Will Innovation Kill Us?

Sunday, August 5, 2018
First Aired: 
Sunday, November 15, 2015

What Is It

Innovation, be it social, economic, or technological, is often hailed as the panacea for all our troubles. Our obsession with innovation leads us to constantly want new things and to want them now. But past innovations are arguably the main reason for many of our current predicaments, which in turn creates a further need to innovate to solve those problems. So is innovation – and our obsession with it – ultimately a force for good or ill? Is our constant need to innovate a function of our biology, or just a product of various cultural forces? Can we ever escape the innovation loop? Should we try before it kills us? John and Ken find new ways to talk to Christian Seelos, co-author of Innovation and Scaling for Impact: How Effective Social Enterprises Do It.

Listening Notes

Will innovation kill us? Probably! says John. The innovations of the industrial revolution, for example, are to be blamed for climate change. But, Ken says, innovation is the key to surviving climate change, and in fact we need more innovation to thwart current problems. Life without the industrial revolution would be hardly recognizable. John acknowledges the benefits of innovation, but argues that innovation just creates new problems that require even more innovation to fix; the costs are too great. So, asks Ken, should we give up current innovations and modernity and go back to a quasi-prehistoric age? Not completely, answers John, but in certain areas we do need to scale back. Ken pushes back: innovation has negative unforeseen circumstances, but does that mean innovation is a bad thing? It’s the new motto: innovate or die! John thinks people fetishize innovation. We live in a state of planned obsolescence, with capitalism feeding off of innovation to quickly make products obsolete to then sell us even more things we don’t need. What about social innovation, asks Ken? It seems that if you are against innovation, you are against progress.

John and Ken welcome guest Christian Seelos, visiting scholar at the Stanford Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society, the Leo Tindemans Chair on Business Model Innovation and faculty at the Department of Economics and Business at KU Leuven (Belgium), and an academic visitor at Oxford University. He is also the author of the forthcoming book Innovation and Scaling for Impact: How Effective Social Enterprises Do It. Christian first explains that he was very interested in molecular biology and understanding diseases, and then he began to notice a widespread obsession with solutions and innovations. We keep adding layers of solutions onto problems until we are blind to them. What is the healthy balance between solution obsession and problem obsession? John asks Christian for his favorite example of an innovation with disastrous effects, and Christian speaks of the invention of antibiotics, where now we have bugs resistant to medicine and have to create even stronger or alternative medicine. Ken wonders whether hospitals are now a profoundly good thing, where the costs don’t even begin to outweigh the benefits, or whether they are more and more becoming places that cause more harm than they fix with things like superbugs.

A lot of innovation is necessary because we wait too long to solve the problems we already have, explains Christian. John notices that it seems that when thinking about innovation, most people do it from a personal perspective: “antibiotics are good for me,” rather than thinking 200 years down the line if they were in fact as good as were thought. Ken asks Christian that since innovations can have many unanticipated consequences, to then deal with those consequences we have to innovate more: is it the case that we are in a cycle of inescapable innovation? Christian answers that it seems so, and it also seems we live in a culture of fast innovation. What’s more, the current state of innovation is just like driving a car faster and faster - the result is that you are prone to make more mistakes, failures, and accidents, and the cost of accidents at higher speeds is greater than that at lower speeds. So we are stuck in a speed rhetoric noticeable in the public sector, in private organizations, and more. So do we need to slow down, asks Ken? Christian replies that the innovation process has to be more reflective, asking a broader set of questions and learning about potential side effects. Ken wonders: for a company in a highly competitive marketplace, the pressure to innovate is huge. Is slowing down even a possibility? Perhaps the solution, explains Christian, is not changing companies but thinking about more structure variation and allocating more resources to certain types of more patient organizations – b corporations, hybrid corporations, social enterprises – that can ask these broader questions.

John, Ken, and Christian welcome questions from the audience, and touch on topics like companies like Patagonia that try to be productive and yet protect the environment, whether we can limit the reach of innovation solely via legal measures, whether coercive measures are ever necessary or appropriate in curtailing the negative effects of innovation, and whether we can educate a future generation to be in a much more reflective mode in business schools.

  • Roving Philosophical Report (Seek to 6:28): Shuka Kalantari explores how the innovation stemming from the industrial revolution came at a price: pollution, urban slums, and exploitation of workers. And yet, there are new innovations with few to no negative consequences at all, like…automated call centers? What technologies does the public love the most? Shuka interviews a number of people about the tech boom and Silicon Valley apps.
  • 60-Second Philosopher (Seek to 46:20): The ever-innovative Ian Shoales reflects on the persistent fear of stifling innovation.