Our society is increasingly beset by what it interprets as global crises, of which the financial crisis, the energy crisis, and the global warming crisis are leading examples. All these crises share a common origin in what may be described as a social meta-crisis, induced by the way in which our society organizes its processes of innovation. We contend that this meta-crisis (and hence also the component crises it spawns) will be extremely difficult to resolve via the economic and political processes our society has come to rely on to confront challenges. To describe the meta-crisis, we begin by introducing some ideas on innovation dynamics, which will allow us to formulate the nature of the meta-crisis and the reason for which we need to develop new processes to deal with it. These ideas were initially developed in the FET-sponsored ISCOM (Innovation Society as a Complex System) project and are currently the focus of the FET Coordination Action INSITE (Innovation, Sustainability and ICT). By innovation, we refer to the processes through which new artifacts are conceived, designed, produced and integrated into patterns of use. These processes necessarily involve the construction of new patterns of interaction among agents, and hence transformations in the organization of what we may call agent space. Thus there is an inextricable linkage between the dynamics of change in the space of artifacts and in the space of agents (Lane and Maxfield, 2005). These dynamics are mediated by the way in which the relevant agents represent the contexts in which they act: in particular, their attributions about the identity of the other agents with whom they interact and the functionality of the artifacts around which their interactions are organized. The incorporation of artifacts instantiating these new attributions of functionality into patterns of use by agents can lead to new values and, eventually, new needs on the part of these agents.
Innovations occur in cascades, which link the generation of new artifact types, organizational transformations and new attributions of functionality. Moreover, these cascades are frequently driven by a positive feedback dynamic, which works like this (Lane, Maxfield, Read and van der Leeuw, 2009): (1) new artifact types are designed to achieve some particular attribution of functionality; (2) organizational transformations are constructed to proliferate the use of tokens of the new type; (3) novel patterns of human interaction emerge around these artifacts in use; (4) new attributions of functionality are generated to describe that the participants in these interactions are obtaining or might obtain from them; (5 = 1) new artifacts are designed to instantiate the new attributed functionality. The cascades that result from this positive feedback dynamic, characterized as they are by the generation of new attributions and the emergence of new patterns of agent interaction, are anything but linear and predictable.Over the last century, positive feedback innovation dynamics have become ever more important in the organization and collective imagination of Western society. New organizational forms have emerged, whose principal functionality is to implement each step in the exaptive bootstrapping dynamic. For example, over the past 140 years, a plethora of engineering professions have arisen that support the training of, provide collective memory for, and establish communication networks among, people whose work consists of designing artifacts to deliver a specified functionality (step 1 above). Many of these engineers are employed in industrial and state-sponsored R&D laboratories, a 20:th century organizational innovation; over the past half-century, and in particular the last two decades, their work is increasingly enabled by research that derives from new forms of formal and informal industrial-university partnership. Passing to step 2, the advertising industry over the last century has played a key role in translating new attributions of functionality into new needs, which over the last several decades are increasingly centered not on physical or biological requirements for sustenance, shelter or comfort, but on artifact-mediated attributions of individual and social identity. And the marketing profession over the last 50 years or so has developed increasingly sensitive instruments for uncovering new uses for existing artifacts (step 3), converting them into new attributions of functionality, and discovering agents who might conceivably come to engage in patterns of interaction with artifacts and other agents in which these new functionalities will provide them with the satisfaction of new needs (step 4). By providing an organizational scaffolding for the component processes of the positive feedback dynamic, these innovations force the rate at which its cycles are enacted, generating innovation cascades that move with ever-increasing velocity. Moreover, the successive waves of innovation in transportation and communication technologies that have taken place over the last two centuries, and the transformations in economic and political organization to which they have in large measure contributed, have generated a corresponding expansion in the spatial scale over which innovation cascades operate.
Our society’s dependence on innovation cascades is expressed in, and sustained by, an increasingly widespread way of thinking, which we will term the Innovation Society ideology. This ideology underlies almost all current discourse about business strategy and governmental policy. The following four propositions form its central core: (1) the principal aim of policy is sustained economic growth, interpreted as a steady increase in GDP; (2) the engine of this growth is innovation, interpreted as the creation of new kinds of artifacts; (3) Which new kinds of artifacts have value is decided by the market; (4) the price to pay for not innovating, or for subordinating innovation to other values, like cultural enrichment or social justice is prohibitively high: competition, at the level of firms and of national economies, dooms dawdlers to failure, which translates into economic decline and social chaos.
Any particular way of thinking about a complex phenomenon will illuminate some of its aspects, while it will obscure others. The Innovation Society ideology focuses on only three outcomes for innovation processes: new artifacts, jobs and economic growth. In contrast, our account of innovation cascades highlights the emergent transformations in social organization and attributions, which we see as inextricably linked to the processes through which new artifacts enter into patterns of social interaction. From our point of view, some of the most difficult and unsettling societal challenges we currently face stand revealed as emergent outcomes of the very innovation processes that the Innovation Society interprets as the key to constructing our collective future: from the financial crisis and its devastating aftermath, to overburdened and increasingly costly health care systems, through the specters of climate change, environmental pollution and natural resource depletion. These crises – and many more – are, we claim, endogenous to the way our society organizes it innovation processes.
How can the Innovation Society responds to these crises? Its ideology offers space for two kinds of response, one primarily economic and the other political. The economic response is via market driven innovation: the market responds to opportunities to remediate the adverse consequences that innovation cascades may generate. But it is becoming increasingly obvious that, despite its undeniable creativity in generating novelty, the market is not quick in detecting the negative consequences of innovation cascades, nor is it efficient in responding to them when it does detect them. If the lesson of the climate change crisis is not sufficient to drive this point home, consider the current obesity epidemic in the U.S., which many in the public health community identify as the principal public health challenge of the 21:st century. This epidemic arose from cascading innovations in agriculture (producing a huge surplus in cheap available calories), processed foods and new distribution channels for them (providing higher returns to producers and distributers from the cheap calory surplus), and changing patterns of consumption that emerged in response to these innovations. The “market” indeed responded to this innovation with another cascade of innovations, in the diet and pharmaceutical industries, among others; all of which have produced huge market successes, with no discernible effect in decreasing the epidemic.
The Innovation Society ideology guarantees that innovation policy is a high priority for governments at all levels, from the local to the European. For the most part, such policies are designed to prime the pump of invention: that is, create a favorable environment for firms to bring new artifact types to market, leaving to the market itself the task of sorting out which of these have value and which not. The political response to crises, once detected, is to try to support the processes that will bias the pump-priming towards the invention of new artifacts whose functionality will ameliorate in some way the crisis’ negative consequences. There are in general many possible pathways by which such a strategy could be implemented (think of climate change: policies designed to encourage innovation in alternative energy technologies range from emission regulations, to carbon taxes, to public funding for or incentives for private investment in targeted R&D). Political discourse under the Innovation Society ideology is about which of these strategies to pursue. It does not address the question of how to organize processes that will provide early detection of potentially negative consequences of innovation cascades. Nor does it address the even more fundamental question: how to organize processes that would pro-actively steer innovation cascades in socially positive directions. We believe that these two questions should be placed on the table. The current set of detected endogenous social crises generated by the way in which our society organizes innovation processes –not to mention existing crises we haven’t yet managed to detect or crises yet to emerge – challenges the very sustainability of our Innovation Society (Van der Leeuw, Lane and Read, 2009). Our analysis up to this point suggests it is unlikely that initiatives designed to reorganize innovation processes in order to construct a socially sustainable future will emerge from discourses or practices currently going on in either the economic or the political domain. Obviously, both must become engaged in the transformation process if such a reorganization can be achieved, but we believe that the leadership in designing and initiating such a process will be provided instead by civil society. For us, civil society is composed of people and organizations, the directedness of whose activities are provided primarily by attributions of the social good that will accrue from them. Civil society organizations are often defined in contradistinction to state and market organizations: unlike state organizations, civil society organizations do not have recourse to force to induce individuals and organizations to participate in the processes they initiate; unlike market organizations, the primary directedness of a civil society organization cannot be the pursuit of profit. Civil society organizations engage in many different kinds of activities and entertain a great variety of (often at least partially contradictory) attributions of what constitutes the common good. Moreover, individuals may belong to (or participate in the activities of) a great many different civil society organizations – exiting and entering at will. As a result, the organization of civil society is exceedingly complex – much more so than the zones of agent-space pertaining primarily to state or market; thus, the idea of mobilizing civil society for anything – much less to change the way society organizes innovation, in which both state and market are so heavily invested – may seem at first sight fanciful in the extreme. We believe that the contrary is the case: the very complexity of civil society’s organization – its heterogeneity and its heterarchy 2– lies at the core of the two ideas we now present for how civil society can help reorganize innovation processes to induce socially sustainable innovation dynamics. In particular, they both involve reconceptualizations of innovation policy, different from governmental action to prime the pump of invention The first reconceptualization retains the conventional idea that the locus of policy-making is government (be it local, regional, national or European). Its novelty follows from the contention that innovation policy should be based on a systemic understanding of innovation cascades, and in particular on the intertwining of design and emergence in those dynamics. That is, innovation policy should be directed not just towards encouraging the design of new technologies and artifact types, but also towards uncovering and generating rapid responses, when appropriate, to emergent consequences as tokens of these new types get incorporated into new patterns of interaction among agents and artifacts. Collectively, precisely because of the heterogeneity and heterarchy of civil society, it can play a fundamental role in organizing the monitoring activities associated with such a policy, through its links to practice, its potential capacity to identify social transformations in practically any zone of agent-artifact space, and its embodiment of competences that could potentially be combined to become expertise in interpreting causal linkages between artifact innovation, social transformation and attributional shifts. The problem is how to recruit networks of civil society organizations that can initiate activities directed towards detecting untoward social consequences of innovation cascades. There are at least two reasons to believe that in the long-term this problem may be solvable. The first is that social values are paramount for these organizations; if the metanarrative about the unsustainability of the Innovation Society resonates with them, they will have a strong incentive for aligning their activities with other civil society organizations in a network such as we just described. The second is that there already exists considerable experience and competence in facilitating the formation and functioning of networks of civil society organizations, to launch and carry out socially innovative initiatives. Indeed, there are an increasing number of organizations that regard this as their principal activity. We call these organizations Distributed Innovation Policy Organizations (DIPOs); the reason we do so will be clear as we introduce our second reconceptualization of innovation policy in the next paragraphs.
Innovation policy, like all government policy, reflects the control hierarchy from which it arises. Policy is set at the highest level of that hierarchy. The policy is usually justified in the discourse that leads to its approval by some kind of narrative, which describes what its effects will be. The policy does not specify all the details of its implementation, which happen later and are planned, and then carried out, at successively lower levels of the governmental hierarchy. The policy’s effects of course depend on these details, as well as many other factors, which may or may not have figured in the justifying narrative. By the time the effects are evaluated (if they ever are), the policy-makers’ attention is elsewhere, and the narrative that justified the policy is generally long forgotten. None of this implies that policy doesn’t matter – of course it does; just that if we want to understand how processes play out, we need to follow those processes, not concentrate our attention on the story that the people who initiated the process tell about it.
As we have seen, innovation processes are anything but linear and predictable; rather, they are full of false starts and redirections on the part of their participants. What makes them “work” is the capacity of these participants, through their interactions with one another, to keep generating new ideas of how to interpret what is going on and what to do next. A distributed, rather than a top-down, approach to innovation policy would promote innovation by enhancing the generative potential of relationships among participants in innovation processes (Lane and Maxfield, 2005). This is what DIPOs do. Of course, to do this successfully, DIPOs must constantly monitor interactions among all the agents in their purview, in order to evaluate changes in generative potential, to determine actions to enhance it where appropriate and possible, and to discover emergent outcomes that may require new interpretations about which kinds of transformations the DIPOs would really like to encourage, in which zones in agent-artifact space. The ways in which this monitoring and constant re-interpretation are carried out become then a fundamental part of what constitutes the DIPOs’ contribution to innovation policy. DIPOs are mesolevel organizations that enact policies at the microlevel; by promoting the proliferation of social innovation DIPOs, civil society seems to be enacting a distributed acrolevel policy to organize innovation processes that are guided by social values. Both the macrolevel systemic innovation policy model and the microlevel DIPO model involve recruiting, monitoring and coordinating the activities of networks of social innovators and civil society organizations. In both cases, ICT will have an important role to play in enabling these functionalities. Indeed, inspired by successful models like open-source software production and Wikipedia, some DIPOs have been already begun integrating web-based ICT into their practice, making it possible to create ever-larger networks of innovators, many of whose interactions are virtual rather than face-toface. The ICT systems they employ could in principle capture valuable information about patterns of interaction and even emerging attributions, the analysis of which could suggest changes in the interaction modalities that the organizations could implement to enhance generative potential in the network. That is, they could serve to support network interactions, to monitor them, and to guide the hosting DIPO toward implementing more effective innovation-enhancing policies – even helping to nudge the resulting innovation cascades in directions favored by the host DIPO.
Political discussions and research often focus on illustrating and pin-pointing the problems with our current societal organization; the social and environmental unsustainability of a system leading to the hollow unhappiness of the rich and the starvation of the poor. Yet, this mounting evidence has had little effect in the form of a concerted and coordinated effort to construct an alternative societal organization. Perhaps, what is missing is not a striking illustration of the existence of problems with the current societal organization – many, probably enough, people seem already aware of at least some of these, to the point of saturation and consequent desensitization. Instead, what is lacking is a clear alternative – how to mobilize civil society to construct a direction to walk and a way to start walking.
As to the direction, something like the model of Soviet communism is often talen as the only conceivable alternative – often with an added remark that this attempt certainly didn’t play out too well. The innovation society and capitalism is seen as the only other way to proceed; it’s not perfect – but we will have to live with its imperfections – something which is arguably somewhat easier to say for a Westerner who isn’t literally dying as a result of these imperfections.
Marcuse called this phenomenon, the inability to look outside the current reality and overcome its primacy, one-dimensional thinking. The current society actively discourages thinking of alternatives, and demands the focus to remain in the real-political vicinity of the current organization. Bizarrely, it is discussing and striving for an alternative that is deemed unrealistic, rather than desperately trying to turn around the sinking ship. Making matters worse, the problem of imagining an alternative societal structure is a problem of imagining a complex mass-dynamics. Any adequately adaptive societal system is by necessity exceedingly complex, consisting of myriads of interacting entities – and we as humans are simply not mentally equipped to handle such mass-dynamics, at least not without additional aids.
Imagine trying to convince an extraterrestrial that our production system is realistic and actually possible to implement, without pointing out that the system actually is implemented. Even with the description and discussion spanning days and nights, this would be extremely difficult or even impossible – especially since we don’t really know how the system works. (And, as the alien would undoubtedly point out, the system arguably actually doesn’t work, since it fails even the basic fundamentals, such as providing all its inhabitants with food, shelter and basic health care.)
The response to this problem from those who believe that the ship instead must be abandoned, mainly in the anarchist parts of the autonomous movement, is to create examples of the utopia today. Which often takes the form of building small self-sustainable (often with quite a broad definition of this term) communities. But these examples do not get to the root of the problem. It was never difficult to imagine 20 hippies living in a tent and consuming edible flowers, regardless of how completely horizontally organized and gift-based their economy, or how much in harmony was the singing of their shroom spirited songs. What makes the mass-dynamics of an alternative society intangible and difficult to imagine is the scaling-up. What is difficult is to imagine is a entire city or country – never mind global society – organized horizontally and harmonically.
A relevant rebuttal to this reasoning would be Marx’s aversion against today’s cooks planning the soup of tomorrow, and that the only way to find the soup is to, paraphrasing the zapatistas, askingly cook, tasting often and adapting to the flavors that emerge. While this is true, it leaves the problems discussed above unresolved. And it misses that the illustration of a possibility of another world is not equal to the planning of the coming world.
So, this begs the question: through what means can we communicate and illustrate the possibility of another world, in such a way that it becomes tangible and intuitively understandable?
One possible answer to this question could be serious massively multi-player online games (henceforth referred to using the evocative acronym SMOG). Much interest and research has been put in serious games during the last few years, perhaps primarily driven by the hype seemingly inevitably connected to new technology, rather than motivations based on genuine need of the features provided. One example of suggested ways to apply serious games, put forth e.g. during the recent MD kick-off meeting, is apply them to transfer values, such as solidarity and responsible resource management. However, I will argue that this is in fact a rather naive idea. We could never, almost by definition, compete on equal terms with the value dissemination efficiency of the products of the Innovation Society, especially not when our competition is one of the largest industries in the world. The products they develop are designed with the sole purpose of maximizing spread, and the values that they bring are only means of this end – however destructive the side-effects these means may bring. Furthermore, this approach misses the most important strength of SMOG.
A SMOG allows us to create an alternative world, populated by real humans performing actions in an existence that allows different norms and values from the real world. The architecture of this world is free for the makers to manipulate and the causes of such manipulations can be easily analyzed, since all data is available. Such an alternative world could illustrate through participation the possibility of an alternative way of societal organization, while at the same time informing on the ways of finding such alternatives. Such an game world could let even a one-dimensional man seeing and believing an alternative dimension.
Through this, the game would not simply represent a positive example in a undoubtedly losing struggle of opposing values, but rather a platform for research, a tellable tale of what could be and a way for anyone to look into an alternative world. By creating an online society that in all central regards is analogous to our own, this would also allow us to experiment and set up ICT scaffolding structures for organizing the online society. To be meaningful, the world would need to be very open-ended, dynamic and realistic, supporting for example: human needs of food and shelter, goods production similar to current systems, Innovation of new products, trade and decentralized coordination. Second Life provides a relevant example of how this can be done, by providing users the possibility of writing their own source code in a sandboxed environment inside the game.
A possible criticism from one uninitiated in the world of contemporary gaming, could be that the motivation in games necessarily must be grim competition between individualist characters. This is a valid point in so much that it describes the necessity of having a goal with any game. However, these goals needn’t be competitively individualist in nature, even through this foul feature permeates the contemporary society and thus also are the most common types in current commercial games. There are however notable counter-examples, such as the third most selling PC game of all time. In The Sims the goal is to increase the self-esteem and joy of the character that one controls, through for example having a good meal while sitting comfortably and being engaged in a deep conversation with another character.
To conclude, developing an online game such as this could be highly valuable, not only as an experimental platform for creating alternative world, but also to illustrate the possibility of such worlds. With the development of game development platforms such as WorldForge or BigWorld, it would be far from impossible to develop of such a game, possibly adding a much needed dimension to the discussions of our future societal structures.
Ten years ago very few people were talking about social innovation; five years ago, President Barroso put social innovation on the European Commission policy agenda; now social innovation has become a bandwagon, attracting attention from many national and local governments, inspiring many young people to explore new career opportunities that combine entrepreneurialism with the desire for social relevance, challenging traditional patterns of social engagement as practiced by cooperatives and civil society organizations. But “social innovation” is more a rallying cry than it is a coherent vision or strategy for societal level social transformation.
This document puts forward a proposal for such a vision, by contextualizing social innovation as a possible way forward from our society’s current system of organizing its transformation processes, a system we call the Innovation Society. We describe four principles that we think should be at the foundation of a systemic theory of social innovation, and we develop some of the strategic implications of these principles – thus providing a basis for an action agenda for social innovation. We conclude with some tactical considerations: a set of projects we would like to launch, to begin to realize the agenda our document implies.
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.