Friday, December 26, 2014

The ideology of "innovation" -- interview with Langdon Winner

Here's an interview that Nick Ishmael-Perkins did with me last summer.  Nick edited the piece for its first publication in SciDevNet, the fine web site he runs on "Bringing together science and development through original news and analysis."  

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * 

Langdon Winner calls himself an “innovation critic”. The political theorist based at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, New York, United States, thinks that most people talk of innovation using the word uncritically and buying into the ideology that change is always a good thing. Winner wants to challenge that assumption.

He spoke about this in August in a keynote speech at the International Conference for Integration of Science, Technology and Society, hosted by the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology in Daejeon (4-8 August 2014). After the eventSciDev.Net caught up with him to ask about how misuse of the word innovation impacts international development. Among other things, he says Bill Gates’ framing of innovation as the only solution to global challenges, such as global warming, risks missing easier and quicker answers.

You have described innovation as a ‘god term’ — what do you mean by that?

In every generation there are certain concepts — like ‘revolution’, ‘frontier’ and ‘progress’ that change over time. I think the god term ‘progress’ has worn out. This is welcome, largely because its metaphysical character seems to promise universal benefits from science and technology. For many reasons this is difficult for many people to endorse now.

There are currently two terms that people establish attachments to: innovation and sustainability. People interpret innovation as coming up with a new use of science, a new unfolding of technological creativity. You could start a new company, generate some income, benefit your nation. It’s become a focus of aspiration and longing. And it’s one of the terms in our time that is widely and uncritically used.

Do you think it’s destined to go the way of the other ‘god terms’?

Not in the short term because it’s now achieving its high tide. It’s the jewel in the crown of the economic and social philosophy of neoliberalism that emphasises action in the market and leads to a fascination with entrepreneurship. Innovation doesn’t have the broad sweeping claims of progress. It's the idea that if you are innovative you are likely to get rich, maybe people around you will benefit, and that will somehow trickle down. The market is the motivating force. I think that fascination is going to continue for decades.

If you were going to make a critique of innovation, where would you start?

I have several lines of criticism. The first is summed up in what I describe as ‘the gadget folks’. You come up with some nifty device, like the iPad. These tend to be high-end consumer products that are seen as sources of renewal. Innovation comes from the Latin word ‘innovare’, which means to renew, and in this case the positive revitalising force literally comes out of a little device.

People associate innovation with high-end products intended for wealthy consumers or global corporations that realise hopes and dreams at that level. In many ways this is nothing new. It’s the same basic strategy used in marketing in the 1930s. It says: by purchasing this toaster or refrigerator you are going to improve your life and help the economy grow, but it will also give you the sense that as a consumer you are casting in your fate with the modern. You are driving off into the future with your beautiful new car, television set and so on.

I think products and accomplishments that are identified as innovative today have much the same character. There are stories in the newspapers with a strong emotional attachment to the new. So that is one of the points of criticism.

What are the other lines of critique?

One is about a foolish enthusiasm for anything new. But more serious criticisms relate to a common ideological position found in business schools, some categories of engineering, and certainly in Silicon Valley. This is around the notion of disruptive innovation that goes back to the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, who wrote about ‘creative destruction’.

His idea became the founding principle of innovation. This is what is good about capitalism – it is endlessly innovative. It means that old sources, institutions, practices, and configurations of apparatus are destroyed, and new and better ones arise.

So today we have creative destruction and this is what is glorious and hopeful about the modern economy. In the last 20 years or so, this idea has been pushed rather aggressively in new directions, especially in business schools. And there is one figure in particular, Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, who has been a leading proponent of creative destruction. Here the idea is that through evolution, particularly of digital technology, it is possible to find the old institutions, practices, and complex arrangements that produced and distributed things of value, and deliberately target them for disruption so that something new can appear in its place.

My criticism about this is the rather disrespectful and destructive focus on rushing into established domains of human activity and saying “this has been around a long time, it needs to be disrupted and something new put in its place”.

There are many professions, including medicine, journalism and teaching where crazy schemes are packaged as innovations. And because you are just an old-fashioned teacher with a teaching plan who has spent the past 20 years trying to find creative ways to engage kids — well, that has no credit because we now have tablets and standardised tests and metrics that show how well things are going. So there is a kind of tyranny of the new.

The tyranny of the new is a nice phrase, but would it not be fair to say that much innovation is driven by the desire to improve?

I call this benign innovation. Very often these are changes proposed within traditions of knowledge, skill and practice that don’t seek to destroy the tradition but to add something new. That something may be quite revelatory and doesn’t seek to replace but builds on what went before.

One example is the never-ending quest of musician Miles Davis to modify jazz substantially to make new things possible. So he moved from be-bop to cool jazz to orchestral jazz, and then back to hard bop and then fusion jazz.

In 2010 Bill Gates spoke of the need to ‘innovate to zero’, meaning that we need to create new technologies to achieve zero carbon emissions. Do you think that is problematic?

One can identify and track useful innovations to address inequality and poverty. The use of cell phones in developing countries is a good example.

But the tyranny of the new, expressed as ‘innovation’, produces a disposition to say — as Gates did in his ‘Innovating to Zero’ TEDTalk — that we need astonishing breakthroughs developed over several decades, and then and only then can we address carbon emissions.

This becomes a strategy of evasion and delay. We know fairly well, if we have the resolve, how to substantially cut carbon emissions right now. It doesn’t require much new knowledge. It could be done, for example, by imposing a stiff carbon tax or reducing speed limits from 65MPH to 45MPH — you would immediately get reductions.

So my argument is that our primary need is for planning and the resolve to act with what we already know, and to get on with it today. Whereas Bill Gates is saying: if we have these innovations over a period of four or five decades then geniuses like me from Seattle will lead us to a better world. To me this is not only a strategy of delay but self-congratulation and self-aggrandisement.

Researching innovations in this way is misdirected energy at a time when the world needs to get busy: much of the knowledge and equipment required is already at hand. We need to be poking fun at this idea. I don’t know anybody who is an innovation critic. I think there probably needs to be more than just me.

So you are criticising an ideology rather than all innovation. How might this critique inform global development?

There is a centre at Stanford where they say: “what about these poor people in the South, let’s have some innovation for development”. They have programmes in Africa and they send out their students with solar cookers.

But the problem with that, as the anthropologist Arturo Escobar points out, is that it has a kind of missionary quality. Once it was the Bible that would change your life for the better, and now you are bringing the great new technology. The problem with this is that is discounts whatever local knowledge there might be.

This missionary stance comes with  a tendency to broadcast, rather than to listen to local people.

I think it would be good to have more careful reflection on what developing countries need. When I talk to my students, I say: “you shouldn’t start designing something until you have done at least several months getting to know the people, the situation and the real needs, rather than helicoptering in and plopping down some innovative device.”

You have also been critical of the term Anthropocene, the idea that we are living in a new epoch where human activities define ecosystems. It’s an idea that could shape development planning over the next few decades. Why do you think we need to be wary?  

It’s the idea that you can name geological epochs according to some identifiable characteristic. The people who proposed the Anthropocene say humanity is responsible for the significant changes of the past centuries and changes in the future. But naming this geological period after humanity is kind of deterministic — “this is what humans have done”. And it is self-exulting — “look at our grand role in the history of the cosmos”.

But if you look at what is being projected, a better name might be Thanatopocene, after Thanatos, the Greek personification of death. It appears that instead of a grand exultation and transcendence of humanity, we are at a death spiral. So why exult ourselves with concepts like Anthropocene? I find its self-congratulatory power fantasy highly suspicious, at the very point where we ought to be looking at the good evidence that challenges the way of life that’s been built up over the last three centuries.


  1. Tolu Odumosu10:55 AM

    Very useful insights as always Langdon. I am teaching a new course this semester - The iPhone Course - and in one of our conversations, we will examine the scheduled obsolescence that Apple and the mobile industry at large builds into their product cycles. We will also look at efforts to push back against this tyranny of the "new". This piece is a good place for them to start, and I will encourage them to reflect on their thoughts about this this topic in the commentary here in the hope of drawing you into our conversation!

  2. Gabrielle Soussan2:04 PM

    I found the critique of innovation as being too obsessed with being new very interesting. I have never really though much about why people are always so eager to invest in an innovative product, but it makes sense because people love change. The actual innovations of a product do not matter to people as much as the fact that is a new product. When a new iPhone comes out, people are more than ready to rid themselves of their old one and purchase the new one before they are even aware of the changes made.

  3. This article did highlight a problem in our society - the need for instant gratification. When a new device comes out, there is always a huge rush to buy the new version and dispose of the old version. That being said, I'm not sure I totally agree with the idea of the tyranny of the new. I believe that many different types of people will have different skill sets. Some will be better at innovating new solutions, and some will be better at improving existing solutions. It actually seems more inefficient to lump these people together to focus on a single solution, although I definitely agree that more people need to be aware of this method of thinking.

    Wholeheartedly agree on the issue of "missionary thinking." We as a culture have this altruistic desire to help those worse off in third world countries and implement what we think is best for them without thought to what is actually a need of that culture. I think one of the best examples of this are service trips. It takes months, possibly years, of integration with the culture in order to properly assess their needs to create a solution tailored for the culture, which is too large in scope for a one week service trip.

  4. Ted Wieland4:32 PM

    Langdon Winner's critique of Bill Gates idea of, "Innovate to Zero" I found especially fascinating. I think often times it is viewed that the world's largest and most complex problems require some type of large scale innovation. Langdon urges us to work with knowledge we already posses as opposed to to turning towards expensive, time consuming innovation. It's not that innovation is bad but the word has been elevated to what he refers to as a "god-word". This is to say that innovation is the key to all issues and if we can get the smartest people to collaborate together we can solve all these issues. I think Langdon correctly points out that we need to get busy now using the information we already posses. He gives a concrete example of this pointing to lowering the speed limits from 65 to 45 would cut down on global warming's effects now. This is a simple change that does not take decades of time to create and implement. Innovation is fine and in most situations eventually needed but that does not mean we should only look to innovation as the source of our solutions.

    I think on some level you could draw a parallel with what Langdon is saying and what the innovators at Apple did with the iPhone. The iPhone took what already existed in terms of the capabilities of the internet, a phone, a computer, and a mp3 player and combined them into one device. In other words apple said what knowledge do we currently posses and how can we use that knowledge to create a product that will meet the wants/needs of our customers? The iPhone was extremely innovative, but a part of that design process was taking notions of Langdon's what do we already know idea and applying it appropriately.

  5. Annemarie Lord5:10 PM

    While I agree with Winner that innovation can sometimes be deceivingly packaged as the best or only way, I believe he does not take innovation, and its potential, seriously enough. Certainly, a new iPhone can be irrationally idolized, and sometimes the best outcome is achieved with a steadfast resolve and traditional methods. Yet sometimes it is a drastic technological change or complete abandonment of the previous way of doing something that achieves that best outcome. It is foolish to abandon current methods entirely in search of a completely novel solution, and it is equally foolish to confine ourselves to what we already know and operate solely within those limits. A better approach, I believe, is to recognize the untapped value of our current knowledge while also looking for novel solutions.

  6. Elsie Gaw6:06 PM

    I admired and agreed with Winner's statements about innovation and technology with regards to global development. He asserted how to many countries or communities and need, "helicoptering in and plopping down some innovative device" is not always going to be the most helpful. The reason people from the US and developed countries do this is because we live in a culture that constantly desires the newest form of technology, despite actual improvements of the device. For example, even if someone has a perfectly good iPhone 5, they will still want the iPhone 6. However, in other cultures, innovative devices that we enjoy here may not be wanted or needed in others. For this reason, I agree with Winner that it is best to listen to locals and spend time in other communities before assuming what they need.

  7. Josh L.7:46 PM

    The term "innovative" has become one of the most abused buzzwords in marketing and business. Watch any Silicon Valley technology company's investor presentations, and you'll hear the word more than any other. While this degrades the word, I do think there's been a great deal of innovation over recent decades. The internet revolutionized the transfer of information, smartphones allow people to be connected at all times, innovations in the medical field have led to greater life expectancies, and consumer space travel is becoming increasingly viable (sort of). However, I do believe that driven by the desire to sell products rather than actually innovate, many American companies have lost their paths. In this case, American consumerism is as much to blame.

  8. Kevin Lin6:27 PM

    I agree with the statement that focusing on innovating over decades of time to solve global issues is merely a method of evading the problem, as we already have the technology and knowledge to create solutions that are effective in the immediate present for theses issues. This has led fields such as global development astray as you previously presented. We should not be creating the next cutting edge device to be sent to Africa, but instead creating technologies based on the local population's culture and present resources. However while focusing on innovation is flawed, I believe that focusing on how we can better utilize what we have now is equally flawed. Simply utilizing what we have now can create solutions in the immediate present, but the solutions carry with them economic and social costs that are usually deemed unacceptable by society. We could lower the speed limit from 65 to 45, however this would affect delivery and travel times, as well as traffic congestion levels in many areas. The repercussions from such a policy would not be acceptable to many in society, even if we would benefit in the long run. Rather, I believe we should focus on a balance between innovation and our current technologies so that we can reach the immediate solution using our current resources, but also the more attractive solution in the future that may be more efficient.

  9. Delphine Garneau12:45 AM

    With the iPhone, and many other devices, people feel the need to upgrade and experience the new device as soon as it is release. What people fail to understand or even think about is what happens to their old phones and how much waste we are producing. This emphasized how the concept of ‘sustainable technology’ and waste really does need to be brought to the attention of the greater public. In a way, modern innovation is associated with wealth and consumerism, but it does not have to be, and that is where I think Ishmael-Perkins is making his best points. I do however think that he touches more on the critique of the ideology of modern consumerism, rather than all technological innovation. Ishmael-Perkins’ points out that innovation needs to move in a direction that will benefit global development and much of that does have to do with changing modern ideology and the value placed on consumer based culture.

  10. Sarah Bowden4:34 PM

    I think you bring up an interesting point about the buzzwords "sustainability" and "innovation". These two words go hand in hand with the go green movement and have been overused to the point where many people question their credibility in today's society. Capitalism has given people the idea that there is always something better and more unique to be made and that something can always be improved upon. Sometimes this can result into technologies and inventions that honor the past and improve upon things already existed. More often, they completely change what has already existed in a hope that they can change the future of that technology. I think it's important to honor history, but to also recognize that just because something in the past has worked does not mean that it is the best way for our world moving forward. I do agree, though, that regardless of how we move forward, it is important to recognize the context and culture of which we are changing. To introduce a new technology may have different results than releasing that same technology in a more impoverished nation. To take into consideration the people, the thinking, the culture, and the goals of the people is crucial in deciding how we "innovate" and what "sustainability" means for that specific area.

  11. Good Day,

    Are you in any kind of financial difficulties? Your help comes now.
    Are you having sleepless night worrying how to get a Loan?Don't allow
    your dreams to die, or are you looking for whom to trust or having you been scammed by INTERNET fraud stars, or you have been turned down by other financial company contact
    easy and reliable loan. Please you are to fill out this form showed
    below this email.{{{ }}}

    Full Names:............
    Marital status:.........
    Contact Address:...........
    Monthly Income:..............
    Loan Amount:...................
    Duration of Loan:............
    Date Of Loan Needed:.............
    Weekly Income:....................
    Purpose for Loan:.................
    Phone Number:....................
    Personal Phone Number:.........
    Fax Number:......................
    How Did You Hear About This Company?........