A Blog by Jonathan Low


Dec 13, 2018

The End of the Innovation Obsession

Contemporary civilization has tended to equate innovation with new technology, rather than a more holistic look at process and quality improvement.

One side benefit of the nascent skepticism about Silicon Valley is that that Big Tech-centric view is changing. JL

David Sax comments in the New York Times:

We are told that innovation is the most important force in our economy, the one thing we must get right or be left behind. That fear of missing out has led us to embrace the trappings of innovation over innovative ideas that may be simpler and more effective. This mind-set equates innovation with invention and implies that if you buy the new thing, you have innovated!True innovation isn’t just some magic invention. It is a continuing process of  improvement.
A year ago I stepped into the Samcheong Park Library in Seoul, South Korea, and saw the future. The simple building in a forested park had a nice selection of books, a cafe at its center and a small patio. Classical music played while patrons read, reclining on extra-deep window benches that had cushions to sit on and tables that slid over their laps so that they could sip coffee and eat cheesecake while gazing at the leaves changing colors outside. Seoul is one of the most modern cities in the world, a place suffused with the latest inescapable technology. This library was specifically designed as an antidote to that.
“What’s so innovative about that?” a friend who works for the library here in Toronto asked when I showed her pictures. Innovation to her meant digital technology, from drones and movie-streaming services and 3D printers, which the library was constantly showing off.
“Why couldn’t they both be innovative?” I asked.
We are told that innovation is the most important force in our economy, the one thing we must get right or be left behind. But that fear of missing out has led us to foolishly embrace the false trappings of innovation over truly innovative ideas that may be simpler and ultimately more effective. This mind-set equates innovation exclusively with invention and implies that if you just buy the new thing, voilà! You have innovated! Each year businesses, institutions and individuals run around like broken toy robots, trying to figure out their strategy for the latest buzzword promising salvation.
What’s your company’s plan to onboard wearables? How’s our Google Glass program coming? Where do you stand on Big Data? A.I.? Machine learning? How soon can we pivot to video? How many tablets should we buy? What’s your child’s school’s V.R. budget? Are you all in on Instagram? Snapchat? Do you even know what cryptocurrency is? Yeah, me neither. How much can we afford?

At best, this is a waste of time and money. Gadgets are procured, deployed and discarded. Resources are squandered as the technology’s actual capabilities fall short of its promise. People are forced to work at treadmills. Then everyone moves on. The drones stay grounded. The V.R. headset languishes in the box. Iced tea goes back to being iced tea and not some wildly speculative cryptocurrency mining scheme.
But at its worst, this approach to innovation can truly be destructive. Schools that hastily purchased tablets for students cut drama, music and sports programs to pay for devices with few proven benefits. Districts that adopted untested computerized voting machines have seen elections compromised. Companies that integrated artificial intelligence into the hiring process have actually reinforced gender and racial stereotypes. Publications that increased their focus on video content while slashing reporters, all in response to Facebook’s viewership numbers, later learned that these figures — the entire basis of their new business models — had been fudged.
Silicon Valley firms are not immune to this, even while deploying the fear of missing innovation as a sales tactic. They too need to please investors, customers and the media, which hangs on every news release, and so they traffic in their own illusions of innovation. They produce cool videos about blimps and solar planes sending Wi-Fi to remote villages in Africa (always Africa). They offer cryptic hints about flying cars, pizza drones and a variety of Facebook products no one cares about, from a video chat device that looks no different from a tablet running Skype (but with added data harvesting) to a version of the social network’s Messenger app built for children. The latter is among the most ill-considered, ill-timed ideas of our era.
True innovation isn’t just some magic carnival of invention, like a Steve Jobs keynote with a pretty toy at the end. It is a continuing process of gradual improvement and assessment that every institution and business experiences in some way. Often that actually means adopting ideas and tools that already exist but make sense in a new context, or even returning to methods that worked in the past. Adapted to the challenges of today, these rearview innovations have proved to be as transformative as novel technologies.

Look no farther than the streets of New York, which have been radically redesigned over the past decade to accommodate cyclists and pedestrians with bike lanes and car-free zones. These ideas aren’t new. They were espoused by city planners and activists more than half a century ago, when Robert Moses was crisscrossing the city with expressways, bulldozing neighborhoods in the name of the car’s transformational technology. At the time Jane Jacobs and other advocates of slower, friendlier streets were dismissed as Luddites. It took more than 50 years of evidence, accidents and political courage to realize what a colossal mistake the Moses approach was and to begin to undo that with proven ideas in people-centric urban planning that aim to bring cities back to those who live in them.
When you look at those cities, you’ll also find some of the most innovative solutions to the way we conduct commerce. Not one-hour delivery or meal kits on demand, but the boom in a parallel retail model that is decidedly social and human focused. The past decade has seen impressive nationwide growth in farmers markets, flea markets and independent bookstores, despite all the competition from larger, more efficient organizations online and offline. Even though these places are based on a model that harks back to the roots of human commerce, they are innovative precisely because they propose a valuable community alternative solution to the supermarket or shopping mall that dominates retail. This model has been so effective that Amazon is opening more bookstores and Walmart just announced concept stores that will include food halls, farmers markets, bike rentals and parks — the very things the company siphoned away from American towns.
Perhaps the best examples of rearward innovation are edible. The culinary story of the past several decades is dominated not by the scientific improvements we were promised, but by a return to food and drink’s more delicious past. Traditional cooking, craft beer, heirloom vegetables and grass-fed beef have brought food forward by turning back. We take this as gospel today, but during the 1980s, when pioneering artisan bakers like Nancy Silverton and Jim Lahey were trying to get the world to abandon Wonder bread for traditional sourdough, their ideas were radical and innovative, and ultimately changed the way many of us cook, shop and eat.
This type of reflective innovation requires courage, because it calls into question the assumption that newer is necessarily better. But increasingly, as our worship of Silicon Valley gives way to a growing sense of unease, we are asking those questions and innovating appropriately. Countless schools have restricted technology use to foster better learning. Elections officials in Virginia recently traded computerized voting machines for more secure paper ballots. And while e-reader sales have been tanking, Penguin just announced it would publish tiny printed books, meant to be read on the go. Small books, which have been around since Gutenberg set up his press, are an ideal solution for a market that demands both convenience and physicality.
These innovations aren’t mired in the past. They are solutions firmly focused on the future — not some technocentric version of it, where we invent our way to utopia, but a human-centric future that reflects where we’ve been, what we’ve learned and how we actually want to live. If that means we build more libraries in parks, then we are moving in the right direction.


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