Innovation Begins And Ends In Idealism29 May, 2015 / Articles
When we we talk about innovation in business, or economic development, or in regions or countries, we are talking about doing work in the actual, real world. That is, we think of innovation as being about business, and capital and commerce, and growth. And, of course, that is how we find mutual ground to talk about innovation: We wish to do something new, or better, or different in such a way as to create — generally speaking — economic value.
The reason we think this way is because economic and business terms are as a rule the only common language we have. So when we want to have a conversation about innovation, we have that conversation in economic terms. And that way of speaking is a distinctly misleading and dangerous way to consider the power of innovation, because it is a dismally incomplete duality.
In fact, innovation is found in idealism, in the notion that we all live and work — and prosper — when we are focused on making the world a better place. There is, in fact, a thing out there that we call the economy; but this economy is made up of human beings, not stuff, and it runs on the basis of human relationships, not numbers — even though because of our limitations we default to numbers when we talk about it. But if we are to really understand and harness the power of innovation in systems, we must understand that its purpose should be expressed in terms related to happiness, integrity, fulfillment, and shared responsibilities, as much as ROI, or efficiency, or patents. Because to the degree we focus on the latter elements of innovation — the so-called business measures — we will miss absolutely the very things we need be mindful of in human systems like economies.
Somewhere, some time, some place, duality entered into our world. We were forced into a choice between this or that. We were simply no longer capable of a nuanced and answer to complex questions. But innovation — the science of how systems become innovative — simply demands this nuanced way of thinking. It is both obvious and counter-intuitive. At the same time.
This is a concept business people often have trouble with, especially those who have been successful at the business of business.
When Adam Smith wrote The Wealth of Nations he captured in a very powerful way the empirical, rational, explicit, measurable, controllable dimensions of capitalism. Certainly, he understood pin manufacturing. He explicated a means of controlling nature (and human beings) in a way that is very efficient and highly effective, and which can lead to many good outcomes: cheap cars, nice TVs, consistently sized nails, fresh bananas in the supermarket. And so on. But we tend to forget that Smith also wrote The Theory of Moral Sentiments . . . the other side of the coin. And while Smith may very well be seen as the father of free-market capitalism, he is equally a parent to understanding human emotions, human values and human ambition. He worked both sides of the street. That may very well account for the innovative thinking and ideas he brought to the world — his holistic understanding of human systems.
And this may point toward an answer to the question of why innovation is so difficult and mysterious and elusive and . . . fuzzy.
What we have done increasingly in the modern world is focus nearly exclusively on the production side of the equation (the empirical) and we have neglected the human side of the equation (the non-empirical). We can see what happens when we engage in business and those who win at this system think it’s pretty good; those who lose think it a bit less attractive. But both views are incomplete, and it’s the incompleteness that is the real problem. It’s “either/or” thinking, a “this, not that” episteme that governs our thinking so powerfully that we are unable to even conceive of a world where both truths — the productive and the human —might be equally true at the same time. So, we operate in a state of being incomplete, and we work to make our half “right” and the other half “wrong.” And in operating this way, we are nearly certain to kill innovation.
The Rainforest metaphor which we use in our innovation work operates to capture the inherent contradiction of two states of being; it contrasts the biological power and inventiveness of a random, uncontrolled weed-infested environment with the “farm” — a production-oriented, highly efficient, mono-culture. The metaphor suggests this:
If you are doing stuff in the world, very likely you are doing it like a farm: you are digging rows, planting precisely, killing weeds, and managing production to the Nth degree of efficiency. That’s fine, but it’s incomplete, and very, very unlikely to lead to innovation. You need to understand — in your thinking — that when you practice “farming” to the exclusion of equally accounting for “the Rainforest” you are doomed to an unsustainable mindset.
This is where innovation comes from — the ability to bring together seemingly contradictory or conflicting points of view and approaches to the world ; because both are necessary, and each by itself is incomplete. Consider the astonishing contradictions between classical and quantum physics. Different rules, different game, different physical properties. You cannot make sense of the quantum world using classical physics. But for the world to exist, both quantum and classical laws must operate simultaneously. The keyboard on which these words are being typed is dependent on both worlds — quantum and classical — operating at the same time. The fact that we think and live and experience the world solely on the basis of classical physics does not mean that the quantum world isn’t there, and equally as critical to the way things function. The Holy Grail of science is to find the “unifying theory” that binds classical and quantum. The Holy Grail of innovation is to bind and unify the empirical and non-empirical in economics and human systems.
What doing innovation requires is to understand and embrace the simple notion that human ecosystems — things like universities, or businesses or countries — are governed equally by empirical things like numbers, budgets, buildings, projections, and plans, as by human interactions, relationships, emotions, extra-rational motivations and randomness. Both. In fact, all organizations are complex systems and in order to lead and manage them in ways that are meaningful (rather than just productive) the human side — the complex system side — the non-empirical, the random, the unpredictable, the serendipitous are vital, albeit a little less accessible to the literally minded. The real path to productivity is likely to be via various empirical methods; but the route to innovation, meaning, integrity and a holistic interaction between the human and the non-human is to incorporate an understanding of the principles of the Rainforest. And a fully functioning, fully realized, meaningful world, organization, or community needs to account for —to unify — both, equally. At the same time.
So, what’s all this got to do with idealism? The answer lies in why we do innovation, or seek to be more innovative. Idealism in innovation is grounded in the notion that so long as economic development is grounded in the notion of growth, it is simply unsustainable, from both a realistic and an idealistic perspective. It is only when we think about the world as a finite, shared space — one for which we have an abiding responsibility — that innovation really begins to make sense. That is because we need to understand economies as holistic, sustainable processes that exist inside of an actual physical world for which we have certain human accountabilities. And we need to do this in a way that, while human-centric as humans are likely to be, accounts for the integrity of the non-human physical space. When we do that, we necessarily are incorporating both the rainforest and the farm, the non-empirical and the empirical, the meaningful and the factual.
And this is the space where innovation lives.