Innovation, and the “no” in it

I

Part of the short shelf-life of really-existing, shape-shifting innovation comes from the fact that innovation, like change, is very much in the eye of the beholder, assuming he or she lasts long enough through all of it.

For the 30s-something Silicon Valley entrepreneur looking east, key milestones of change include U.S. economic growth based on secure property rights, opening up of European markets, the break-up of the Soviet Union, and the colossal economic development of the People’s Republic of China.

For the 30s-something entrepreneurial party member in Beijing looking west, key milestones of change include massive economic growth in China without secure property rights, the unprecedented privatization of public assets in post-Soviet Russia (a world historical event rivaling the USSR collapse), the growing isomorphism between the European Parliament and its Brussel’s bureaucracy with the National People’s Congress and the Party bureaucracy, and a Silicon Valley whose own technologies ensure their widespread pirating for future economic growth in China and elsewhere.

Either way, markets are maelstroms of innovations, those natural experiments in institutional destruction offering little or no chance of going back to before. After all, innovation evangelicals would have us believe that everything existing is already an anachronism: incipient, imminent, immanent. It’s always better to innovate as the next step ahead than improve the step just taken.

II

There’s also no small irony in the fact that the advocates of innovation privilege the role of error in their drive to innovation at the same time they dismiss the real-time operational redesigns by infrastructure operators that the premature innovations have necessitated as “tinkering,” no more than patches and workarounds. Innovation evangelicals tell us to “embrace error,” but, again, I know of no critical infrastructure whose control room embraces failure in real time when system survival is at risk and when system maintenance constantly needs of its own version of real-time creative improvement.

To be clear, the control room’s evolutionary advantage of managing risk within a comfort zone that also enables management of uncertainty over probability or consequences of system failure stands as an opposite to economist’s privileging of innovation arising in and out of the domain of unknown unknowns.

III

It’s as if we’re expected to believe that increases in factor productivity are played out primarily through technological innovation to the exclusion of the other causes.

By any measure, it’s the proselytizers of technological change who are the apostates when willfully ignoring education’s very real contribution to productivity. More, innovation is often touted as the driver of a competitiveness, whose cut-and-eating of labor costs is wholly untethered from the economics of tying changes in wages to changes in labor productivity.

But, not to worry, they soothe. For surely, innovation is what keeps the “thing” in Nothing. It’s long past time to bring back that “no” in innovation.

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