How much innovation can society cope with?

Earlier on I posted that innovation essentially is change that generates value for society. From that perspective, society should just embrace every bit of innovation it could get hold of, shouldn’t it?

However, there are two fundamental obstacles. The first elephant in the room is of psychological nature, I’d call it “change fatigue”: the very human desire for stability and predictability that kicks in every time somebody proposes doing things differently, and even more so when the proposal is for doing different things. This psychological (at the level of an individual) and societal (at the level of large groups of people) barrier to innovation is well known.

Another barrier to innovation is almost invisible. The second elephant in the room is of a more physical nature: Could it be that society does not have the energy or is not organised to absorb innovation and adopt change, even when that change is embraced psychologically?

In 1988, Joseph A. Tainter offered an interesting consideration on this question in The Collapse of Complex Societies. As an anthropologist and historian, he had investigated the rise and fall of societies around the globe, and tested a broad range of theories that might explain the decline of formerly flourishing cultures. In contrast to other authors, he rejected climate, geography, or environmental mismanagement as dominant root causes. Rather, he proposed that a combination of organisational complexity and available energy defines whether or not a society will flourish. His reasoning and story line essentially go like this:

  • Societies exist as organisations to solve problems that smaller groups or individuals could not solve by themselves.
  • Maintaining and organising a society requires energy. Note: Tainter’s idea of “energy” contains everything that has a potential to perform work for society’s purpose; it includes energy sources in a narrow sense (coal, gas, oil, etc.) as well as energy subsidies such as wrought material, work force, treasury or stockpile.
  • Societies are continuously challenged to overcome problems (imposed from the outside as well as coming from within, think about climate change or demographics).
  • Societies solve problems in a rather short-sighted piece-meal approach that tries to change as little as possible. The existing structures are simply “patched up” and “fixed”, rather than thoroughly restructured. That’s the first elephant at work.
  • As a consequence, organisational complexity will increase. And at the same time, the per-capita cost for maintaining the organisation in society increases, thus making problem solutions less and less efficient.
  • To support the increasing complexity, i.e. to underpin and maintain the organisation within a society and to overcome the challenges as and when they present themselves, more and more energy is required: a flourishing society has an ever growing hunger for energy.

Now, as long as the amount of energy that is available to a society can support the increase in complexity that is necessary to overcome a specific challenge, that problem can be solved. However, with increasing complexity, the growing number of interconnections throughout society increase its rigidity, reduce its flexibility, and ultimately decrease its resilience to potential shock.

At some point, when the available energy is fully exploited, complexity cannot be increased further. Society has become inflexible and has lost its resilience to cope with challenges. In this situation, either the next problem remains unsolved (with all the detrimental effects it can wreak), or the society is reorganised for greater simplicity (think about shrinking empires, thinned-out trade networks, reduced governmental control and decentralisation). Such focusing on the core could be the result of a conscious decision to reorganise and simplify; it might well be the undesired effect of a major problem that could not be resolved.

What does all of the above mean for innovation? – A tale of two elephants

Innovation is change that adds value for society, and solving problems is certainly one way of adding value. Therefore, successfully coping with the continuous stream of challenges that a society is faced with (see Ian Morris’ paradox of development) requires a relentless stream of innovation.  However, the amount of energy available for a society effectively limits its ability to adopt innovation. What can we do?

On one hand, small-scale improvements are comparatively easy to implement, because the first elephant doesn’t mind too much. And these small improvements will fix the immediate problem. However, as an unintended side effect they also cause an increase in complexity and rigidity. They reduce society’s resilience to future problems, thus teasing the second elephant.

On the other hand, solutions that could effectively reduce complexity and increase resilience would help tame the second elephant. But these are almost impossible to implement, because the first elephant goes wild.

Our challenge as a society is that we only have an eye for the first elephant, trying to appease it. But it’s the second, the one that we ignore, that is going to define or deny our success in the long run. We must find a way to get along with both.


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