The end of disruption - RSA

The end of disruption

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  • Behaviour change
  • Social innovation

George Washington’s dying words were said to be: “Beware of innovation in politics.”

Two centuries on and such Luddite talk is a rarity in political circles. Innovation is a now synonym for “better” and as such it is the argument that always wins. In the US, the Democrat campaign was built around innovation, and last week’s Autumn statement in the UK positioned innovation as the post-Brexit panacea with £2 billion announced for a new Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. Nowadays, neophilia runs deep in our political DNA.

It would of course be churlish of me to have innovation in my job title and at the same time question its universal appeal. Especially as last week I accepted with my colleague Anthony Painter, the Prospect Magazine social policy award for bold innovation in the world of think tankery. They said:

“[the RSA is] ‘a great and well respected institution which none the less continues to innovate.’ Its ‘outstanding’ work on basic income demonstrated a rare ability to marry a big and disruptive idea with determined number-crunching.”

See? Innovation is for winners.

How do you take your innovation, Sir?

But the gnawing problem with “innovation” is that the term is so broad as to be meaningless — encompassing everything from a new app to a new economic paradigm. But it is almost always described as disruptive. And it is here that I seek a pause for thought — a reflective moment to ask some deeper questions of innovation—does it always have to disrupt? If it does, can this disruption be channeled toward human progress? Can we conceive of productive rather than disruptive innovation? Jill Lepore is skeptical. In her excellent 2014 essay in the New Yorker, she says:

Every age has a theory…The eighteenth century embraced the idea of progress; the nineteenth century had evolution; the twentieth century had growth and then innovation. Our era has disruption, which, despite its futurism, is atavistic. It’s a theory of history founded on a profound anxiety about financial collapse, an apocalyptic fear of global devastation, and shaky evidence.

Most big ideas have loud critics. Not disruption. Disruptive innovation as the explanation for how change happens has been subject to little serious criticism, partly because it’s headlong, while critical inquiry is unhurried; partly because disrupters ridicule doubters by charging them with fogyism, as if to criticize a theory of change were identical to decrying change; and partly because, in its modern usage, innovation is the idea of progress jammed into a criticism-proof jack-in-the-box.”

It is now 20 years since Clayton Christensen’s Innovator’s Dilemma and since then, in the rush to attach the suffix “tech” to everything (govtech, fintech, medtech, cleantech, healthtech), a wave of disruption has led to cataclysmic changes to the way we live and work — and there’s more to come with AI and robotics. Today, if you’re not disrupting, you’re being disrupted. But have we perhaps spent too long at this Silicon Valley parade without questioning if that nude look is a good one? Is it time we called some of this stuff out?

When the Economist’s Ryan Avent recently came to the RSA to talk about the Future of Work, we jovially chatted about rapid advances in tech while at the same time considering the dystopian future of 47% of jobs in the US being automated by 2040. His broad conclusion was that in order to navigate our way through such a rapid societal change, we must loudly and publicly debate the ways in which innovation will impact our lives, and democratically find ways to enable a less dystopian future.

The ideas up for debate might include how to regulate for a gig economy, how to plan for the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on low-skilled workers, or how to implement a ‘citizen’s income’ — all major inquiries that we are engaged in now at the RSA — with a view to reducing inherent inequities in the current system, and providing a secure platform for everyone to live a fulfilling, creative life.

Refocusing the conversation on human progress might force us to ask the hard questions of ourselves and to critically challenge novelty — is this innovation an improvement or is it just new?

An explanation of basic income research carried out by the RSA

From disruptive to productive innovation

So yes, of course innovation is vital, but we can no longer accept that its associated disruption leaves us as powerless subjects to a preternatural phenomenon that reshapes society with its sheer brute force— that is far too passive. We must be more specific about what we want to see innovation do for us, and we must be bold and inclusive — putting people back into the picture. If innovation is truly to address the complex problems arising in the 21st century, we can’t just tinker around the edges, we must drive forward collective efforts that focus creative minds on the challenges of our time.

At a time of volatility and increasing income inequality, innovation-led growth is more necessary than ever. And with a new commitment to an industrial strategy in the UK and a bold new Innovation mission set out for Europe, the time is ripe to test out this thinking.

Missions, moonshots and the power of ideas

I started this blog with a dead president, so I shall end with one too, but this time with the boldness embodied by President John F Kennedy in his speech to the Irish Parliament in 1963 where he said:

“The problems of the world cannot possibly be solved by skeptics or cynics, whose horizons are limited by the obvious realities. We need men who can dream of things that never were, and ask why not”.

Productive innovation will require boldness, and if we are to rise to this challenge, we need to start shooting for the moon.

This mission-oriented innovation mindset is gaining traction, with renowned economists such as Mariana Mazzucato and others advocating for a mission driven industrial strategy.

In a recent blog, Matthew Taylor pushed for mission-oriented innovation, advocating for a “different national (and international) conversation which takes human ends not as things we vainly hope to be the by-product of economic change but as imperatives towards which economic dynamism and technological innovation must somehow be directed.”

We must seize this opportunity to direct our collective energies towards our society’s needs. The EU Innovation strategy launched this year suggests that this kind of mission to innovate will best succeed if it has four key planks:

  • Broad political and societal ownership designed to deliver for productivity, growth, jobs, social inclusion and sustainability.

  • Concerted cooperation, with full mutual accountability, rather than an innovation theatre of well-meaning discourse.

  • A foundation of priority investment in core assets: individual people, local centres of excellence, European public administration.

  • More focus on cross-continental scaling by and between innovators, rooted in local strengths and needs.

These conditions all exist now, in cities across the globe, so it will be down to public agencies, impact investors, private philanthropists and social entrepreneurs to come together to shoot for the moon as a collective.

At the RSA, we will be exploring these concepts in greater depth in the coming year, opening up a broader public debate on how innovation can serve not only to boost the economy but also to improve society. If you want to get involved, please let us know.

So, to fire you up I’ll leave you with JFK again and his eponymous moonshot quote…

“We choose to go to the Moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard; because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win.”

Are you ready? 10, 9, 8, 7, 6, 5…



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  • This is a great piece.  We are grappling with many of these ideas in the work that I am doing in and around capital market and professional services systems.

    I think there is something about holistic system change, rather than just incremental change that leads to the term disruptive.  Disruption can also be productive if harnessed and focused in the right way.

    Rowan - you finish by saying to let you know if we want to get involved in the RSAs broader debate around these issues next year.  I certainly would - please keep me posted.

  • A great piece and a much needed initiative - and not just in the UK or Europe. We have become too passive and complicit in our acceptance of innovation as inevitable and a universally good thing. I think this is in large part because economic growth has dried-up and we need an alternative; technology innovation (and entrepreneurs) are perceived as THE answer. In reality innovation is rarely disruptive in a positive sense, it simply shifts, and increasingly concentrates, value. I see no reason this is inevitable, it simply reflects the dominant "winner takes all" economic and ownership models and the ignorance and passivity of politicians and their citizenry unable or unwilling to raise their game and fight fire with fire.

    PS I don't agree that the choice is between 'Disruptive and Productive' innovation -  disruptive innovation can be productive and not all productive innovation is disruptive...

  • Hmmm Interesting thoughts. I'm always left feeling a little bit breathless when people talk about innovation, as if it's all about speed, short termism (especially the political process as other commentators have identified here) and fundamentally contrarian in nature. Resulting, as identified in the Jill Lepore quote, in lead to 'fad's'  and trends.

    Nothing wrong with contrarianism in my book, and I quite like the idea of 'disruption' it feels rebellious somehow! 

    However while reading your article I was reminded of 'The Clock of the Long Now' project. Got me thinking of innovation 'across generations', long term, deep seated, big scope innovation that might not conclude within one lifetime.  Does all innovation have to be fast, furious, simplified or bite size these days? Just a thought.

    • I think we have the illusion that innovation is short-term because so much of what passes for innovation (think phone apps) is fringe, shallow or happening 'at the edge'. But in reality they are simply the observable symptoms for deep underlying changes in the way we work, interact, create economic value etc. The disruptive impact of these 'innovations' is in fact a relatively slow-burn and hard to discern amongst the noise, a truly 'wicked problem'.

  • This is a brilliant article!

    I am keen to get involved in exploring how innovation can improve society. As a local Councillor I'm keen to explore how innovation can improve democratic participation of marginalised groups of people as well as innovation in politics and party politics more widely.

    Please let me know how I can get involved :)


  • A good article and good comments from others too. Thanks.

    I found your observation "of course innovation is vital", Rowan, somewhat in contradiction to the rest of the article. Why is innovation per se vital? Is new always good? I don't think you were saying that. Does new sell? is of course a completely different question.

    That doesn't mean we should actively inhibit or even discourage innovation. It just needs not to be some holy grail. 

    By the way, the Luddites weren't opposed to innovation. They were just trying to protect their livelihoods. The conditions under which they and the people forced off the land by enclosure and clearances were obliged to live and work were appalling.