Initially, my first paragraph was about the amazing and baffling technological changes that have taken place in the last ten years, the creations that I really don’t understand, that have changed the way I live my life and made a pile of cash for their inventors and propagators. Innovation seemed to mean something complex, made by remote ‘innovators’; I figured I am clearly quick to think of myself as the recipient and consumer.
Then I remembered that long before my family even got a television, when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, I replied ‘an inventor!’ Life, pre-ten, was basic and hands-on; it wasn’t until later that I realised how silly I was, and readjusted my worldview. Yet there are inventors – all the incredible things that ease (or complicate) my passage through life were invented by human beings, and I have at times had good ideas and modified belongings to work better. So what happened during those formative years to make me lower my sights? Who actually are the innovators these days? How do life changes and moneymaking feature, and who benefits from the march of progress? Is innovation always progress, and is progress always positive? And why are we so addicted to novelty anyway?
When I was young my preconceptions about what was and wasn’t possible were only just being formed, so life was all about the endless ‘why?’ questions. Scott Berkun, a kind of life coach who writes about innovation, takes the DIY view that anyone can begin to innovate at any time – all you need to do is begin to ask questions; look for alternatives to the comfortable way you do things; and don’t assume it’s the only way in the world to get them done. He recommends that the questions be very basic, and says the starting point of a good inventor is asking good questions. He encourages us to remember that we see the world from a unique standpoint, that our own experience is valuable and that when we fail, we should accept the failure and use it to generate more questions. This, surely, is just the relationship that children have with the world of things and ideas. What an excellent comparison: Scott has missed a trick!
But we’re jumping the gun. Before I declare myself an inventor again and start rewriting my CV, we’d better acquaint ourselves with the lie of the land of big-money innovation, starting with a definition.
Getting down to business
So what is innovation? Well, the handy old internet brings up mostly business and economics discussions of the term, where it is a big topic and definitions vary. It is a process rather than a thing; innovation is distinct from invention. The difference is that invention is an idea, whereas innovation is the transformation of that idea into use. The idea can be a service or course of action as well as an object – it is the improvement and development of something in existence, and needs creativity and invention behind it – but it’s the successful bringing to life that is the critical part. It’s often a response to a problem – the identification of something lacking in what already exists, leaving a gap to be filled – but can just as easily be a small change or a new application of an existing idea as a big, radical step.
It’s the astute identification of a problem to solve that is the first hurdle, and beyond this it’s the definition of ‘successful bringing to life’ that determines what an innovation is. The existing economic analysis puts it in easy monetary terms: in order to be an innovation, something needs to increase value in some way (be it a product, or a system that increases productivity and efficiency), and make money for the innovator.
Innovating involves risk – companies that don’t innovate can get left behind – but an innovation is often an unknown quantity before it proves itself and can be expensive to develop, experiment with and support, running the risk of looking like a wrongheaded waste of money rather than progress. With moneymaking as the proof of the pudding, selling the idea and convincing a market of its value is integral, and doesn’t sit comfortably with what we might think genuine innovation is. Communications, marketing and advertising are all part of the innovation process, as is introducing it in the right way, so many new ideas are explained in terms of old paradigms; it seems we need associations to understand newness. Scott Berkun points out that many new ideas are given the names of older ideas – the web, the net, search engines – showing that every innovation is a new way of addressing and building on an existing idea. It’s also, of course, all about marketing: making new ideas more palatable and easier to grasp.
Mediation of innovation
Taking the ski industry as an example (since it’s the one I know best), there is innovation all over the place, but all mediated to the hilt. While the bigger brands are giving the journalists and retailers sneak previews of their ‘new’ collection six months before the public see them, they are themselves trying out the collection prior to that – a full year and a half before they’re on sale.
There are well over 350 different models of ski on sale in the UK, some of them completely new, and almost all of the others tweaked in some way to be better than they were last year. All contain a collection of exciting new made-up technologies, and come with a brochure full of technical drawings and explanations carefully pitched to excite but not overly confuse the buyer. Although many ideas are indeed groundbreaking, it is yearly buying cycles, the activities of the competition and the capacity for promotion that are the driving force of creating newness, or the illusion of newness.
Problem-solving features too, of course, but even then it’s often the solving of a problem that might not have been very prevalent before it was marketed along with the solution! Or the problem is the manufacturer’s rather than the consumer’s: ‘How do we drum up some excitement and make some money in a flat market?’ rather than ‘how do we make a ski that does something other skis don’t?’
I recently went to a launch of a whole new idea in ski design. The launch was top secret and late in the selling cycle – everyone else’s wares were already laid out in the marketplace. Journalists were flown to an exciting location with a lot of pomp, including the actual unveiling as a drum rolled and a sheet fell aside to show the ski behind it. In an industry suffering from a lean period, with many brands playing safe, it was a very calculated display of might. The ski innovation itself seemed rather secondary. Still, it will make cash for the brand, and therefore an innovation it is.
Innovating into the bin
This financially determined definition of innovation is pretty cynical, and means that a lot of stuff that is in reality just the successful marketing of novelty passes as innovation. A success in purely monetary terms, called a ‘good’, actually has no moral value. An interesting example of innovation that doesn’t look like we’d hope it to is planned obsolescence. Planned obsolescence began in the 1930s with mass production, the increased capacity to map consumer habits and the beginnings of disposability, and is the creation of products with a specific wear-out time to ensure that consumers will replace them. This is a kind of designing-down, and shows that innovation can be negative for the consumer. Everyone has surely had the experience of a product breaking suspiciously soon after the warranty runs out. It’s a risky game, though, as companies and products can easily get a bad name if they’re caught out making guaranteed landfill. More marketing has to be employed to give the impression of an object being well made and reliable, desirable enough that you do want to replace it with the same brand, or well priced so that you still feel like you got a bargain when it breaks. The negative innovation that creates products that break, or become undesirable, is made to look like positive innovation – time marching on, things getting better and better, an unrealistic impression of progress.
Dispose of disposables
Giles Slade, author of Made to Break: Technology and Obsolescence in America, writes that psychological obsolescence was invented in 1923 when the new boss of General Motors made a really bad Chevrolet, ran out of time to improve it, and so successfully styled it up and made it cheaper than the Ford Model T.
These days, he says, we’re getting to a crisis point where we need to change our attitudes to technology and disposability. The end point – the landfill – is going to force the issue. Mobile phones and iPods are built to last a year, and are full of cadmium, beryllium and lead. The biggest obsolescence coup is about to happen, according to Slade, with the changeover from analog to digital TV. Analog TVs have between five and ten pounds of lead in their cathode-ray tubes – and there are something like 300m of them in America about to be thrown away. The lead that will get into the groundwater will cause a serious biohazard, says Slade, and all because manufacturers lobbied to make their innovation – digital TV – obligatory. TVs are made to last five to seven years, and that’s apparently too long.
Apple run a take-back programme (manufacturers are required by law in some countries to run similar programmes) to dispose of obsolete goods safely, but these aren’t shouted-about yet. Slade believes that the current climate of environmental and technological interest will bring these issues to the fore, and that education – and presumably a big culture change – can reverse the trend.
Dragging innovation away from moneymaking
Actual need isn’t at the top of the list while moneymaking is the driving force; it’s all about want, and want is where the money is – it’s not lucrative to be innovating to solve needs. Another definition of innovation, however, also from the business sphere, is that innovation needn’t be quantified by moneymaking, but is always to do with reorganisation: it heralds significant change in how things are done and how lives are lived. It can be positive or negative, but it has to be different. By this definition Giles Slade’s culture change, if it became a successful transformation of the way things are valued and thought of, would itself be an innovation, positive to some, negative to others.
Invention with the route to market blocked
In areas where needs come before wants and genuine change is really urgent, like in environmental and humanitarian arenas, it seems that often the inventions exist but it’s the bringing them into the realm of changing lives that is tough. Good ideas are largely undernourished due to being unsupported or actively scuppered by big business or governments under the thumb of big business, who stand to lose out. The internet has helped give a voice to individuals, little companies and campaign groups, and it’s widely understood that we have the capacity to be living very differently, if true invention was able to get the routes to market it needs. There’s a tangible effect of this foot-dragging by those in charge – it makes many people disillusioned about the small things we, as consumers, are asked to do – the energy-efficient lightbulbs and bags for life that seem to attract a disproportionate amount of attention and try to throw the responsibility and guilt purely back on our own bad habits. In the binds of aid between countries there is more proof that the right solution – genuine innovation – is often deliberately ignored in order to secure revenue for the aid-giving country. For example, a country may give mechanical equipment as aid. The conditions of the aid will stipulate a particular manufacturer, so parts have to be bought from the same place for the rest of the item’s life. Simpler products that can be found, bought and maintained locally are not supported. Much genuine and positive innovation is down to individuals inspired by more humanistic needs – like Trevor Baylis and the wind-up radio, for example. He invented it in response to a programme about AIDS in Africa, and the need for a cheap, sustainable method of communicating the information. However, he seems conspicuous in his rarity – an innovator famous, and duly rewarded, for genuine humanitarian innovation.
However it’s defined, innovation has a value and therefore ownership issues come to the fore. Patents and innovations go hand in hand, and it’s generally agreed that patents create incentives – why would people want to spend time, cash and reputation on creating something that they couldn’t claim ownership over? The USA’s economic might is attributable to a robust patent system, and there are interesting examples of companies encouraging employee creativity by giving them a percentage of their work time to work on projects of their choosing. The increase in patents being taken out has been exponential for some time, and there is always concern that a slowdown might come. Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Pentagon’s Naval Air Warfare Center, recently published an article claiming that we are soon to enter a new dark age as innovation grinds to a halt. The unfashionable suggestion caused outrage, a spate of counter-articles and endless blogging. Only one small blog (that I saw) dared to write: ‘Ah well, it’ll give us a bit of time to appreciate what we’ve already invented!’ In the frenzy of analysing numbers of patents, encouraging innovation for its own sake, creating problems and things that break and false ideas of need, a little slowdown might be very timely!
Patents often cause ethical trouble, especially in the world of pharmaceuticals, where the profits of the companies that research and develop lifesaving drugs are always going to be at odds with the humanitarian hope that the drugs can be made available to all, not just those able to pay. Many interesting court cases are still being fought over the production and availability of cheap generic versions. It’s a complex argument, but it certainly proves that at present innovation is more closely tied to individual and company well-being – a capitalist logic – rather than to a general holistic progress of humanity.
Necessity, it’s often said, is the mother of invention. In the capitalist logic this is the problem-solving of the initial definition, but as we’ve seen, a lot of these necessities are invented and marketed. A friend of mine who drives often from Britain to India says that frequent drivers pray not to break down before Kazakhstan, because car parts cannot be bought and mechanics refuse to try. After Kazakhstan the mechanics just make do – necessity, a lack of other options and ingenuity all adding up to an inspiring kind of bush mechanics. Anything can and will be used, existing objects and ideas appropriated in new ways – one of the definitions of innovation, but a waste-minimising, personally engaged, DIY version, many miles from planned obsolescence.
Products that are popular these days are often home-made, crafted, effort-filled, made out of waste: tyre sandals, tin can sculptures, clever objects that are simple, in which the production process is visible. For me, much of the joy of travelling is down to seeing how people who have little really do value, reuse and recycle what they have. We admire this quality but live so far from it. Meanwhile we also value the occasional step back from the innovations we depend heavily on – a postcard instead of an email, a love-letter instead of a text.
The drive to innovate seems integral to human beings. The desire to learn, to see what’s possible, to get to the moon, dig stuff out of the ground, mess about with genes – there are no spheres of learning that don’t inspire someone to go in search of the truth or the end of the story. It leads to humankind’s greatest achievements and often looks like it might be our downfall.
Curiosity, plus our ability to think in an abstract way, our reason and imagination and capacity for fantasy, all come into play. Perhaps the desire to innovate is the next step after learning – taking your advantage into the social sphere, showing off, being more powerful, making more money, getting the advantage! But there is hopefully a more altruistic side to it too – identifying problems and wanting to solve them, moving your own lot on and maybe other people’s too.
The problems that the world faces are unique and new. We can’t (although we often try) look exclusively to the past for solutions. We have, I hope, the capacity to solve all of our problems through innovation – especially remembering that innovation can include new ways of doing things – we just don’t have the right intentions and politics yet to do it, and individual greed seems so often to stand in the way. In the meantime, it seems like a good start for me to remember that kid I was, believing I could be an inventor, and reclaim that kind of engagement with the world.