Monday, August 2, 2010

The Seduction of Innovation

Innovation is the watchword of our day. Listen to pundits on radios and televisions and you’ll hear a consistent message. We need innovative responses to urban poverty, the U.S. economy, and medical care. Name a hot topic, and you can find prominent spokespeople advocating the value of more innovation. Innovation has become our society’s default response to addressing social problems.

This is particularly true for our energy systems. Contemporary energy debates are littered with calls for more innovation. We need innovation because the United States is falling behind China in clean technology. We need innovation, we are told, in our collaborations between industry, government, and universities. We need innovation in small businesses, think tanks, and research institutions to generate the next generation of clean energy solutions.

On the surface, there seems to be little wrong with such claims. What is the problem with inventing better solutions, developing new technologies, or doing more with less? To take a position against innovation seems rather like being against puppies and apple pies. Well, to take this analogy further, puppies can pee on the floor and pie can make us fat, so perhaps such observations enable us to examine innovation more critically.

To put it bluntly, innovation is problematic because it has become a limiting perspective on the world around us. If you are a hammer, the world tends to look like a nail. Innovation has become our society’s hammer, and we are forgetting that we have other tools.

For example, appeals to innovation imply that we lack the knowledge, technologies, or skills to solve our problems. In today’s world, this is not always the case. We already know a great deal about how to address our energy problems. There are a wide variety of solutions we could implement today that require no innovation. We could pass a carbon tax, implement energy efficiency programs with existing technologies, and expand the distribution of renewable energy systems. None of these actions require innovation to implement. If we already know many things to do, then calls for innovation are problematic because they distract us from acting immediately on solutions already at our fingertips.

Another problem with innovation is that it advocates a particular set of relationships between government, the private sector, and the free market. In short, innovation is remarkably consistent with free-market principles, limited government, and a belief that the private sector will solve our problems. Innovation and neoliberalism complement each other to a surprising degree. However, this might not be the only set of relationships between government, markets, and industries that is beneficial. For example, many people have called for the U.S. to engage in a Manhattan or Apollo Project for renewable energy. The creation of the atomic bomb and the lunar mission, it should be remembered, were accomplished under a very different set of relationships between public and private than is popular in today’s rhetoric. Government officials directed large sources of capital, organized projects, and actively shaped the activities of hundreds of subcontractors. Centralized planning, rather than innovation, characterized these projects. Broadly speaking, such efforts succeeded and might work again. But the key point is that these projects were based on a different set of ideas about the right relations between public and private than are implicit in calls for innovation. An exclusive focus on innovation, therefore, diminishes the potential of other management approaches such as central planning to aid us in our efforts.

In sum, innovation is not a bad thing, but we need to use it more critically. In our current age, it is all too common to treat innovation as the solution to any problem. We would do much better if we retained a full set of tools and approaches for addressing issues. When the world calls for a hammer, we should use a hammer. But let’s not love the hammer so much that we turn the world into a nail.

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