In our capacity for maintaining societies we humans are unparalleled in nature as constructors of our own ecological niche: innovation as a combination between the generation, retention, replacement and use of ideas and artifacts is our engine for adapting and solving problems. It is a fundamental aspect of what we are as a species and in the end it is what generates and maintains societies. But innovation does not just “solve problems”. Some problems persistently remain unaddressed and innovation also breeds cascades of more innovation containing unknown mixtures between opportunities and problems. The tendency of society to respond to better energy efficiency by simply expanding its use of energy is an important example of this, but it is only a particularly visible symptom along many others of a more fundamental problem. This cascading itself has come to be more important than what these cascades themselves actually generate. The consequence is that we cannot afford to be very discriminate about what gets innovated, and we certainly don’t dare to do anything that would run the risk of stalling this nowadays so well-oiled machinery.
Staking our future on the process itself rather than its outcomes has transformed our time-tested ability to solve problems and adapt to new situations into something that is quite different: an innovation society that must subordinate all values to that of accelerating innovation; in other words to economic growth. Ironically, with growth being the only legit vision for what to use growth for, the situation is that despite the tremendous resources and capabilities that we wield today, we appear to in practice have little ability to solve societal problems at all, even ones that are widely agreed to be highly pressing. When the engine of this growth machine begins to sputter, as it periodically does, this subordination of other values comes to the fore especially clearly and painfully: human suffering, environmental protection and other “soft values” receive far lower priority than whatever remedies that the main organs of the innovation machinery prescribe for themselves. The fear is that unless the machinery is kept running at any cost, the suffering will be even worse, and given the way things work, that is probably a warranted fear. But is this really as good as it can get? Is a good life and a healthy environment really impossible or perhaps too much to ask for?
Underpinning the innovation society is a widespread sentiment is that everything will be alright: that we will innovate our way out of any and all problems that befall us. But can we really count on this indiscriminate and accelerating torrent of novelty to solve problems at the same rate that it produces them? Is the innovation society itself sustainable, or does it operate in a way that systematically fails to detect and address problems while there is still time? The reason for posing such questions is not that we think that innovation is inherently a bad thing – our perspective is not as Luddite as some may expect at this point – but rather to bring to the table the question of whether society could organize innovation in other ways. Could we transform innovation from being a runaway chain reaction into something that is better geared for serving a purpose that most probably think innovation should be serving anyway: making our lives better in a way that is not self-undermining? It is a question of allowing the system to regulate itself in more equitable ways, not one of stopping it or of imposing some top-down control mechanism.
The first order business is to improve our understanding about how the innovation society works. What aspects of its behavior are intrinsic to innovation processes in general and thereby inescapable? Can unwanted effects be mitigated? Can its behavior be changed, eliminated and added to? What we can do today that is new is to apply a perspective that was not even conceptualized at the times when our major ideological perspectives were formed: we can look at society as a complex system. So let us provide a brief outline of what innovation looks like from such a perspective and what opportunities that this hints at.
We can only guess, in more or less educated ways, what uses (if any) that novelty introduced into the world will actually come to be put to. The majority of all functions that artifacts with generative potential come to have are realized as they are put to use by agents in different contexts, not least in new combinations with others artifacts. As new functions are attributed to artifacts, they furthermore come to undergo exaptation and develop in new directions. But it is not just artifacts that get transformed. The use of new artifacts also alters the organization of the agents using them, which in turn also produces cascades of problems and opportunities, often in wholly different arenas. For example, in the cascade following the invention of book printing using movable types at the end of the 15th century, the activity of reading and authoring itself was completely transformed with effects on society that are impossible to overview. In this process both problems and opportunities arise and while there is no shortage of takers on opportunities, nobody has much to gain over the short term by spending time and resources detecting and handling problems in a systematic way. Problems thereby have a way of mounting and to appear in full force only when the transformations that they stem from have become dominant.
This brings us to another notable feature of the innovation society: its tendency to become “locked in”. We may have described innovation as a torrent of novelty, but this torrent is not as “all over the place” as we might think. Innovation strongly follows self-organized and self-maintaining paths, so although the innovation society is so busy solving problems, it is exceptionally poor at doing precisely that as soon as the problems require innovation outside of these paths. The current groping-about for new environmentally friendly sources of energy is an example of precisely this, and it is a question that is surrounded by important policy questions. For example, should we spread our bets widely, or should we concentrate our resources on a small set of solutions that seem promising today? This tendency of creating deep tracks does not at all apply only to technology but to just about any system of human ideas, including not least the dominant paradigms for understanding how society works.
The formation of regimes within which activity comes to be concentrated and locked-in in such a way can be understood on several levels of organization and from several perspectives. Let’s begin with what we may call “components”, be they technological artifacts, routines or ways of conceptualizing. Although we thereby inevitably conjure up an image of engineering, most artifacts are indeed components of agent-artifact systems that provide functionality on a higher level of organization. Components become successful to the extent that they prove to be generative. That is, by conferring great flexibility and configurability. When they do, they are poised to bring about cascades of downstream innovation and become widely used in ways that nobody could initially have imagined. Transistors, books, printers, engines and so on are but a few examples of this.
When components with high generative potential become widely used, they become fundamental in the sense that many more high-level systems come to rely critically on them for their function. This makes them very hard to replace or alter other than in ways that simply improve their present functionality. Such a development also brings about a wide range of more general effects that are part of the agent-artifact transformation mentioned above. The workforce will be trained in their use, their production will become refined throughout the whole chain from resources to maintenance, and people and states will become reliant on their uninterrupted operation and development. Market systems will moreover adapt closely to the current state of affairs, reducing friction along the paths that are often tread, and thereby further put those venturing in other directions at a disadvantage. Many of these components also become shared between regimes, leading to their enmeshment. This effect, which we may call generative entrenchment, is in other words not a source of flexibility. It is a process (among several) by which sociotechnical regimes become harder and harder to replace. Regimes boost innovation greatly within their own scopes but they constrain it strongly outside of that scope. Sociotechnical regimes in turn are entangled into much wider fabrics that we may call landscapes.
The picture that emerges is one of a constant production of novelty in directions that are largely determined by generative entrenchment and entanglement between regimes in the current sociotechnical landscape. These directions, in other words, are not correlated with what is socially and environmentally desirable but are simply an expression of self-organized patterns in a complex dynamical system. So even if considerable effort goes into promoting societally and environmentally desirable types of novelty, the impact will thereby be strongly limited: either it goes into one of these for (the purposes quite arbitrary) directions or it will be locked out by them. It is consequently clear that we pay for certain types of adaptability with a loss in other types of adaptability – types of adaptability that we as a society would sorely need. On the highest level, what has happened is that innovation itself has become locked-in, or more correctly the specific way in which innovation is currently organized. The way we innovate is itself an innovation and the positive moral valence of novelty is in fact no more than a few centuries old.
But it is also clearly the case that incumbent regimes do periodically fall and give way to entirely new regimes. Key to devising new strategies for organizing human innovation and thereby society is the study of transitions: how novelty emerges, how it comes to radiate and what happens as it radiates. When radically new ideas emerge they are usually so out of sync with existing regimes that they can only survive if they happen to be protected somehow. This protection has historically been provided by many different sources and the protection has usually been coincidental rather than intended. Typically there happens to be a local niche for some new way of doing things, and this new way, although initially promoted because of a very narrow range of uses, later happens to turn out to be highly generative. For example, universities and the military have historically provided this type of early protection to incipient ideas. But in general, any complex sociotechnical system, such as large cities, is likely to support such opportunities.
But protection in itself is not enough. The sociotechnical landscape must somehow “open up” the field of regimes and sometimes it does just that. Sociotechnical landscapes are not static, they are just highly inert and much because of this inertia (think of ice sheets with winds and currents pushing and pulling them in different directions) considerable stress can build up and “rifts” may form when incumbent sociotechnical regimes suddenly come to fit poorly into the overall picture. That is, when the beset regime would have to adapt in directions in which it cannot easily adapt. At such times, novelty that has been cultivated “below” in protected niches may flourish and take over the show quite rapidly and dramatically. Virtually any major dominant system today once emerged in such a way. Automobiles for example initially emerged in a variety of such niches, such as park and countryside touring, taxi traffic and racing. But as cities grew and people became more and more preoccupied with health and sanitation (a development that first trigged the development of tram systems) the situation eventually became ripe for a replacement of the horse and carriage – first in professional uses and then also for private uses. The automobile came to be exapted into those new roles. In other words, it was not yet adapted to such roles, but it was adapted to something else in a way that happened to conducive to further transformation into more serious modes of transportation.
So understanding more about how to break out of these self-organized channels may lead us in the direction of figuring out ways to maintain a higher degree of flexibility to adapt to future developments. But this brings us to who should get to decide what is desirable or not and what means are effective and realistic for deciding. This is highly relevant as it represents perhaps the major widespread misgiving about ambitions to alter the course of a self-organizing economy. And indeed, just as history is beginning to tell us that this runaway process may be painting itself into a corner, it has already taught us that a top-down bureaucratic way of planning what to innovate and produce does not only not work (pretending to be able to predict this process is just ridiculous) it also invites totalitarianism, produces an inequitable society and is unsustainable in just about any sense of the word.
Top-down elements are surely needed to provide coordination and accountability in a society, but bottom-up strategies appear to be the only scalable basis of innovation organization. This brings us to the concept of “scaffolding structures”. Scaffolding can be described as structures that act as templates and catalysts of activity and innovation, not least with the function of distributing information, but also strongly related to the concept of protected niches where new solutions can be allowed to develop sufficiently to be able to show their worth. Society is full of such structures, with corporations and startup incubators being prime examples, and they shape the resulting self-organized system in a powerful way. Scaffolding structures are thereby suitable targets for design and experimentation in regard to organization as well as in regard to information dissemination. Such experimentation has also been taking place more and more lately, such as over the internet in the form of new ways of organizing software development and otherwise for example within the context of what is known as “social innovation”, certification organizations such as Fairtrade, and so on. There is no shortage of ideas of ways to organize the activities of people, for example to allow agents to make more informed decisions, allowing people to enter into productive work in the absence of standard market opportunities, and so on. It would be ironic if we were to propose more exactly what such structures should look like – the point is that experimentation should take place also at this level. Experimentation and a “meritocracy of ideas” where social and environmental factors also play are essential since the future is inherently impossible to foresee.
Experimentation of this type is however not stimulated today. Such organizations fit poorly into the landscape that the organization of society as a whole constitutes. They may be seen as hindering free trade, they may compete with workforces organized by trade unions and there may be question about who is in charge, how taxes and fees should be levied and so on. However, a rift seems to be forming in the fabric: the financial system fails to operate as advertised, generating crises, austerity, persistent unemployment and alienation. Unless there is experimentation with new ways of organizing, and unless this experimentation happens in a thoughtful way, we may not be pleased with what old ghost that may come to the surface to replace the current regime.