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The age-old quip that “people love change, as long as everything stays the same” perfectly illustrates why genuine disruptive innovation is painstakingly difficult to achieve.
To look at the present culture of nurturing ‘innovation’, one would think all that is necessary to achieve innovation is to build the cliched sandboxes, ecosystems, superclusters, or discovery districts, or to host a series of innovation-themed conferences, summits, or other gatherings and that good ideas will inevitably ‘cross-pollinate’ and from there be painlessly implemented by a society of eager adopters.
However, the historical and contemporary realities of disruptive innovation are far different. Innovation necessarily involves disruption and disruption never goes unresisted, either by the forces that benefit from the status quo or the overwhelming power of inertia. Disruptive innovations cause inherent shifts in the patterns of power, wealth and income, and social status in the societies to which they are applied and so applying them is not just a matter of getting the best ideas to an enthusiastic market.
Invention, innovation, and diffusion
In looking at the entire picture, innovation is but one part of a broader process of transformation which involves invention, innovation, and diffusion. Invention is coming up with new ideas, innovation is applying those ideas to create better technologies or methods for doing things, and diffusion is the widespread adoption of those better technologies or methods. Of these three, diffusion is always the most difficult because it’s the one that spreads the backlash-generating disruptions.
In fact, the term Luddite, meaning someone who opposes new innovations, was coined because of the diffusion of labour-saving technologies during the Industrial Revolution. Labourers at the time destroyed the machinery that increased the efficiency of industrial processes but which they correctly feared would put them out of their existing jobs. They took their cue from the fictional Ned Ludd who was alleged to have destroyed two stocking frames and so became the historical archetype for machine destroyers.
The Luddite problem is not confined to the politics of the Industrial Revolution in early nineteenth-century Britain. We see the same fear and resistance right across the globe today but directed instead toward the computer-driven automation of manufacturing. This is the age-old problem revived in the present era. And it’s not just labour interests that resist new innovations, business interests that are disrupted are frequently just as opposed to whatever it is that disrupts them.
Labour and business interests are also among society’s most politically well-organized and so they often succeed in using their disproportionate influence to suppress, slow, or disincentivize disruptive innovation, despite it benefiting everyone in the long term.
Obviously, the Luddites during the Industrial Revolution were wrong not to embrace new technologies, as are those who fear the computer-based automation of today. But it is also a natural human impulse to protect one’s interests and appropriate to worry about how people’s lives will be affected across such wide-ranging industrial transformations.
Squaring this circle
So how do we make the kinds of deep disruptive innovations that will benefit everyone easier to cultivate and achieve?
The key to squaring this circle is a combination of improved institutional openness to facilitate disruptive innovations and improved social adaptation while transitioning through them.
First, improved institutional openness makes it more difficult for special and vested interests to control the agenda. Open institutions, like freer markets and non-interventionist governments, enable innovation and diffusion to occur at faster rates because they make it more difficult for special interests vested in preserving the status quo to prevent new innovations desired by consumers from sprouting up and diffusing.
Second, improved social adaptation helps evaporate the resistance toward changing things. Better provision of a universal social safety net through programs like a productivity-pegged basic income and flexicurity in the labour market will make the prospect of being disrupted far less terrifying and possibly even politically desirable.
Ultimately, if we as Nova Scotians want to claim the mantle of an innovation society, we will have grapple with the full set of realities that shape how disruptive innovations play out. That means improving the openness of our institutions and our social adaptation to change.
Matt Risser is a systems thinker, governance expert, political commentator and municipal councilor for the town Lunenburg, Nova Scotia