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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  • Great to read this. I went to a law and tech event recently where everyone went on and on about how disruptive they were being. However, what struck me was that every speaker was a white man from 9am until 4pm when there was a panel discussion which included some women. 

    Innovation is one thing. But if people are going to be 'disruptive' in the legal sector its not going to be through creating more effective document readers.   

  • A very reflective piece, Rowan, which caused me to think!  Always a good thing.   Two thoughts crossed my mind as I reflected on your article.

    (1)  JFK's exhortations to the Irish Parliament members and the world at large to have more men (and women) dream are well made.  But dreamers need to be grounded or, at least, surrounded by those who keep them grounded to make them dream - fruitfully.

    (2)  The nature of democracy and the politics that is associated with it is that it is fettered by time constraints - the urge for politicians to attain quick results to demonstrate that they are electable by the public because of their "great track records over the last two, three, four and five years".  Their eyes are constantly on the next elections and motivations directed by the desire to be voted in.    However, for most innovations to prove their worth, they need time.  So, politicians are not keen to embed - but rather to continue innovating, which undermines the impact that dreamers could have.   

    How do we square the circle? 

  • A great read Rowan and it's good to hear some criticism of disruption, and innovation itself. With the shining example of Silicon Valley, businesses find disruption attractive because just look at the money and power that can be concentrated in your hands if you get in early. The societal repercussions we are starting to see now - fake news, people getting overloaded by information and too much connection - were probably well known in their HQs whilst the rest of us are guinea pigs for their business models.

    I've spent a while looking at the Innovators of the 19th Century, particularly from the UK, and the environmental repercussions of their disruptions. What could Brunel, Watt etc. have done differently? Could they have imagined the consequences? Would they care?

    Having a mission, an end game, for innovation has to be part of the process. Being a futurist is always fraught yet I see little attempt at thinking far ahead from our government. Invention is exciting, and that excitement often takes energy and focus from the repercussions on people and the planet. The 'inevitable' rise of AI and automation that you mention fascinates me. Is it inevitable because it's based on a future from science fiction? Is that what Silicon Valley assumes as it's 'mission': making science fiction real?

  • Technology, as an extension of human power, tends towards being a tool for those already in power. For example the internet, hailed as the most "democratic" of all technologies, has in the space of a few years morphed into a global spying machine invading people's privacy. With yet more powerful technologies and innovation in the future, how does one prevent this type of thing from happening again and again?

    • We can be more alert to the threat and the possibilities we have to prevent abuse and over concentration of power. This challenge is not unique to 'innovations' such as the internet - just think of the narrow ownership of the UK media print media, and contrast with the equivalent in the Netherlands. It is possible to act IF there is a political will but we ned to get better at reading the trends & generate the foresight.

      • Fair point, especially with Mr Murdoch's current bid for Sky. However, "reading the trends" especially with technological innovation is fraught with difficulty. I wonder if the inventor of "horseless carriage" foresaw the establishment of three global industries (oil-based fuel, road-building networks, cars) plus the lifestyle changes to out-of-town commuting, environmental issues from fuel emissions, shopping styles and so much more ... My concern is that the deeply rooted ideology of "Technology = Progress" uncritically drives forward powerful technologies with no-one having a clue where it will lead and at the same time gifts the already powerful with a new tool to exercise their narrow agendas.

        • I do agree Joshua. There is a need to challenge "technology = progress" as you put it as the evidence suggests this is far from the case. It increasingly erodes our sense of humanity, leaves many behind, lost or confused and the 'progress' is increasingly marginal, within narrow bounds or benefits too few. I think we can do a lot more  to better understand and model technologies and trends and their intended and unintended consequences and this needs to become a discipline in its own right but even with this, it will always come down to ownership & governance.

  • You're right to question the scope of the term 'innovation'. The same thing could apply to 'disruption'. By its nature what is new 'disrupts' what is old, but that *process* says nothing about whether the *outcome* of disruption is good or bad. 'Innovation means change, and change means loss' I wrote in my book on The Greeks and the New (CUP 2011); but some losses are deeply felt, others quickly forgotten, and the key is to try and preserve what is valuable and abandon what is not. Most people nowadays use the word 'innovation' to mean, in fact, 'productive innovation' (though disruption may be a necessary part of the process); few would be happy to promote doing something 'new' that clearly tends to a negative outcome. But it is interesting our modern usage reverses many centuries of the use of the word 'innovation' to refer predominantly something suspect and best avoided. As Montaigne wrote (around 1580) 'I am disgusted with innovation in whatever guise, and with reason, for I have seen the harmful effects of it'.