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Innovation needs humanities

To many people in humanities and social sciences, “innovation” has come to sound like a dirty word. To some, the dirt stems from the word’s vicinity to managerial insistence on quantifiable impact; to others, from its allusions to techno-evolutionism. Some merely dismiss innovation as the latest buzzword.

As a buzzword, innovation is trailed by all kinds of myths that are the topic of Scott Berkun’s bestseller, The Myths of Innovation, originally published in 2007. The book is written to a wide audience. but seems particularly targeted to anyone aspiring to become an innovator themselves, as well as to those trying to manage innovation in organizations.

To me, the book offered a non-academic glimpse to how innovation is understood in the “field” (so to speak). It is written by someone with a history of working in the tech industry and – judging by the history of speaking engagements on his website – apparent credibility in that space.

That’s why I was pleasantly surprised by the book’s engagement with historiography – with the basic reality that “all histories are based on interpretation and points of view”. In other words, innovation as a significant positive change (as Berkun defines it) is always a matter of perspective and position.

In short, the book argues that the history of innovation is repeatedly told in heroic stories of success, showcasing exceptional individuals who are leading the whole of humankind towards inevitable progress. In contrast, the reality of changing something significantly for the better rests on contributions of those who came earlier, on collaboration with others, on learning from inevitable mistakes, and on favourable circumstances and happenstance. And even if intentions were good all around, the outcome might very well be disastrous (and so, I guess, not an innovation at all).

One persistent myth insists that innovation only takes great engineering skills, and the rest will follow. The Myths of Innovation dismantles this misconception.

Often humanities and social sciences are offered a role only when a ready-made technological solution needs to be accepted and adopted by the general public. But humanities and social sciences can also support and, indeed, be themselves a source of innovation by, for example,

  • helping avoid past mistakes by questioning and filling in blanks in the accepted stories of past innovations and the reasons for their success,
  • exposing cultural blind spots and biases, and offering alternative interpretations and points of view, or by
  • identifying fears and desires motivating people’s behavior and recognising the cultural and social patterns behind them.

An understanding of people, the differences in their situations and backgrounds, and how they interact with one another in different socio-cultural environments is not something that comes into play only once a solution is ready to be shipped.

If a solution is meant to make a significant positive change, understanding of its target audience is a must. And not only that: to mitigate the risk of negative spillovers, it is essential to also understand how the solution will affect those in its wider area of influence.

This understanding needs to be there from the outset. Without it, it is impossible to know which problem – and whose problem – it is that we are trying to solve.

Culture, persistent habits linked to existing technology, inheritance and tradition (be they good or bad), power relations, prioritization between costs, differences in values, tastes, and opinions, and the time horizon under consideration are all factors that Berkun notes play a crucial role in deciding the fate of any innovation.

In other words, even technological innovations rise and fall with the understanding of historical, cultural, and social relations.

There’s no question that there is a lot of hype around innovation. But if we are to find solutions that enable us to build more sustainable and equitable futures, we need people with training in humanities and social sciences to engage with it.

Photo: Photography Maghradze PH by Pexels