Changing How the World Thinks

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Why innovation threatens progress

How to survive our path of destruction

Innovation2

Innovation is the hottest word in business and an ideology that reaches ever further into our lives. Not only does innovation-hype fail to deliver, but our obsession with the new distracts us from the work that matters most. Andrew L. Russell calls out the delusion and outlines how we can escape innovation’s path of destruction.

 

An old air conditioner, poorly installed and maintained, threw out sparks on a warm night in early September 2018. The damage from the fire that ensued would not have been so devastating if the building had a sprinkler system, or fire doors, or fire hoses. But the building had not received its full annual maintenance budget since 2014 and had even closed temporarily in 2015 when it could not afford to pay its cleaning and security staff—people we would today refer to as “essential workers.”

The building that burned was Brazil’s National Museum, located in a modest section of Rio de Janeiro. The National Museum was home to treasures of human civilization, including the oldest human remains found in the Americas, the first recordings of indigenous music, pre-Columbian artwork and textiles, a world-famous collection of crickets and grasshoppers, and a scientific library of nearly 500,000 books, documents, and papers. When the fire engulfed it, on that terrible night in 2018, scientists around the world joined Brazilians in expressions of shock and sadness at the loss of Latin America’s largest collection of natural history and anthropological artifacts.

The devastation could have been prevented by appropriate staffing, equipment, and maintenance—very basic elements of any modern building, especially those with valuable possessions. As far back as 2004, inspectors had warned about the hazards of exposed wires, peeling wall material, and other dangers that routine maintenance should have addressed. Paradoxically, the national government of Brazil, the patron of the National Museum, had both the funds and ambition to be perceived as modern. After all, this is the country that inscribes “ordem e progresso” ("order and progress") on its national flag, and had recently made major investments into infrastructure and construction in the more affluent and camera-friendly neighborhoods of Rio. The world witnessed the glimmering new venues Brazil built as host of the 2014 FIFA World Cup and the 2016 Summer Olympics.

To complement these monuments to Brazilian sport, Brazil’s cultural institutions likewise received significant investment in the preceding decade, including a $2 billion overhaul of Rio de Janeiro’s port district in advance of the 2016 Olympics. The centerpiece of the district is the Museum of Tomorrow, a stunning, futuristic building that opened in 2015 and challenged visitors to think about human history and the future of our planet. While the museum’s message and sparkling design dazzled visitors, critics worried that the attention and resources devoted to the Museum of Tomorrow ignored and compounded problems of Brazils’ past and present. Not only did the Museum of Tomorrow ignore the troubled history of slave trading at its site in Rio's port, it also diverted funds away from Brazil’s existing museums, which were sorely in need of maintenance and upkeep.

More than a simple instance of a burning-building-as-metaphor, the fire at the National Museum illustrates what’s at stake in investment decisions about two of the hottest topics in global technology: infrastructure and innovation. Brazilians made the decision to neglect the infrastructure of the National Museum, whilst pouring billions into idols of innovation. These decisions projected an image of progress to those who were watching the World Cup and Olympics; but when the National Museum burned, they also projected an unflattering truth about leaders who could have chosen to protect their cultural heritage, and to invest in the places and objects that connected citizens to past generations.

This tendency—a fetish for the new and neglect of the old—is what Lee Vinsel and I refer to as the “innovation delusion.” This delusion is most prevalent where people are enchanted by the belief that technology can fix all problems, and that the future—rather than the past or present—is most deserving of attention and resources. [EM1] Unfortunately, it is not confined to a few Brazilian bureaucrats; rather, the innovation delusion is a set of beliefs that are shared around the world, most notably in high-tech capitalist enterprises in Silicon Valley and their imitators. The conventional wisdom amongst the innovating classes is that it’s best to move fast and break things, to be a disruptor, and to attract eyeballs, clicks, and capital. For the people who afflicted by this delusion, innovation will solve all kinds of problems—technological, financial, social, and more.

Elites around the globe have succumbed to the innovation delusion, and the smoldering rubble of Brazil’s National Museum is only one example of the costs. Other examples include the trillions of dollars invested into self-driving cars that cannot navigate the reality of potholes and disrepair of ordinary streets; booming sales of so-called “ed tech” alongside depressed wages for teachers; and billionaires like Jeff Bezos blasting into space while public transportation earns a D- grade from the ASCE 2021 Report Card for American infrastructure. Although the innovation delusion has its origins in 20th century American consumer capitalism, the trend is unmistakably global—just like the related gaps in income and well-being between rich and poor that have been documented by Thomas Piketty, Angus Deaton & Anne Case, and many others.

The consequences can be felt in all walks of life. Despite the fact that economists such as Robert Gordon have documented declining rates of innovation since the 1970s, an obsession with innovation and shiny new objects occupies the fantasies of billionaires, policymakers, and ordinary citizens. At the same time, there is a widespread inability to recognize the importance of the dirty and difficult work that allows our technological civilization to keep hobbling along.

We can and must do better. We owe this much to past, current, and future generations. But with the Silicon Valley mindset and mania for innovation in such a dominant position, where do we start? Here are a few steps we must take if we are to survive innovation’s path of destruction.

 Step one: Recognize the differences between actual innovation and innovation-speak. Actual innovation is the novel combination of sources of supply, methods of production or organization, with a new product or into a new market, that yields a profitable outcome. Innovation is not invention, and actual innovation usually proceeds through incremental improvements, a fact that may disappoint people who prefer the drama of “a-ha!” moments. Innovation-speak, on the other hand, is a breathless flood of buzzwords spoken by tech bros and their enablers. It is often spoken in the dialect of fear, such as cries to fund AI and quantum computing before other countries (such as China) “win”—even though there’s very little public understanding of what AI or quantum computing do.

Step two: Articulate the values and visions that are cloaked by innovation-speak. Take “blitzscaling,” for example. This neologism is shorthand for an entrepreneur’s desire to grow a business very quickly, cancer-like, deliberately putting a priority on short-term market share and neglecting other values such as durability, quality, or sustainability. For many, the violence and mindlessness of “blitzscaling” will seem shallow or unwise. More charitably, it indicates a sense of urgency that may be warranted, or widely shared—for example in the distribution of emergency supplies. Surely there are ways to express these simple needs and desires without resorting to jargon coined by the power-hungry elites of Silicon Valley.

Step three: Appreciate the old, the mundane, the essential, and demand greater status and resources for those things. Of all of the lessons that we might have learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, this should be the most obvious and enduring. For billions of people around the world, the lines between health and illness consisted of simple cloth masks, underpaid “essential workers” such as nurses and grocery store clerks, and access to fresh air. Even in simpler times, the technologies we take for granted—the integrity of concrete, the reliability of rubber tires, the supply of electricity and gas—obviously are more crucial to our flourishing than a new social media app or a flashy digital gadget. So we should act like it, and accord more prestige and more resources to prosaic jobs, ordinary technologies, and the people who keep them working.

Step four: Embrace and advocate for a maintenance mindset. In The Innovation Delusion, we define three aspects to the maintenance mindset. The first is to appreciate that maintenance sustains success—just think of the proverb “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” In organizational settings, these sentiments can be quantified for easier communication to managers, through concepts such as downtime (the costs of broken equipment, like smoke detectors) or preventive maintenance. The second aspect of the maintenance mindset is that the cultural and managerial aspects are more challenging than technology. It’s usually simple to know how to fix a machine or ensure proper staffing; the difficulties come in persuading all members of an organization to support these priorities. Third, maintenance requires constant care—it’s a commitment to a set of practices, rather than a quick fix like a dose of medicine or a software upgrade. Tools abound to help stick to this commitment, from simple checklists to more elaborate databases and software.

Imagine if decision-makers in Brazil had thought through these four steps at any point before the devastating fire at the National Museum in September 2018. At a minimum, they might have realized the dire need to support appropriate staffing and safety equipment at the National Museum. They might even have funded it by shifting a little bit of money from the design of the Museum of Tomorrow.

Make no mistake: I believe there is an important place for innovation in many walks of life. For example: vaccines for COVID-19 have illustrated how actual innovation works, and the positive outcomes it can enable. But COVID-19 has underscored the importance of essential workers, especially those in the health care fields, as well as old and low-tech tools such as cloth masks and open windows. Or another example from the field of cultural heritage: professionals are eager to develop new ways to showcase the treasures of the past, and pay tribute to the wisdom and accomplishments of our ancestors.

But to be meaningful and lasting, commitments to essential workers, to taken-for-granted tools, and to established traditions must be backed by resources, and not merely by rhetoric. Joe Biden made this point with great clarity in 2012: “Don't tell me what you value. Show me your budget and I will tell you what you value.”

 

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