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Innovation doesn’t need to be the next Us vs Them battle

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The world seems to get more polarised every day. In all facets of life, collectively we focus on the extremes setting up an ‘Us v. Them’ battle that is self-defeating and ultimately unproductive. Rather than looking for commonality, as humans we seem determined to see only the differences.

This article was originally published through The Future Shapers.

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We only have to look at the world of politics and governance in 2017 to see how ineffective this mindset is towards achieving long-term objectives. Unfortunately, with the growing concern that innovation has become overhyped and lost its meaning, innovation appears to be the next arena to become an inevitable Us v. Them battle.

On the one side we have a relatively recent movement, The Maintainers, that formed in 2015 in part in response to Walter Isaacson’s book, The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.  The Maintainers ‘is a global, interdisciplinary research network that takes a different approach, one whose conceptual starting point was a playful proposal for a counter-volume to Isaacson’s that could be titled The Maintainers: How a Group of Bureaucrats, Standards Engineers, and Introverts Made Technologies That Kind of Work Most of the Time. Network members come from a variety of fields, including academic historians and social scientists, as well as artists, activists, engineers, and business leaders.  All share an interest in the concepts of maintenance, infrastructure, repair, and the myriad forms of labor and expertise that sustain our human-built world.’

Rather than hailing technological innovation as the primary benefit of society, The Maintainers seek to celebrate the people and labour that keep our world moving forward – both from a technical and non-technical perspective – while ‘innovation’ is happening. They champion the workers that maintain your current technology (TV, mobile phone, computer), the workers that maintain your office, the workers that maintain society’s infrastructure (roads and bridges, communications, etc) and the list goes on. They are tired of the hero worship lavished on ‘innovators’ and ‘innovations’ when the vast majority of people are more significantly affected by the maintenance of the infrastructure and technology we have today than the technological innovations being hailed.

I share many of their concerns about the loss of perspective and agree we can get caught up in the excitement of ‘innovation’ and its ‘revolutionary’ and ‘disruptive’ qualities and lose objectivity. You only have to remember the hype around the Segway which was supposed to revolutionise transportation but has instead become a niche tourist activity, to be reminded that failure to critically evaluate the definition and benefit of a proposed innovation can contribute to a lack of objective evaluation. Fellow Future Shaper contributor Adi Gaskell recently wrote about the risk of doublethink in innovation and the need for us as individuals and organisations to be honest about our innovation successes and failures and to report our results objectively and honestly. Therefore, I understand when concerns are raised about the seeming hero worship of innovation.

Yet, I can’t help but think that setting it up as an Us v. Them battle harms both sides. In one of their early posts, Hail the Maintainers, Andrew Russell, Dean and Professor in the College of Arts & Sciences at SUNY, and Lee Vinsel, assistant professor of science and technology studies at the Stevens Institute of Technology, argued that ‘technology is not innovation.’ I agree, but equally ‘innovation is not technology’.

Read the full article at The Future Shapers.

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