How agency matters to innovators

Innovators are agents of change. They pursue novelty, often in the face of adversity. To succeed, they need to consider the other agents they are surrounded by. And they must embrace their own agency in all its facets in order to maximise the impact they have.

Innovation never occurs in a vacuum. The innovator —as a true agent— works within a given context, and that includes many other agents, each pursuing its own purpose, with its own means, taking its own decisions, having its own choices. Three aspects deserve particular attention.

  • Resistance — Other agents might not benefit from the innovator’s intended changes. Hence resistance should be anticipated, from human as well as artificial agents.
  • Recourse — Other agents may as well be partners, as the innovator may harness their means (for sensing and for acting) to promote her/his own objectives.
  • Responsibility — The creation of a new artificial agent should be a deliberate decision taken only by an innovator who is willing and able to bear the responsibility.

Innovation is much more than producing a brilliant idea and waiting for the world to accept it. The innovator’s own agency is the driving force for successful implementation. However, most innovators focus on their mission alone and pay little attention to the other facets of their agency. They do not systematically bring to bear all the sensors and actuators they have. And they rarely engage other agents (except for their investors) to expand the reach of information gathering, the diversity of actions, or the range of choices available to them.

Overall, the innovator’s comprehensive awareness of her/his own multi-facetted agency is crucial for achieving success. Similarly, full recognition of the other agents, their objectives, means, and actions, will help the innovator to overcome resistance, garner support, and expedite the innovative endeavour. Finally, understanding the genesis of artificial agents and their potential future impact is the key to responsible innovation today.

This is the fourteenth and final in a series of posts on the agency and how it matters to innovation.

2 thoughts on “How agency matters to innovators

  1. Some innovators focus their agency on benefits of certain societies or other human agents, but only the ones that are mutually beneficial excluding a wide range of agents or social stakeholders. Social standards are often set too low or too high by innovators. Take for example child labor that is acceptable in some societies, or high barriers to entry in an innovative research field.
    Frugal innovation doesn’t always mean responsible innovation and awareness of all the agency facets is also important for the ethical aspect of innovation.
    Thanks for the inspiring post.

    1. Thank you again for your feedback.

      I fully recognise that nobody can always have on eye on all potential implications of what they are doing. And society itself is not always clear about “what it wants” either. In that sense, I try to deliver a comprehensive description of an ideal situation, which is usually beyond reach.
      That said, I do want to encourage innovators (and whole of society) to be a little less simplistic in their views of innovation, to understand the many interactions between different actors, and to take those into consideration. At least more so than is currently the case. Good intentions alone have never been sufficient. But today, as AI evolves fast, as biotechnology comes forward, and as climate change looms large, we have more opportunities and more needs for innovation than ever before. I hope that we have learned something from the past, and do not simply shift the responsibility for our doing to anonymous forces like ‘the system’ or ‘the market’. After all, these are made of humans.

      As we said before, none of this is simple, none of it is easy. All the more it is high time for society in all its shapes and guises to become innovation-literate and to articulate its interests, its needs, and its red lines for innovation.

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