracy might go in this category if anyone creates it. The full deployment of AI. The birth control pill. A computer in your pocket.
Level 3 Innovation: Transformative Innovation
This type of innovation shifts the needle of human well being towards a regenerative culture. It is hard to find. Indeed you might not be able to find it at all, because almost all of our effort is focused on Level 1 innovation, with some Level 2. The creation of magnetic tape that has led to the digital age is a Level 3 innovation. Advanced materials science would be another area. Restoring muscle movement in paralysed patients would be another. A digital currency that enables 100% flow transparency would be another. (Where every transaction is recorded and acknowledged, removing black markets, blackmail, tax fraud and finance of politicians. Note there would be consequences to this type of currency as well.)
Bucky Fuller said that often our best innovation for livingry resulted from our attempts at being better at killingry.
Or as in Goethe’s Faust, Mephistopheles said. “I am the part of that power which constantly wants to do evil and constantly generates good.”
The side effects of humans attempts to be more powerful, more accumulative of wealth, to extract ever more without any consideration of the consequences, can become the creation of something good, if not in its own right, then by the consequences it unleashes into the system. (Including civic uprising and the ability to do that now more effectively with social media.)
Bucky also challenged us to go for the main effects and not the side effects (precession)…to build a world that supports 100% of humanity, without ecological offense or the disadvantage of anyone.
Imagine if we focused the remarkable human capacity towards this instead of towards returning a profit for our shareholders, which should be a side effect and not the main goal?
Imagine if instead of going for the easy Level 1, some of us came together to collaborate on Level 3? On really solving some of humans most intractable problems towards a future that works for everyone? There are organisations, like Xprize, who are focused on positively changing the lives of millions.
In order for us to engage in this type of transformative thinking, we, the innovators, need to think about everything very differently than we have to date. All of the assumptions we make about almost everything needs to be challenged. Even the sacred cows of monetisation, finance, ownership, organisational design, governance…the very bedrock that we rarely question, must be examined. All from the frame of ‘enough to go around’, ‘more is not always better’, ‘growth is not always the solution,’ and ‘people, given the right environment, are generally good.’
Transformative innovation is rare for many reasons, including a very heavy lobby from the current incumbencies who do not want to see their advantage diminished.This includes politics, the fossil fuel industry, the armaments industries, big media, the big pharma companies, and of course our financial institutions.
But nature will always have the upper hand. And nature knows transformation. She will kick us screaming across the line if we have a voice left to scream.
In a world breaking down transformative innovation is being called for. (And that doesn’t mean finding a replacement planet to inhabit.) Do we humans have the will to engage and transform our current systems (political, monetary, finance, justice, governance, energy, education, legal) or do we do what we have always done, and wait until the threshold of possibility has been removed and we are reduced to zero?
This article has been inspired by the work of Daniel Christian Wahl and David Martin.
Photo credit: Dominik Scythe (via unsplash)