Friday, 1 October 2010

Innovation - always a good thing?

Businesses, colleges, quangos, and government departments always aspire to innovate. Innovation is one of those words that seems to have no negative connotations - redolent of creativity, modernity, flexibility, responsiveness, and other buzzwords that offer similarly positive but essentially vague promises.

Of course innovation is a good thing, but, and this is my point, not in principle. A new product, system, policy, or piece of software may well be innovatory, in the sense that it breaks new ground technically, or generally does something or offers something that has never been done or offered before. But none of those qualities guarantee that the innovation is useful or productive.

Let's look at some examples. Utility companies, providing gas, electricity or phone services, continually bombard us with junkmail, text messages, or even personal callers, offering us 'new' payment packages, through which we may be able to save money. These packages are described as new and innovatory 'products', through which their services are being brought to a competititve market place. My point is that they may well be new and innovatory in some sense to do with the range of types of payment package on offer, but in fact they clutter up the market place so that it is actually harder for consumers to find the way to pay that suits them best. Far from being useful, they make life more difficult for consumers.

Most people agree that the world recession was caused by some of the banks behaving like gambling consortia. One of the ways they brought about the crash was by innovating. I've heard these innovations also described as 'products': they offered new types of
investment opportunity, based not on funding useful economic activity, but on the buying and selling of investment risk. These products may have been innovatory, but they also helped inflate the bubble that when it burst brought about the present financial crisis across the world.

In the world of policymaking, we have the intractable conundrum that while the most important social, political and economic problems are not inherently solvable in the short term, policy is expected to be developed and implemented within the lifetime of a government, ie 5 years maximum. New ministers want to make an impact quickly, so they are tempted towards 'innovatory' policies, not because they are useful or they are workable in practice, but because they sound good and give the impression that the minister is active and hands-on. This syndrome, of course is found not just within national and local government, but in all types of organisation, among senior and middle managers, who routinely change jobs more and more frequently. In the early days of New Labour, in the late 90s, I read this, written by a government adviser: 'Anyone who stays for more than two years in an organisation becomes a drag on that organisation.'

This kind of inanity represents tunnel vision about the future: anything new is good, anything old is bad. This is the language and thinking of thoughtless and irresponsible advertising agencies and snake-oil sellers. Innovation can get a bad name very easily, and that would be disastrous, because we need new ideas and inventions to help us solve the huge problems we face in relation to climate change, world poverty and inequality.

All new ideas should be welcomed, but not implemented until they have been evaluated for their utility: do they work, will they improve things, are they practicable and affordable, will they have any unintended side-effects? Don't hold your breath.

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