Innovation: why we need to go beyond the buzz

Innovation is a dominant concept of our time and society upholds the term as a contemporary value to strive for, but what lies behind all of this innovation buzz?

Innovation is highly and widely overvalued but seldom questioned. As a response to this, in 2015, a group of scholars organised a conference and invited academics and experts to move research’s focus away from innovation and towards ‘non-innovative’ work such as maintenance, repair and infrastructure. Their efforts show that by conceptualising maintenance in a broader sense, we can begin to understand not only the work required for things to remain operational but also the large amount of non-technical work that goes into making innovations work in the first place (Russel, Vinsel 2016)

Credits: Sebastian Salgado, Workers Series.

Discussing what lies behind the innovation buzz is not an effort to create friends or foes and frame innovation and maintenance as enemies. Nor is it to promote a hero-worship attitude for maintenance over innovation. The purpose is to highlight that innovation is unquestionably embraced by society as a positive value in itself. When something is deemed innovative, we think it’s a sign of progress, something that must surely be contributing to society, while in truth the word innovation is widely used as a slogan. Regardless of criticisms, the term has stuck around because, unlike the monotonous, mundane and routine work of repairing and maintaining, innovation is associated with excitement and uniqueness. Still, understanding why we praise innovation over maintenance is not only a story of successful branding, but also reflects the long-term inequalities which are fueled by the depreciation and alienation of particular social roles.

Innovation and entrepreneurship – along with their myriad derivatives have gained vast popularity in every sector of the economy. Every city has branded and invested in their own Silicon Valley. Startups continually rise and fall using the branding hype of terms such as “innovator,” “visionary,” “creative”, “disruptive”  or any other word, even neologisms in reference to novelty.

To make it in the world today, innovation is a must, particularly in cities, where market specialisation makes the economy highly competitive. People are striving to come up with the new groundbreaking idea, the App that will change the world or the start-up that will lead the great transformation.

Ironically, it’s not the first time innovation has become a praised universal buzzword. Significant technological advancements resulting from the Second World War and the Cold War gave place to thinking of our relationship with technology as the X factor that explains social and economic progress (Robert Solomon & Kenneth Arrow – Growth Theory). Through this process, innovation became morally neutral and the following wave of economic and social prosperity encouraged the creation of regional and local innovation clusters. The widespread understanding that new technologies are responsible for progress resulted in governments formally introducing innovation policies. However, eventually, innovation became subject to critiques; the trajectory of ‘innovation’ from the core, valued practice to a slogan of dystopian societies, is not entirely surprising, at a certain level. There is a formulaic feel: a term gains popularity because it resonates with the zeitgeist, reaches buzzword status, then suffers from overexposure and cooptation (Russel, Vinsel, 2016) Nonetheless, the term never truly went away and is more present than ever. Why? Well, novel objects preoccupy the privileged classes and can generate huge profits. The tendency, or more precisely, the normative strategy of businesses dedicated to making and selling technological devices is to constantly introduce new models.

This way, our society has encouraged a creative destruction paradigm, where new objects replace old ones in a blink of an eye thus giving place to a massive production of waste and increasing consumer societies.

Technology is not innovation, our obsession with novelty inhibits us from valuing technologies of widespread use that are in fact quite old. Getting over our infatuation with innovation allows us to recognise the essential role of basic infrastructure and understand that unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour, such as maintenance and repair are also fundamental.

This realisation has significant implications for inequalities of gender roles, social and racial backgrounds, and between the Global South and the Global North.

Women have traditionally, through history, been associated with maintenance roles while their work has never been worthy of capital value. In the U.S.A., most low-skilled labour is performed by African Americans, Latinos and other minorities. However, today we see that it’s not only minorities who suffer the consequences, but the working class as a whole is being undervalued over a professional elite. The class division has translated into geography by feeding the urban-rural divide, elites have taken over cities, making cities a symbol of progressive and open spaces in opposition to the rural. Recent political upheavals such as Brexit and Trump’s election are direct consequences of a continually fueled class cultural and economic gap. (Joan C. Williams, 2016) Switching the focus from

Switching the focus from innovation to maintenance reveals systemic disparities and lets us broaden our questions and analysis of social and political systems. This allows us to think long-term and start questioning which values we want to foster, not only what means.

The radical juxtaposition of inequalities is a common feature of cities, particularly where the creative and innovative class is acclaimed. The Rise of the Creative Class (2002) by Richard Florida is a eulogy for cities as innovation hubs and places where creativity floods the streets. The book is a portrait of the early 2000s, a time of emerging technologies and social media platforms when cities claimed the centre stage and plunged into an international competition of attracting the creative class. Today,  protests such as the one against the Cereal Killer Cafe in London or protests at Art Galleries in Los Angeles, have erupted due to issues of gentrification and social stratification. These actions demonstrate the substantial negative effects of tailoring cities for innovators while neglecting the maintainers.

Teddy Cruz – architect and artist – has studied extensively the social and economic dynamics at the border of Tijuana and San Diego. His research shows that regardless of the poignant inequalities between these two cities, Tijuana has a lot to teach to San Diego. People from Tijuana have demonstrated an amazing capacity to innovate and create under urgent circumstances. An inspiring example is what people from Tijuana make out of the waste that comes from San Diego. Discarded garage doors become the skeleton of new homes while car tires become the moulds for sand bricks to build fences. This case exemplifies how our value for innovation is selective.

Our understanding of innovation today is not contributing to positive systemic change.

Innovation – which is so widely celebrated and so largely profitable – is mainly produced by and for an exclusive and small group of people. While the case of Tijuana and San Diego isn’t meant to be a story of romanticised poverty, it is one example of the biased attitudes towards innovation coming from certain non-western normative contexts.

Credits: Sebastian Salgado, Workers Series.

As consequence of urban growth and climate change, metropolitan areas tend to be more exposed to catastrophic natural disasters. Considering this, resilience has become a primal policy principle to build sustainable cities. To foster resilient, environmentally sustainable cities, we need to think under a world-system perspective and understand that social and environmental issues are connected and are historically built, even beyond the borders.

Inequalities increase vulnerabilities and cause disparate distributions of environmental, economic and social risks, at local, national and global levels. Therefore, we must transform production and consumption systems while promoting sustainable urban areas. In order to do this, identifying the most vulnerable areas and population groups is crucial, at the same time that developing preventive infrastructures. The example of Tijuana and San Diego, helps us visualise how inequalities are not an isolated phenomenon explained only by domestic or local causes. Inequalities between these cities’ are not locally produced, but instead are a consequence of a shared process of uneven capital accumulation and urban agglomeration. In this light, it becomes clear that we urgently need to focus as much attention on solving inequalities in our society as we do supporting innovation.

(…)the future of jobs will not be determined by technology but rather, by society.

One of the promises of technology is that it will eliminate the need for maintainers. Plenty of people are talking about the replacement of the labour force by machines, but for what sector and percentage of the world’s population is that really a short term reality? Even if more and more jobs become irrelevant over time due to new technologies, the future of jobs will not be determined by technology but rather, by society. Valuing maintenance work does not oppose technological development but instead, highlights the urgency of building societies that support each other, and can adapt and grow no matter what chronic stresses they might face. Building strong communities where the social value of the maintainers is as recognised as that of the innovators, is significant and necessary to reducing inequalities and allowing society to thrive.

It’s worrisome to continue upholding innovation as a positive value in itself without seriously asking: Who benefits from it?  What kind of society do we want to live in? And does the technology we are investing in is helping us get there? Innovation is necessary, the challenges we face today won’t be solved if we don’t invest in innovation but as long as infrastructure and allocating resources for maintenance continues to be a sidebar issue, this blind hero-worship attitude towards innovation will increase social and economic inequalities. We must make an effort to think of the many daily efforts and technologies that underpin our everyday actions and keep the world going.