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The innovation society

In the Innovation Society, citizens are just consumers hungry to satisfy “needs” they didn’t know they had; firms work to create those needs and the products that satisfy them – that is, they innovate, or they die; and governments make sure that nothing – from social justice to cultural enrichment – gets in innovation’s way.

Innovation in the past

Human societies have always innovated, in the sense of constructing new artifacts and organizational forms to address perceived challenges to and opportunities arising from their current way of life. But for most of human history, innovation tended to be an activity of last resort, regarded primarily as a way of preserving things as they were from some sort of external threat, or exploiting existing competences to gain advantages over some (natural or social) “other”. Novelty in itself was not viewed positively; and possessing things, while often important in marking fundamental social distinctions, had in general a negative moral valence as an end in itself or a marker of individual identity.

All this began to change in the 18th century. Over the following two centuries, the number of artifacts increased dramatically, as did the complexity of the organizations that produced and exchanged them. Moreover, in the 20th century, new kinds of organizations came into being dedicated to inventing new functionalities for artifacts (e.g. the marketing profession), designing artifacts that instantiated this new functionality (e.g. the engineering disciplines), and convincing potential users that these functionalities promised value for them, even satisfied needs they heretofore hadn’t conceived, never mind felt (e.g. the advertising industry).

Novelty became a fundamental social value, and the ownership of artifacts the primary basis of individual identity. Within the richest societies, a new form of innovation dependence arose and established itself. This dependence was tied to a particular way of viewing the socio-technological world.

The innovation society and its ideology

According to this view, the principal, indeed overriding, policy aim for local, regional and national government is sustained economic growth. The engine of this growth is innovation, the creation of new kinds of artifacts. Which kinds of new artifacts have value is determined by the market: innovation policies are regarded as successful only to the extent that they lead to new artifacts produced and sold by profit-seeking private firms, to buyers convinced that these artifacts have sufficient value to justify their market price.

The cost of not innovating – or of subordinating innovation to other values, from cultural enrichment to social justice – is generally regarded as prohibitively high: competition at the level of firms and of national economies doom dawdlers to failure and descent into economic decline and social chaos.

Over the last two decades, in the richest countries, this innovation-dependent view increasingly informs the content and boundaries of policy debate at the governmental level, strategic direction at the firm level, and the way in which individual citizens interpret the economic and political contexts that structure their lives. Collectively, the citizens of these countries and their way of life, including the social, economic and cultural institutions that sustain it, constitute the innovation society.