Mallen Baker says we shouldn’t invent new things, but a more sustainable way of living

Mallen Baker says we shouldn’t invent new things, but a more sustainable way of livingThere is a phrase that dates back to the 17th century: “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

We’re into the land of generalisations here, but arguably over the past hundred years or so, invention has broken free from necessity.

UK economist Will Hutton recently complained that the ability of innovation to transform our lives has simply not kept up. Indeed in spite of the illusion of change presented by the internet, our lives are actually “stagnating”.

After all, he observed, 1910 to 1960 saw the shift from a world of horse and carts and candle-light to an astonishing one that had cars, television, penicillin, you name it. As the industrial revolution really bore fruit, people’s lives changed dramatically.

Now, we have widescreen TV in high definition, but it’s still essentially TV. We have hybrid cars, but they are still cars. OK, we have computers and smart phones that have changed the way we communicate, but these things haven’t changed our lives in such a dramatic fashion.

The conclusion? One that any chief executive or politician would sign up to: the importance of innovation as a driver of growth and the imperative to exploit it.

But maybe what we’re actually seeing is a shift to the need for a different type of innovation. For a lot of what has come before, and announced itself before us as bold and innovative, has been what I would describe as opportunity innovation.

Nobody needed a television before they existed. But an opportunity existed to change the way people see the world beyond their daily lives, and it was an opportunity that could go to scale.

Nobody needed a car, or an iPhone. They fulfilled desires – and as they became normal, these became defined as needs. But they were about spotting an opportunity. You could get it right, or you could get it wrong. It was all about finding something people wanted on their lives that they didn’t need.

At the limit

So much for necessity being the mother of invention. But now, of course, we have a real necessity. We are bumping against the physical limits of the planet, while still nowhere near a situation where people are enjoying the fruits of all this opportunity innovation.

That brings us to necessity innovation. While Hutton wants to see the world transformed anew with new things, actually the real need in innovation has shifted to the far less sexy area of defending what we have against the consequences of how we consume.

Strange though it may be to say it, we need innovation to be less sexy.

There is perhaps a parallel here with the world of fine art. It used to be that artists painted pictures, and were heralded for their skill. And then the narrative of what art was there to do went further and further away from its starting point – story telling – and more towards “art for art’s sake”.

Now, we get so-called fine artists cutting animals in half and putting them in formaldehyde. And in the meantime, skill in execution has moved to a much more despised forum – that of TV, print and online advertising. No glamour there. No name recognition. Actually, much like the early painters in the days when it was seen as a craft. But it’s where the creativity lives today.

So it is with innovation. For every glamourpuss out there such as Apple, there needs to be a dozen companies large and small piling innovation into solving the things that have become necessities. Energy without emissions. Systems that produce little waste even though humans are predisposed to be wasteful. That kind of thing.

Is that wealth creation? I mean, if innovation gave us the motor car and that created wealth because it enabled us to do things we couldn’t before – what about the invention of double glazed windows, that helped to cut out some of the noise that had arisen from the spread of the motor car? That’s about trying to reclaim something we had before, isn’t it?

The reason for the distinction is that necessity is only the mother of invention when we perceive the necessity.

Nobody has to persuade us to buy food – if we don’t, we die. But if we get energy to power all the things we want, we don’t perceive the need for that energy to be produced differently. It all looks much the same at the point of use.

That’s why the next wave of innovation needs political will, and the leadership of companies that look to the long term. Consumers won’t demand the kind of innovation that is needed for sustainability. They won’t know it when they see it.

Mallen Baker is founder of Business Respect and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation.

innovation  technology 

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