Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Some Thoughts About Innovation

Josef Hochgerner has published an article titled "The Analysis of Social Innovations as Social Practice" in Bridges, the science policy online journal of the Austrian Embassy to the United States (Incidentally, Bridges is well worth reading for those interested in science and technology policy in an international context.) I found the article tough sledding, and indeed wondered about its accuracy. For example, Hochgerner sees the interest in innovation as having stemmed from economist Joseph Schumpeter's work before World War II, while the Oxford English Dictionary seems to indicate that the word was used much earlier, and usually in the context of political innovations.

Let me begin recognizing that "inventions" are first reductions of ideas to practice, while "innovations" may simply be introduction to practice in a new environment. Thus inventions are always innovations, but innovations are seldom new inventions; most innovations are simply transfers of things found elsewhere to a new environment. Of course, such transfers frequently involve adjustments, or if you prefer, complementary (usually minor) innovations.

As an old former engineer, I tend to focus on technological innovations. Of course, technological innovations often are made in parallel and coordination with institutional innovations. Thus ICT innovations leading to the penetration of personal computers and the Internet in businesses also involved re-engineering of those business organizations and indeed restructuring of the markets among business enterprises.

Looking back at the Arab Spring helps one to recognize that political innovations are still with us. Authoritarian governments have been challenged in many countries and all of them can probably be seen as innovating in response. Those innovations differ from country to country. Tunisia and Egypt seem likely to introduce considerably more democratic governments in response to their national demonstrations, while Syria seems to be introducing more coercive procedures to tamp down its demonstrations. NATO and the United Nations have introduced new procedures to deal with the Libyan civil war, as both the Gaddafi and opposition forces are innovating in their efforts to retain/obtain power.

I suppose the development of social networking on the Internet has been prototypical of complementary technological and social innovations. The changing patterns of person to person and group interactions taking place on the social media are not primarily economic nor political, but they are surely social (and cultural, in the broad sense of culture).

I have been interested in the role of art museums in recording the process of new artistic schools as innovations in "high culture". The National Gallery of Art, for example, has a good collection illuminating the artistic innovations of the Renaissance and of the Dutch artists who developed a new art to serve the market of affluent merchants that developed in the 17th century. New York's Museum of Modern Art is especially good at tracking the innovations in painting and sculpture in the 20th century.

Is it worth talking about religious innovations, such as those that led to the creation of the Church of the Latter Day Saints or Scientology, or those related to radio evangelists?

As one thinks of socio-economic development, it seems to be a process of successful innovations of many kinds. Not only are technological and institutional innovations intimately related, often in unpredicted ways, but so too are innovations in economic, political, social and cultural realms, and those too are often beyond our capacity to predict.

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