Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship (issue #10) — On the lack of principles

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Field Notes on Innovation and Intrapreneurship is a series of posts written for Intrapreneurship World. Issue #10 was published on December 13th, 2016.

On the lack of principles

I find it increasingly difficult to write about innovation.

First, there’s nothing much new to add to everything that has already been said or written. When was the last time you bought a book on innovation and thought, after reading it, “Crikey, I’ve really learned something new here!”? I haven’t, to be honest. At least, not for a very long time. Most books simply repackage fashionable innovation practices such as Lean Startup or design thinking, interlaced with stories of companies that have successfully adopted these practices. But we hardly ever hear from companies that also use these practices but nevertheless fail. Which is much more interesting, of course. Besides, in the long run these practices usually don’t seem to create any value and can even stifle long-term innovation. Most go out of fashion after a while, ony to be replaced by ‘the next big thing in innovation.’

The other reason why I find writing about innovation increasingly difficult is more personal. I seem to have lost interest in innovation altogether. That is to say, in what most people call ‘innovation.’

Maybe these reasons are related. Because we all read the same books, go to the same conferences, follow the same people, we end up doing the same things. We are merely ‘innovation copycats.’ This, in turn, leads to more of the same — to an endless stream of exchangeable products and services.

But it goes deeper. There’s the question whether we are actually innovating the right things. For the right reasons. Most companies, whether established or startups, don’t. They simply create more ‘stuff,’ instead of more ‘meaning.’ They may pretend to make the world a better place, but hardly ever succeed.

Remember how Uber was all about sharing, just like Airbnb? But they aren’t, not really. It’s just another business model trying to create as much value as quickly as possible. Not social value, but things like company or shareholder value. Uber and Airbnb may have started out with the noblest of intensions, but at the end of the day it’s about growth and expansion. Again, scale over meaning. If we truly want to improve people’s lives, we need to find better ways of transportation, not more Uber.

Airbnb is turning cities into hotels. You only have to look at cities such as Amsterdam and Venice, to see what tourism means for its inhabitants. In Venive, you’re lucky to bump into a real Venetian as most are fleeying the city.

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A protestor in Venice, Italy, holding a sign saying ‘Farewell Venice.’ (Photo: Marco Bertorelli/AFP)

And with Ryanair’s CEO Michael O’Leary hoping to offer zero fares within the next ten years, I sometimes wonder whether we have totally forgotten ‘the shit’ we’re in. Instead of flying more, we should fly less. But flying less, of course, isn’t Ryanair’s business model, just as creating liveable cities is’t Airbnb’s and better public transportation isn’t part of Uber’s.

I’m not saying that it should be ‘either-or.’ We simply can’t feed the world’s population — 9 billion by 2050 — on organic food, and most certainly not on avocado toast. We will also need genetically modified foods, artificial meats, city farms. It’s, as always, ‘both-end.’

I understand that Ryanair, from their business perspective, wants to make flying free, but should we? Is it ethically right? I like Airbnb, and use them myself occasionally. But would you like to live in a city that looks like this:

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Airbnb’s in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

Do you really want to use Uber, knowing that behind behind every customer seeking a fast ride is a worker, often working 60–80 hour weeks, who is denied the basic rights of employees. Forget about sharing. This is the ‘gig economy,’ which “is coming under increased scrutiny as poor worker conditions, worker protests and first-hand testimonials draw attention to the fact that it may not be technology powering the app revolution as much as plain old contractual insecurity and worker oversupply,” Izabella Kaminska writes in a recent FT Alphaville exclusive: Inside the gig economy.

In a bid to figure out just how fair or unfair the contracts which bind the gig economy really are, and to discover how easy it is or isn’t to make a decent wage, Kaminska decided to take a stab at food delivering. The video in the article is a testimonial of her experiences. Please have a look, before you tell people your (next) startup idea is “like Deliveroo meets” whatever.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not aksing you to stop innovating. On the contrary. We need more, albeit the right innovations for the right reasons. Though, we should stop worshipping Silicon Valley’s ‘tech moguls,’ especially in the year Silicon Valley went morally bankrupt.

“If the Valley wants to create something other than a technocracy that favors authoritarians and punishes their critics,” says Sarah Jones in a tought-provoking article in The New Republic, “it has to engage with the world it’s trying to change and undertake the messy business of regaining its moral equilibrium.”

So, if you may find a problem that needs solving, not only ask whether it’s a real problem — does it really exist? Also ask whether your solution is morally right. According to Jessica Helfand in Design. The Invention of Desire, the key ingredients missing in the pursuit of innovation are empathy, humility, compassion and conscience. Together, these four form a set of principles — a system of moral values — for innovators to live by. The thing is, you’ll never find these in innovation books. Head for the philosophy section instead.

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