Rethinking Innovation

What’s the difference between new ideas that are good, and those that are merely novel?
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Editor’s Note

This article was first published by Big Questions Online on December 21, 2010. Reprinted with permission on

Recently I read, and very much enjoyed, Steven Johnson’s new book Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson’s primary purpose is to account for innovation: to describe the kinds of circumstances, and the kinds of people, that promote the creation of ideas. “The argument of this book is that a series of shared properties and patterns recur again and again in unusually fertile environments…. The more we embrace these patterns — in our private work habits and hobbies, in our office environments, in the design of new software tools — the better we will be at tapping our extraordinary capacity for innovative thinking.”

But after reading Johnson’s book I find myself thinking a good deal about questions he raises only briefly or not at all. For instance, there’s the age-old problem of distinguishing between ideas that are “good” because they are powerful and influential and those that are “good” because they make the world better in some way. If one focuses, as Johnson does, simply on how to cultivate innovation, there’s not a lot of room left to think about the dangerous and even malevolent uses to which innovation can be put.

At one point in his narrative, Johnson considers “organizational inspiration” — that is, the ways that a company or institution can “create an environment where brainstorming is something that is constantly running in the background, throughout the organization.” In this context he mentions Google’s “company-wide e-mail list where employees can suggest new features or products,” and notes that “each suggestion can then be rated on a scale of 0 (‘Dangerous or harmful’) to 5 (‘Great idea! Make it so’).” What’s particularly interesting about this scale is its acknowledgement of something vital: that there is nothing intrinsically positive about innovation considered in itself, that some innovations can be “dangerous or harmful” and therefore should not be promoted by Google — which, after all, is committed to being non-evil. Or so we’re told.

The old distinction between science as “pure” knowledge and technology as “applied” knowledge is too facile if used absolutely, but it has practical value. Johnson deals in both kinds of knowledge without discrimination: what led Darwin to the theory of natural selection is grist for his mill, but so too is what led Willis Carrier to invent the air conditioner. Yet it seems to me that there’s a difference between “good ideas” that lead to increased understanding of the world and the creatures in it, and the “good ideas” that are instrumental, that lead us to manipulate the created order for purposes that vary greatly in their character and value.

Of course, the first kind of knowledge generates enormous temptations to pursue the second kind. Wes Jackson, founder of the Land Institute, once told essayist and critic Wendell Berry that “We ought to stay out of the nuclei.” He was thinking both of nuclear power and genetic engineering, and I think that his point was that once we got into the nuclei we would feel an irresistible urge to muck around in there, as indeed we have. Berry has written that he felt that Jackson “was voicing, not scientific intelligence, but a wise instinct: an intuition, common enough among human beings, that some things are and ought to be forbidden to us, off limits, unthinkable, foreign, properly strange.”

I have some sympathy for this point of view, though the sympathy isn’t complete. “The nuclei” are astonishing — to see how they work is a powerful incentive to wonder — and if we were to forbid the search for knowledge in any arena in which our fiddling around could do harm, we would have to forbid the search for knowledge altogether. There’s no learning that human beings can’t abuse. What has to be done instead of the forbidding, I think, is what Jacques Ellul called “the measuring of technique by other criteria than those of technique itself.”

Elsewhere in the book that mentions Wes Jackson and the nuclei, Life is a Miracle, Berry makes the same point: “I am not of course proposing an end to science and other intellectual disciplines, but rather a change of standards and goals. The standards of our behavior must be derived, not from the capability of technology, but from the nature of places and communities.” In Berry’s judgment, this requires us to:

shift the priority from production to local adaptation, from innovation to familiarity, from power to elegance, from costliness to thrift. We must learn to think about propriety in scale and design, as determined by human and ecological health. By such changes we might again make our work an answer to despair.

Note Berry’s preference for “familiarity” over innovation. This comes, he would argue, from counting the costs of innovation — from noting not just the powers that inventiveness provides, but also the damage it does. “Nobody, so far as I have heard, is attempting to figure out how much of the progress resulting from this enterprise is net. It is as if a whole population has been genetically deprived of the ability to subtract.”

Note also that the key term in Berry’s calculus is “propriety” — what the Romans would have called decorum, appropriateness. And appropriateness is always relative to conditions — the key condition in this case being our wisdom or lack thereof in making use of what we have learned. “The idea of propriety makes an issue of the fittingness of our conduct to our place or circumstances, even to our hopes.”

All this is powerful, I think, and a necessary corrective to anyone who might think that innovation is naturally salutary and at worst neutral in its effects. But a reliance on familiarity can also be problematic: it can encourage continued reliance on what has been tried and found wanting. That may not be a big problem in 21st-century America, but elsewhere it could be. So let’s consider one story of genuine innovation that meets the criterion of propriety: it can be an example and a parable for us.

In the developing world, millions of newborn babies die each year because they contract infections or because they are premature. One of the most powerful technologies for combating these problems is the incubator. It is therefore not surprising that charitable organizations have sent many incubators all over the world to try to address these common neonatal health issues.

However, the kinds of incubators used in first-world hospitals are extremely complex devices. If anything goes wrong with one in a poverty-stricken part of the world, competent technicians are rarely to be found. Plus, in hot and humid climates — in which many of the world’s poorest live — something often does go wrong with these incubators, even in clinics that have reliable electricity. And in these environments reliable electricity is scarcely more common that skilled repair technicians. The inevitable result: as Kris Olson, a doctor at Massachusetts General Hospital who regularly works in the developing world, put it, “We see graveyards of newborn [incubators] behind hospitals.” Thirty-thousand-dollar machines turned to junk — and no help for the suffering newborns.

Enter a nonprofit organization called Design That Matters, which — with the financial support of the Center for the Integration of Medicine and Innovative Technology — created incubators that are made largely from automobile parts. This is not as strange a decision as it may sound. Another Boston physician, Jonathan Rosen, had noticed that even in the poorest parts of the world people have cars: typically old, beat-up cars, but ones that they know how to keep running, with the help of used parts. So why not take advantage of both the plentiful equipment and the mechanical expertise? Handed this challenge, the people at Design That Matters understood their task: as the company’s chief executive, Timothy Prestero, put it, “The idea was to start with a [Toyota] 4Runner, and take away all the parts that weren’t an incubator.” And this was done.

The NeoNurture incubator, it seems to me, embodies an approach to technology that ought to appeal to Wendell Berry as well as Steven Johnson. Berry writes that “The standards of our behavior must be derived, not from the capability of technology, but from the nature of places and communities.” It’s hard to imagine an invention following that mandate better than the NeoNurture does. Berry confronts us with the choice between innovation and familiarity, but the NeoNurture suggests that the best inventions can combine both.

There’s a lesson here for everyone who wants ideas that are “good” in every sense: ideas that are new and powerful but that also, and at minimal cost in money and resources, make the world a much better place for those in the greatest need.

Alan Jacobs, “Rethinking Innovation,” Big Questions Online, December 21, 2010.

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