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Innovation and sustainability


The more interconnected the innovation society becomes, the faster it changes, the greater the likelihood of concatenations of unintended consequences and the potentially grave social and environmental crises that they entail: since the innovation society can continue to exist only by accelerating the rate at which innovation cascades are generated, unintended externalities are an inevitable part of its dynamics. But we really can’t be aware of all the ways in which these externalities may jeopardize the environment and the social, economic, cultural and political structures on which we rely.


Is the innovation society sustainable?
Can it continue to innovate its way out of problems brought on by innovation? Can the innovation society prevent environmental disaster? Or can it satisfy such basic needs as sufficient food, decent housing, sanitation and work for everyone, or will the substantial and increasing percentage of the world’s population whose needs are not effectively targeted threaten the social stability enjoyed by those privileged enclaves that are?

Over the past several years, the Innovation Society has encountered some alarming problems, mainly of its own making: global warming, air and water pollution, resource exhaustion, new kinds of epidemics (from obesity to depression), exploding financial bubbles, and a deepening economic crisis – all accompanied by a mounting resistance from individuals, groups and societies that reject its underlying belief and values.

Besides the environment, a correct framing of the sustainability problem has to take into account adequately social issues, and the linkages between artifact innovation, cultural change and transformations in social organization. In the Innovation Society, the temporal rate and the spatial scale on which uncontrolled innovation takes place are speeding up and spreading out respectively, threatening social and environmental systems with risks that cannot be foreseen, never mind neutralized.
Typically in the Innovation Society, firms introduce new artifacts to respond to “needs” attributed by the firm to some potential class of users. As these artifacts become incorporated in patterns of use, unanticipated effects emerge – some that may be viewed positively by the innovation society, while others may be deleterious. In keeping with innovation dependency, these deleterious effects, once recognized, should also become grist for the innovation mill, leading to the design of artifacts conceived to mitigate or cancel these effects. Ideally, then, the innovation society sustains itself through self-correcting innovation cascades, enhancing value-bestowing emergent effects and eliminating deleterious ones.


But can we count on these dynamics to automatically self-correct?

We know that they have a tremendous adaptive capability, but is it guaranteed or even likely that they adapt to anything? That seems hard to argue, since there are numerous constraints acting on them. For instance, even if solutions are technologically possible, they may not be economically and politically feasible. What if we must stave off problems whose causes can be understood (if at all) only by technical experts, and that must be kept from ever occurring? Even if they are understood by these experts, will the political process trust the experts on their word, and at what cost? Will we have enough advance warning, or may the problems unfold at a faster pace than the innovation processes, particularly the organizational ones, that would be necessary to solve them?

Innovation cascades produce disruptive changes that may lead to sustainability crises. The usual, but inadequate, response to these is more innovation, unleashing new cascades, and new crises. The core challenge in improving our responses is to link current, reductionist, irresponsible approaches within a systemic conscious view, and to contribute to the effective implementation of social and environmental sustainable practices.