Contesting Innovation

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Innovation is always good. Innovation regulation is always wrong. These are the two innovation axioms we repeatedly hear in unison from mainstream media, innovators and innovative companies, big and small. Indeed, the two are connected. They are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. If, by default, all innovation is good, then why regulate?  Who wants to stop something good?  That said, it all hinges on how we define good, wrong and regulation. There is a plethora of views and definitions of these concepts so take your pick. In any event, when it comes to innovation, we should always ask: good/wrong for whom? And who is doing the regulation – bearing in mind that self-regulation is, by all means, a form of regulation set by the innovators themselves. Certainly not very democratic as we did not elect them to speak or choose for us. The other big elephant in the room is how to define innovation. Again, there is all but a consensus here.

Not on the radar screen of most is the global history of innovation since the emergence of human society. In fact, little research has been undertaken on the topic. However, that is precisely one of the goals of Benoit Godin’s book, Innovation Contested; The Idea of Innovation Over the Centuries.  The author starts with Greece, followed by the Roman empire to jump to Sixteenth-Century England and the French Revolution. The last two centuries of the previous Millenia complete innovation’s historical picture. The remarkable outcome of this research is that, contrary to today’s perception, innovation has been chiefly perceived as harmful, damaging, and pejorative. Regulation of some sort was thus needed to prevent its dangerous spread across society. It is only in the Nineteenth Century that the tide starts to change thanks to the emergence of social innovation. By the beginning of the Twentieth Century, technological innovation saw the light of day, thus reinforcing its positive impact.

For the Greeks, innovation (understood as anything new) is confined to the political sphere. It starts with Xenophon, who called for step-by-step state action, gradualism being the target. Aristotle agrees on this, but his focus is political change and the preservation of political constitutions. Stability demands gradual change, not revolutions. Plato sees innovation as viable when calamities and disasters strike, but it should never be led by humans. Innovation should be controlled, especially in education and the introduction of foreign customs. Innovators are thus all those who call for sudden political change. Change is welcome as long as it is gradual.   Nevertheless, the Greeks did not have a specific definition of innovation.

With the Roman empire, innovation takes a more religious connotation. Innovation, seen as renewal, eventually became a synonym of heresy. People and poetry became the main spreaders of innovation. Religion then became the core regulation tool to stop its nocive diffusion. Two notable exceptions, separated by centuries, are Plutarch and Machiavelli. For the former, innovation had positive and negative aspects, so he was a very lonely voice at the beginning of the last Millennium. Macchiavelli resorted to the Greek notion of innovation as political change. Changing political institutions was his goal, and that can be accomplished by introducing new ones or reverting to older ones. Innovation for Machiavelli seems to have multiple meanings, but it is always a stabilizing tool – revolutions not welcome.

The political and religious innovation views converge in Sixteenth-Century England. Regardless, innovation is still evil. The debate between the state and the bishops on the innovative reading of the scriptures and support for the Pope – an act of rebellion- soon became a political one. . The emergence of Republicanism was seen as a dangerous innovation (change). So a more defined concept starts to emerge. Innovation has three traits 1. Innovators break laws; 2 Innovation is violent; and 3. innovators design nefarious plans. And the way this disease spreads is via politics. That view started to spread across Western Europe soon after that.

The aftermath of the French Revolution brought forward two new innovation concepts. First, the emergence of social reformers who were soon seen as evil innovators. This led to the emergence of social innovation as a concept and linked to (evil) socialism. Regardless, innovation starts to gain track as positive action towards progress. Social innovation was perceived as public, collaborative and distributive, and demanded action and adequate public policies. However, it gained much more traction in France than in England.  On the other hand, opponents of the revolution doubled down on innovation as evil while trying to stop social change at any cost.

These two views on innovation co-existed through most of the century.  While no single definition was available, innovation was defined by four traits 1. Pervasiveness (change is all around). 2. Rapidity (change is radical, revolutionary). 3. Foresight (change is future-oriented). And 4. Agency (humans, not God, drive innovation). Interestingly, innovation is not yet seen as part of the scientific method or as a key critical component of technological development. That will only happen later in the century and well into the next one when the first innovation theories emerged.

Technological innovation appeared in the Twentieth Century, pushed mainly by social theorists, engineers and managers, according to Godin. Contrary to common belief, it was not created by Schumpeter, the author argues. At any rate, it had four characteristics 1. Innovation as application (unlike invention). 2. Innovation as a people process (collaborative, collective). 3. Innovation is driven by society and social needs. And 4. Innovation requires national policies to support innovators and their ecosystems.  Innovation studies started in the 1970s, spearheaded by Chris Freeman, who created a unique innovation framework that bypassed traditional neoclassical economics assumptions and the concept of technological innovation. In his view, innovation was closely linked to commercialization, demanding policy interventions to ensure diffusion and application.

By the end of the century, innovation had acquired the following characteristics 1. Normative (innovation is always good); 2. Performative (discourses make innovation happen); 3 Utopian (abstract panacea); and 4. Market-oriented  (but political, social, and cultural innovations mostly ignored). Now, that sounds very familiar indeed.

In sum, innovation has been, for the most part, perceived negatively. However, it is only in the last 200 years, give or take, that it has gained a positive connotation to the point that today few will dare to say that otherwise at the risk of being ostracized.  The emergence of innovation as a concept is also relatively new, while theories of innovation are much more recent. Undoubtedly, innovation is a moving target and will continue to evolve historically.  All in all, Godin does a great job tracing the evolution of innovation through different historical periods.

Nevertheless, the book has some severe limitations. For starters, the author seems exceptionally concerned with the difference between innovation as both word and concept. In fact, part of his research includes counting the number of times authors use the word “innovation” (or a synonym the author assigns to specific historical eras) in different languages, which are sparse in any event. However, if we have defined an analytical framework for studying innovation in history, then using the word alone should not be the only proxy for studying innovation. Moreover, one could argue that using AI Natural Language Processing  (NLP) algorithms on such texts could yield better results, more so if we can integrate the analytical framework into the algorithms.

Second, I was surprised to see no references to the various Industrial Revolutions (IRs) that historians and other academics have identified since the Eighteenth Century. For example, the steam engine was an innovation that changed industrial production and accelerated capitalist development in England and other countries later on. However, the book has little to say about that century. Furthermore, as defined by Godin, technological innovation is clearly related to the Second IR that introduced technologies to other sectors not directly linked to manufacturing. Households became part of the change process too. While the author claims he has no interest in significant general theories in the book’s introduction, this seems like a huge gap. Capitalism and innovation have a long romantic story.

Moreover, the research is mainly focused on Western countries, starting with the Greeks. Ancient Egypt and the old India and China empires are totally ignored in typical Eurocentric fashion. Some of these cultures were innovation Meccas long before the Western World. That history remains to be studied under an innovation lens. The same goes for the Islamic Califates that shined while Europe navigated the so-called Middle/Dark Age. The fact that the book jumps from the Roman Empire to the Sixteenth Century reflects Europe’s backwardness at the time. Nothing was going on there at the time! However, the Callifates were also great innovators. Recall that one of the most widely used words today, algorithm, originated there. I would be surprised if the writings from these complex and sophisticated cultures ignored by Godin did not address the issue of innovation, a still diffuse concept rapidly diffusing globally.

In this context, we need to contest Innovation Contested.

Cheers, Raúl

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