Is Innovation Always Progress?

Scott Lewis, Brightworks CEOBy Scott Lewis

 Brightworks CEO

Earlier this month, I had the opportunity to attend the Aspen Institute’s Global Forum on the Culture of Innovation, co-presented by The Urban Land Institute. The Culture of Innovation struck me as a fantastic topic to explore, since we are living in an era challenged to reinvent itself before it implodes under the obsolete economic paradigm of the first industrial revolution. As I arrived, I thirsted for inspiration and new ideas to fuel my own efforts as an entrepreneur, employer, and would-be economic innovator.  The Forum offered morsels of genuine insight – particularly from Fast Company founder Alan Webber, himself a walking embodiment of thinking outside the box (or realizing there is no box).  IDEO’s Fred Dust also offered some unique and interesting perspectives that enlivened the event.  There was much talk of livability in cities, of fostering innovation to drive economic development, and of the future of office culture in a mobile society.

But what struck me most remarkably was the almost entire absence of any serious talk about sustainability.  Sure, I’m a sustainability guy, so my filters are a little hyper-attuned.  But if your ship has a hole in the hull and is taking on water, what they’re serving in the galley that night is sort of beside the point.

When the subject is culture and innovation, you’d think someone would talk about sustainability since the planet is besieged by the growing social, political, and economic impacts of climate change and resource scarcity. Where were Bill McDonough or William Kunstler when you need them?  (…and trust me, I’ve heard from both of them enough to be constantly on the watch for new voices to keep the momentum moving forward!)

Urgent needs for innovation

NOAA:  Significant Weather Events for Summer 2012

Significant weather events, summer 2012. Image via NOAA.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) just reported that July 2012 was the hottest month in the lower 48 states since the government started keeping temperature records in 1895.  The hot July also contributed to the hottest 12-month period ever recorded in the United States.

For this reason, when I hear the words “Culture of Innovation,” here are some of the questions that spring to mind for me:

  • How can we change the way science is performed to accelerate the commercialization of new clean tech and renewable energy opportunities?
  • If it’s true that we can meet all our energy needs for years to come with wind, water and solar energy, then what cultural momentum enables us to accept natural gas extraction that creates earthquakes in Ohio or coal extraction that literally dumps mountaintops in Appalachia into nearby streams?

The forum was full of smart, well-intended people, offering clever observations and trading pithy anecdotes.  It had good energy and was above the average in the ratio of topics that could actually hold your attention for more than fifteen minutes before you check your email on your phone.  The problem wasn’t smart people, or good topics – the conference had plenty of both.  The problem was deeper than that.

Separating innovation from progress

On the flight home, it finally struck me that “culture and innovation,” like integrated design or many of the other catchphrases of our day, are content neutral.  In other words, we ballyhoo innovation without always ensuring that the outcomes of innovation are solving real issues.  We can innovate better ways to clear-cut the rainforest faster and cheaper.  But should we celebrate that?  We can create a more interconnected culture that creates jobs.  But what’s the point if only the young and the educated benefit?  A faster car to nowhere might be fun and cool, but in the end, if you end up where you started, what good is it?

The challenge of our time is indeed a challenge of culture and innovation.  But we must direct these levers of change to this defining issue: creating a truly sustainable future that protects and restores the ecological fabric of our planet while providing lasting prosperity for all.

This may sound like a lofty goal, but what could be more important?  Until this kind of issue appears at events like the Global Forum on the Culture of Innovation, such events will remain interesting but unimportant.  And the power of our collective genius will fail to move us forward.

2 Comments to “Is Innovation Always Progress?”

  1. Scott,
    It seems we’re continually solving the wrong problem. Many of us clearly understand the serious implications of all the impacts associated with climate change, yet talking about that and posing solutions doesn’t engender the positive reaction and support we seek. Perhaps we need a Forum on Basic Values, to see if we can drill down to what motivates responsible behaviour.
    Peter Dobrovolny

    • Basic Values are a big part of it, for sure, Peter. Thanks for the astute observation. To me, one of the interesting challenges is getting people to connect values (and beliefs) with behavior. I think there is a time-delay factor: if you can do something now that gives you postive feedback (drive a fancy car that guzzles gas) but it has an impact that is time delayed (climate change), for many people, the impact gets discounted to zero, and doesn’t affect your behavior. What to do about that, other than internalizing external costs, which requires a fundamentally corrupt regulatory system to work property (hence, don’t hold your breath), is one of the great questions of our time.

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