Working Notes of a Practising Neo-Generalist (#25) — On innovation and the need for softer, more beautiful words

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Winter in Aizu (3), by Kiyoshi Saitō (斎藤 清 Saitō Kiyoshi, 1907–1997). Japanese Prints Collection, John J. Burns Library, Boston College (Source: Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints)

“If anyone can refute me — show me I’m making a mistake or looking at things from the wrong perspective — I’ll gladly change. It’s the truth I’m after, and the truth never harmed anyone. What harms us is to persist in self-deceit and ignorance.” — Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 6:21 (translated by Gregory Hays, The Modern Library, New York)

On innovation and the need for softer, more beautiful words

Innovation comes in many different guises but it is fair to say that the most recent wave of innovation has been dominated by Silicon Valley’s adage ‘move fast and break things.’ And despite all the talk about ‘making the world a better place,’ almost all of it has been about ‘markets.’ Markets for taxis, holiday rentals, songs, basic consumer goods, and so on. What these markets have in common, Umair Haque writes in What The Next Wave of Innovation Should Be, is that they are being reigned by algorithms which turn even the tiniest everyday human interaction into an anonymous market exchange.

This wave of innovation has, undoubtedly, made many things more efficient, more convenient, but a more efficient world isn’t necessarily the ‘better place’ we were promised. According to Allison Arieff in Solving All the Wrong Problems (The New York Times, July 9, 2016), “We are overloaded daily with new discoveries, patents and inventions all promising a better life, but that better life has not been forthcoming for most. In fact, the bulk of the above list targets a very specific (and tiny!) slice of the population. As one colleague in tech explained it to me recently, for most people working on such projects, the goal is basically to provide for themselves everything that their mothers no longer do.”

Some people have benefited hugely from these endeavours, not in the least Silicon Valley’s founders and venture capitalists, but for most people it has deeply effected their relationship with businesses, governments and civic institutions. Not necessarily for the better. We only have to look around to see the things done to our cities, communities and our relationship with each other, all in the name of ‘innovation’ and ‘unstoppable’ technological progress. In many ways, innovation has eroded trust, amplified inequality and reduced human beings to insatiable consumers and powerless commodities. What were once honest middle class jobs are now insecure hustles; a far cry from technology’s promise of a future where we would all be capable of doing meaningful work.

But is this the kind of future we want? Is this truly the best we can do given the many fundamental challenges humanity is currently facing and the urgent action which is needed to be able to deal with these challenges head on? If the answer to these questions is no, what should the next wave of innovation then look like?

According to Joe Toscano in Forbes (July 23, 2019), the future of innovation lies in accelerating local, emerging economies and enabling people to participate in meaningful ways.

“[W]hile we idealize the companies established in Silicon Valley, there’s much to be learned from companies in smaller markets,” Toscano writes. “For one, distance creates a freedom that is impossible to achieve in a high-pressure, hyper-focused environment like The Valley. Getting away from such pressures and allowing our minds to wander often leads to insights that may not have been discovered otherwise. And two, success is often found when someone notices something the rest of the world was incapable of seeing and decides to capitalize on it. When someone lives in a bubble Silicon Valley, it’s easy to miss opportunities that may otherwise be obvious to outsiders. Combined, these factors are leading to a rise of innovation outside The Valley in the form of hyper-local, sustainable business models that are being created to solve real problems in people’s lives, not just get them hooked to a screen.”

Also Umair Haque believes we need to reinvent what innovators do. “Go beyond profit and earnings and whatnot, and put well-being first. Create, design, develop, and deliver it — just like we do with material stuff. To do it, we’ll also have to create whole new roles, departments, functions — Chief Well-Being Officer, Human Impact Designer, Eudaimonia Engineer, and so on. Investors are already beginning to measure how well companies do all this,” he writes.

But even more interesting is to reinvent what innovation is. Society doesn’t need more markets, Haque says. Instead, it needs very different kinds of organizations: systems. “Healthcare systems, financial systems, education systems — that deliver not just efficiency, but creativity, trust, sanity, opportunity, imagination, health, beauty, purpose.” These systems will deliver people the basics of decent human lives again. To achieve this, they “are going to be made of coalitions and networks, of businesses, of banks, of communities, of cities and towns, of civic organizations — they are going to blend and combine cooperation in radical and transformative ways, not just turn competition from gentle rivalry into bloodsport, which is what algorithmic markets do.”

But words matter too. After all, we humans are storytelling and story-finding machines — the ‘homo narrativus’ (Nathalie Ferrand and Michèle Weil, 2001).

There’s this beautiful story by the English poet David Whyte. In a conversation with On Being’s Krista Tippett, he says, “When I went full-time as a poet, I was only a year into it, and I spoke in Washington, D.C. at a large psychological conference. At the end of the conference was this line of people, and at the end of the line was a man who, in best American fashion, said, ‘We have to hire you.’ And I said in best Anglo-Irish fashion, ‘For what?’ He said enthusiastically, ‘To come into corporate America.’ And I said, ‘For what?’ And he said a marvelous thing, actually. He said, ‘The language we have in that world is not large enough for the territory that we’ve already entered. And in your work, I’ve just heard the language that’s large enough for it.’”

Similar to this, the ‘language of innovation’ isn’t large enough for the radical changes we need. But we don’t need more words. What we need are softer, more beautiful words. A vocabulary that steers us away from Silicon Valley’s nihilistic narrative. One that serves the nourishment of all, not just a few. These words won’t be found in today’s business schools, books and journals, but in poetry, art, the humanities. In nature. In beauty…

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“Beauty is the harvest of presence.” — David Whyte in ‘Beauty’ (from Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words)

“The harvest of presence, the evanescent moment of seeing or hearing on the outside what already lives far inside us; the eyes, the ears or the imagination suddenly become a bridge between the here and the there, between then and now, between the inside and the outside; beauty is the conversation between what we think is happening outside in the world and what is just about to occur far inside us.

Beauty is an achieved state of both deep attention and self-forgetting; the self forgetting of seeing, hearing, smelling or touching that erases our separation, our distance, our fear of the other. Beauty invites us, through entrancement, to that fearful, frontier between what we think makes us; and what we think makes the world. Beauty is almost always found in symmetries: the symmetries seen out in creation, the wings of the moth, the airy sky and the solid earth, the restful, focused eyes of a loving face in which we see our own self reflected: the symmetry also, therefore, of bringing together inner and outer recognitions, the far horizon of otherness seen in that face joined to the deep inner horizon of our own being. Beauty is an inner and an outer complexion living in one face.

Beauty especially occurs in the meeting of time with the timeless; the passing moment framed by what has happened and what is about to occur, the scattering of the first spring apple blossom, the turning, spiraling flight of a curled leaf in the falling light; the smoothing of white sun-filled sheets by careful hands setting them to air on a line, the broad expanse of cotton filled by the breeze only for a moment, the sheets sailing on into dryness, billowing toward a future that is always beckoning, always just beyond us. Beauty is the harvest of presence.” — David Whyte in ‘Beauty,’ an essay from Consolations: The Solace, Nourishment and Underlying Meaning of Everyday Words

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