We deserve a better kind of innovation

Welcome to the fifth issue of my monthly newsletter

I'll be sharing analysis and short stories about digital transformation, practical recommendations, or recommended reading on this platform.

This month, let's take a step back and re-evaluate one of the most over-used terms in recent years: innovation. Everyone wants to do it, everyone thinks they are doing it, it is inherently good yet somehow we don't seem to be able to break out of the cycle of overhyped promises followed by delusions. Maybe it's time for a better kind of innovation?

Please enjoy!

"Move fast and break things" Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg onstage at the F8 conference 2014, by Mike Deerkoski under Creative CommonsAttribution 2.0 Generic

Innovation is a crucial element in human history from ancient stories about human ingenuity and defiance to the rise and fall of empires to economic leaders of today. Coming up with new ideas, literally the renewal of what we have today, is without a doubt essential for progress. It comes as no surprise then, that no one claims not to be innovative. On the contrary, the smallest little change has to be sold as a revolution and a pinnacle of innovation, so much are we drawn to innovation.

And while innovation keeps happening on a daily basis in societies, political systems, and economies around the world, innovation as a concept has gathered particular attention and importance in the IT industry. With their scale, speed of research & development, and ability to seem magical at first glance, digital products and services are perfectly positioned to be linked to innovation. We make possible what you have dreamed of as a child in the virtual world. Isn't that the purest form of innovation?

Although roughly 10 years old and since reformulated, the now infamous mantra of "move fast and break things" still comes to mind when thinking about digital innovation. It encapsualtes the iterative, "working-product-matters" approach that helped turn start-ups into global players. Given that the digital economy for many services tends towards "winner takes all" markets, there are clear incentives to be a first-mover and at the forefront of innovation. This is by itself also not something problematic.

The issue arises with the second part of the mantra. While in context referring to "breaking things" within the company, e.g. by doing away with old rules, trying out things that at first might fail to build upon them etc., we have seen that dominating digital technologies like social media or artificial intelligence do "break things" outside of the organisations where the innovation happens, sometimes things, that aren't meant to be "broken."
While there is not an issue with "breaking" the competition by putting pressure on them through innovative products, we must deal with the fact that innovation also can have negative consequences, from addictions and other health aspects to issues for democratic processes and institutions.

And this is where I have an issue with the "move fast and break things" approach that still seems to dominate Silicon Valley. While claiming to be iterative, implying that feedback is valued, when it comes to negative consequences of their innovations that consequently lead to political action, e.g. in the form of new regulations, the default reaction is always: leave us alone, we are innovating. They never seem to learn from past mistakes, which is a reason why so many governance debates conducted today around AI seem similar to the ones conducted around social media, which are similar to those around the Internet all the way back in the 90s.

Closing yourself off from reflecting on the impact of your innovations is a dangerous path. It might seem an easy way out at the moment to claim that any form of questioning the value of previous innovation or reacting to negative side-effects of previous innovations will stifle innovation going forward, but it is a false dichotomy.
If this culture of "just let us innovate without asking any questions" continues it will only invite a massive backlash, even against truly useful and beneficial innovation, going forward. Sensible governance should aim to foster an environment for innovation BUT under the condition that certain standards are upheld that need to be negotiated as societies (as is the case with any other industry: pharmaceutical companies, banks, and car manufacturers can all still be very innovative even with lots of regulation.)

Another issue with blindly valuing innovation without ever questioning whether something is actually innovative or for whom it is innovative is the issue I've called "lazy innovation." In short, digital technologies allow companies to proclaim innovation that on second glance reveals itself to be not really to the benefit of customers but rather a way of extracting additional value from existing products often at the cost of user experience, think e.g. about subscription models for features that are clearly needed all the time.

So, what now? I'm certainly not arguieng giving up on innovation. It's allure is everlasting, I can't think of anything more motivating that truly believing in building something innovative. But in the bigger picture we should re-evaluate what we really see as innovation and towards what goals we are pursuing it. Peter Thiel quipped: "We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." Let's make sure we put human ingenuity to good use going forward.

PS: If you'd like to read more about the difficulty of ensuring "good" innovation you might want to check-out "The Coming Wave" by Mustafa Suleyman, an interesting book I've reviewed recently for Schweizer Monat.

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