The myth of unlimited capacity

Humanity has proved to be incredibly innovative in adjusting our living conditions to our advantage. This success story appears to predate written history, and one might draw the conclusion to our collective ingenuity was absolutely superior and capable of mastering any kind of problem. But is this really true?? Let’s think twice.

Our track record is truly amazing: we tamed fire, developed agriculture, defeated diseases, brought men to the moon and back home safely (the same is a fact for the bottom of the ocean). And we seem to continue this relentless journey. Consider just last week: the Costa Concordia is upright again, and Voyager 1 is the first man-made object to leave our solar system.

Even this small, and certainly incomplete selection is already impressive. It correctly describes historic facts, and that’s the real problem: these historic facts do not bear relevance for the future. We cannot simply extrapolate this previous trajectory into the future. More bluntly put: no turkey ever predicted Thanksgiving.

What then is a more realistic description of mankind’s innovation capacity? I’d offer three challenges to explain the essential constraints as I see them today: these are adoption, generation, and speed.

First of, adoption. We have come to realise that is not good enough just to have an innovative idea. Rather, it is vitally important to make the idea stick, to have it adopted by a large portion of the potential beneficiaries. Without that practical exploitation, the idea just is a theoretical potential with no practical value. While this concept is widely accepted,  there’s very little consideration for the potential limitation of society’s ability to adopt innovation. Do I really want a better smart phone every six months? Do I really need a new car every two years? The consumer society that emerged mid of the last century promoted the idea of more is always better. But to my mind, there are signs of increasing resistance against that paradigm, which could have to different sources: one could be an unwillingness (i.e. we might say “I do not want to participate in every new wave of technology anymore“); the second might be a limit in the adoption capacity (i.e. “I cannot cope with the number of new waves anymore“). All of this would result in the demand side being overwhelmed with what is offered.

Second then, generation, or the supply of innovation: our historic track record is usually seen as the proof of unlimited innovation supply. And we can even make a case for exponential growth in the generation of new ideas. But does that mean we shall not worry? That we will always be on top of our problems? I would argue that one of the reasons for the increase in innovation activity is that an ever larger proportion of a population are entering the creative field.  Think that through to its natural end state: an entire population working in the creative field. Could that be good enough to always solve any problem? I’m not convinced.

Thirdly, speed. In fact, the pace of innovation has facets of both, demand and supply. We are challenged in our ability to adopt innovation as much as we are challenged in our generation capacity. Yet there is one additional aspect that makes it necessary to address the speed of innovation: and that is the speed of problem generation. It is not just since globalisation and the global financial crisis that we observe an increasing number of challenges that are connected through complex interdependencies. And that complexity clearly increases the pace of new (and often very unexpected) challenges popping up. Hence, even if we were able to adopt innovation a lot faster, and generate innovation a lot faster than today, the problems we are faced with might still outpace our skills.

I do not want to sound pessimistic (for I am a true optimist). But I do not want to simply rely on historic truths either. Rather, I’d like to inject a sense of realism in the discussion about mankind’s innovation capacity. We should be honest about our collective skills and limitations. From that position we could then develop the necessary skills to take on the challenges we are facing. To my mind, more of the same!” is an incomplete answer to the call. What’s your view?

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