Innovation is a hostile act

For many good reasons, innovation is widely appreciated as a positive force, as the driver for progress and prosperity. But make no mistake: innovation has serious downsides, at least for some, at least sometimes. Even though these negative impacts are far outweighed by the positive effects, they are the source of considerable push-back and utter resistance to innovation. And it would be too easy to dismiss justified concerns as irrational, dump, backwards-oriented, or fear-mongering. It’s time to cast some light on the hostility even the best intended innovator might be faced with. It’s time to acknowledge that innovation itself is a hostile act.

The big question is: What are the underlying causes for such hostility? How can innovation be hostile? You’ll find objective reasons in the outcome as well as in the very process of innovation. Those are often perceived as more dramatic than they actually are, amplified and reinforced by human psychology. That perception leads to exaggerated arguments, which nonetheless hold a solid core of facts to should be taken seriously. In real life, and in particular in heated face-to-face debate, the factual and the exaggerated are very difficult to discern. Still, for the sake of clarity, I’ll try to keep facts separated from perception.

The outcomes of innovation

Let’s start at the end, with the outcomes of innovation. How does the ‘after‘ differ from the ‘before‘? Now many will cite an improvement, some progress, a problem solved, a gain achieved. In general, these observations highlight some comparative advantage of the ‘after‘ over the ‘before‘. And that is the desired outcome of innovation. But is that the full story?

The 19th century French economist Jean-Baptiste Say pointed out “The entrepreneur shifts economic resources out of an area of lower and into an area of higher productivity and greater yield.” And that directs us to the necessary outcome of innovation: Say’s reallocation of resources presents the necessary condition of successful innovation to occur. Implied within this condition is the reality that any shift in ownership of or access to resources results in gains for some and losses for others. While these gains might feature under the desired outcomes, the losses are certainly undesirable. And the spectrum of resources to consider is incredibly broad, ranging from food or material to energy, information, or knowledge, and including such abstract concepts like money, power, attention or even status.

Therefore, no matter how laudable the innovator’s intentions are, somebody will lose something. And it’s important to understand who will suffer the detriment of a specific innovation, because that loss of resources is the root cause of most resistance.

The process of innovation

The path leading from ‘before‘ to ‘after‘, the innovation process itself, gives rise to further objections and pushback. First of all, neither that path nor its outcomes are pre-determined; both will evolve over time, in interaction with many interested parties and in response to many occurrences along the way. Secondly, successful innovation is a quite protracted affair, and often delayed; as a result, interests will change, and support will dwindle.

At the beginning of that path, there’s a reasonably clear idea of what the ‘after‘ should look like, of a concrete novel problem-solution that is to be developed and implemented. With that vision of the future goes a clear idea of who the beneficiaries would be: those whose problem is to be solved. Ideally, there should be similar clarity about the potential detriments of that novel problem-solution, and who would be affected by those downsides. But that is rarely the case, because everybody gets carried away by the positive prospects, by growing expectations and the promise of gain without pain. At least initially.

As the development progresses, as the novel problem-solution matures, and with its beginning implementation, the likely outcomes become more visible and predictable. That’s a reality check for the beneficiaries, and some will feel their hopes betrayed when they realise that they cannot get exactly what they had expected. At the same time, this is the wake-up call for those potentially suffering from the outcomes. For them, it’s the realisation that they hadn’t been party to the earlier discussions, and they might have to pay for other people’s benefit. At this point in time, the honeymoon is over for this specific innovation: the beneficiaries take off the pink-tinted glasses, while the potential victims [I hate the term, but didn’t yet find a better word] take off their gloves. As a consequence, the tone of the discussion changes: the initial debate was predominantly positive and optimistic, whereas now it becomes more balanced and realistic.

In the end, and close to the final implementation, the outcomes are rather clear and tangible. The most optimistic expectations of the beneficiaries are now unmasked as pure imagination, whereas the potential victims find more and more reason to dissent. Supporters are sobered, opponents are encouraged. And that is the discussion style that we often observe when any specific innovation hits public discourse. While there are benefits that will accrue to many, the majority remains quiet: they do not defend that innovation, because either their optimistic expectations haven’t been fulfilled, or they do get what they want, or even worse, they do not really know about their benefit. On the other hand, there is specific detriment for a few, and those will express their discontent and deliver concrete arguments against the implementation of this innovation. As a consequence, what should be a balanced debate about positive and negative impacts and implications is effectively dominated by the downsides.

Now don’t get me wrong: It is vitally important for a whole-of-society discussion on innovation that the pros and the cons are heard and get their fair share of air time. My point is that it takes us conscious effort to ensure that balance, because that’s in part against our natural inclinations, against our mental wiring.

Human psychology

Those basic facts yield ample rational arguments for the downsides of any innovation project. Still, whenever we enter into a –likely controversial– debate over the concrete steps to take, the discussion is marred by exaggerated arguments inflated way out of proportion. But that’s not an outcome of conscious choice and malicious intent, it’s the result of what Hans Rosling labelled our dramatic instincts, in particular fear and negativity. Those instincts are the result of human evolution, and they do make perfect sense in life-or-death situations. Frightful events or prospects therefore get disproportionate attention, and negative news spread faster and further than good news. As a consequence, we are all wired to give extra attention to potentially negative outcomes of innovation, regardless of the objective risk at hand.

Secondly, we are ill-equipped to pass sound judgement on future events, as is evidenced in technology hype-cycles and framed by Amara’s law: ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run, and to under-estimate the effect in the long run‘. Particularly for the potential beneficiaries, an early affection is a recipe for later disappointment. Therefore, initially strong support is likely going to dwindle and could, at least in extreme cases of disillusionment, give rise to stark opposition.

How to deal with this hostility?

So we can we do to deal with the hostility of innovation, and the resulting resistance against it? I’d suggest three simple ideas: awareness, anticipation, and engagement.

First, we must remain aware that –regardless of the innovators laudable motives– some people will win something, and some people will lose something. That loss is the principle reason for push-back against well-intended innovation. We cannot simply discredit resistance as irrational or dismiss it as unjustified. So let’s acknowledge that.

Second, we need to think forward, think ahead. Don’t limit yourself to the intended consequences of your specific innovation project. Try to identify potential detrimental outcomes and think about potential mitigation strategies. And think about the most likely victims to those detriments, and reach out to them as early as you can.

Lastly, and that’s the most important realisation, you can’t escape the debate about pros and cons anyway. So enter into discussion with potential beneficiaries and victims alike, sooner rather than later. Don’t shy away from it.

The good news is: people are willing to trade perceived gains and losses, so there is negotiation space for the innovator who faces resistance. Dealing with this opposition transparently and respectfully is the basis for refuting unfounded concerns. More importantly, it’s essential for alleviating and mitigating negative impact to the maximum extent possible.

Truly challenging. Truly necessary. Truly rewarding.

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