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👍👍 Too much of a good thing? 👎👎

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Here I am, throwing a gauntlet to the dark side of innovation. For those of you who have read my mailouts in the past, you are probably aware that while I am passionate about innovation, I am also highly critical of many innovation outcomes, or rather, I am critical of the lack of reflection and awareness. It seems, that there is an unchallenged assumption that innovation is a great thing, and that there are not many asking the questions whether there might be ‘too much of a good thing’ when it comes to innovation, whether there is a point at which the golden boy innovation turns over to the dark side.

The notion of ’the dark side of innovation’ first crystallised for me back in early 2009 when reading submissions to ‘The Future of Innovation’, a book in which my friend and colleague Dr Anna Trifilova and I wove together the thoughts of over 150 experts on, guess what, the future of innovation (there are over 400 contributions on the website!). Since then both my interest in and my concern about the dark side of innovation have increased. If I was feeling rather brave when first talking about it publicly at the International Conference of Engineering Design (CEID) in Copenhagen August 2011, it is now part of my mission to create greater awareness of innovation’s potential downsides.  (By the way, you can find a transcript of the presentation on our Wisdom page.)

I am wondering, how often are the following questions being asked:

  • Do we have too much innovation?
  • Do we have the right kind of innovation?
  • Do we have responsible innovation?

According to Karl Eric Sveiby, who has written one of the contributions to ‘The Future of Innovation’, there is a pro-innovation bias: only 0.2 % of innovation studies look at the indirect consequences of innovation.

With the hype that has built up around innovation over the past 10-15 years, there seems to be no questions of innovation.  It seems to have become an end in itself, and we often seem to innovate for the sake of it. We tend to be so excited by the prospect of what has become possible – through access to knowledge, unprecedented ability to connect between people and things, and new technologies that are the consequence of this, that we tend to forget to ask whether our innovation is also desirable and beneficial when considered from a systems or broader human development perspective. We are so keen to develop the next thing that we do not even implement our last innovation properly – can that be the best use of resources? I recall the excitement with which a colleague talked about the advent of 5G and all the benefit it would bring. I could hardly contain myself as I am not even able to sustain a phone call on my train journey from King’s Lynn to London (for orientation: Cambridge is the half-way point) as neither GPRS nor 3G or 4G are established sufficiently to facilitate that. And without any of these technologies fully supported (other than in big cities) they are already investing in the next?  How many systems are to be supported in parallel? It seems that haste, not speed is the order of the day.

While we have heard much about business model innovation and social innovation recently, it seems that most innovation activity and investment remains focused on products features and product systems – at least according to research undertaking by Larry Keeley, founder of the US-based Dublin Group. Not only does that create a plethora of products and products variations, it also does not seem the best investment as Keeley also found that value is created in very different places: Profit Models, Network Connections and Customer Experience. (You can find out more in his book ‘Ten Types Of Innovation’.)

It seems that in this hype around innovation we are still in pursuit of a better mousetrap, whereas the potential for creating value and really making a differences lies somewhere else entirely. Is it not intriguing that those managers who are generally extremely concerned about costs and efficiencies seem to sanction innovation that does not create value and, hence, wastes resources? I would call it a sever case of ‘that’s what we’ve always done’ and ‘lemmingitis’. Is the battle for consumers’ attention really won with more minor modifications and more functionality? If I am anything to go by (though of course I may not), this increased variety is often so confusing that I postpone purchasing decisions for as long as I possibly can.

I find the view of Patricia Yasmine Graf, a remarkable German product designer and social entrepreneur rather refreshing: she believes that designers have a fundamental responsibility to NOT create more things the world does not need.  You can read an interview with her here.

Indeed, my definition of design is that “Design is about giving shape to things through a conscious decision-making process”.  It is NOT doing things the way we have always done them because we have always done them that way. It is not choosing materials because they are readily available.  In my book design is about challenging everything, considering and exploring alternatives, about understanding implications and consequences, and about ensuring that all angles and perspectives have been taken into consideration.

If this is so, then it should not be surprising that we have not enough ‘good’ design! To consider alternatives and explore different possibilities required time, and that is something no one seem to have any more. We are lucky if we have enough time “to do”; for most of us there is not time left “to be”, or to think. Yet did you know that highly successful people, such as Warren Buffett, the CEO of one of the largest companies in the US, declares to have spent 80% of his career reading and thinking?

I would argue that if we want to innovate – innovation that creates value and has positive impact – we need time: time to reflect and mull things over, time for our brain to make connections we would consciously not make, that our brain could not make while fully engaged in ‘doing’. We should allow time to understand what we create, and the consequences.  We should spend time to consider whether we are chasing answers to the right questions – do the answers really matter? We should spend time to reflect of we are doing what we are doing because it is possible, or because it creates value and makes a difference.

Of course, one key question will always be: how do we know what good and bad innovation look like? To my delight I found that Geoff Mulgan has contemplated this question on behalf of NESTA, and produced an interesting White Paper proposing a framework that helps address this questions. As it says on NESTA’s website: “It  [the framework] recognises the inherent difficulties involved in assessing future possibilities, while arguing that intelligent judgements can guide allocations of money and the design of policies and regulations.” You can download the pdf here.

There are more things we can do to minimise the threat of the dark side of innovation, both rely critically on designers and developers.  The first is to design for repair instead of disposal. A company that is a living example of what this might look like is VAUDE, a company that sells outdoor clothing and equipment – including  various kits that will allow you to repair these products yourself.

The second is to provide inspiration by identifying more leading examples and case studies that show that it is possible to do things differently. This is one of the reasons I am volunteering as Director of Awards for Katerva, an NGO that is focused on ‘the identification, evaluation and acceleration of sustainable disruptive innovation’.  In my role I am exposed to an amazing variety of brilliant and exciting innovations that all share one thing in common: they aim to move us towards sustainability faster. Cleantech Rising is another organisation focused on spreading news on sustainability-focused organisations. As they say on their website, “Cleantech Rising sheds light on the world’s greatest environmental issues and the advanced technology to solve them. We make these technical innovations easy to understand and enjoyable to read. The shift to sustainability will lead to immense opportunities, if you’re at the forefront of the clean future.” You can read an interview with one of the founders, Zoheb Davar here.

A third way to minimise the rank side of innovation is to embrace the principles of the circular economy, an approach developed and promoted by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, amongst others. Their latest report, “Achieving ‘Growth Within’”, which was launched at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting in Davos in January 2017, identifies 10 circular innovation and investment themes. Using these as a springboard for innovation activities also helps address another aspect of the dark and wasteful side of innovation: innovation without direction or focus.

So, what are you going to do to make innovation’s light shine so brightly that there is no place for the dark side?

From ILF mailout 23rd February 2017

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