Thursday, August 3, 2017

Is Innovation Overrated?

This was to be the summer of innovation at the lake.

Long desired transformations would bring the place into the modern age. Wi-Fi cameras to monitor security and to keep an eye tuned for any damage from the latest storm. Electronic peeks from afar to see the depth of snow gathered on the roof.

Wi-Fi thermostats to turn up the heat so the place is cozy on arrival. And Wi-Fi controls to unlock doors for children et al who forget their cottage keys.

None of that innovation took place. Other things got in the way, like fixing a broken septic pipe, and keeping roof gutters clear and water courses flowing freely in the record rains. And, of course, dealing with downed trees and wave-battered docks.

Instead of a summer of innovating, it was a summer of patching up.

As summer now shifts into autumn, a realization dawns. It is a light-bulb moment being experienced by more and more of North American society: Is modern day innovation overrated? Does it deserve the veneration we pile upon it?

Our society worships innovation and abhors maintenance. We treat innovation as an unquestionably important value like goodness and love.

That despite the fact that a far bigger chunk of our time is spent maintaining and fixing existing things than designing new things. There are studies that show 70 per cent of engineers work on overseeing and maintaining things and not inventing them.

Yet our society honours the inventor-innovators far more than fixer-maintainers. We celebrate Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, Michael Dell and other white-collar wizards as heroes. We pay them the really big bucks, dress them in suits and ties and assign them higher social status. We see them as  artists who make our lives more efficient.

Meanwhile, the maintainers – the plumbers, electricians, mechanics and janitors – wear workaday clothes, earn less and generally have less social status. They keep our world humming but we consider their efforts run-of-the-mill work.

We have given innovation a venerable place on the altar of change. Seldom do we question hard an innovation’s real value - who it benefits, exactly how and at what cost?

For instance, studies have shown that the medical community often overestimates the benefits of disease-screening tests while underestimating their potential harm. It is an example of our tendency to put much hope and faith in innovations while not asking enough tough questions.

The world arms race is another example. Innovations in technology have made possible targeted kills instead of massive invasion or widespread bombing. Thousands of lives are saved through pinpoint strikes. Another result, however, is an ever-increasing arms race in which more countries try to develop or obtain more innovative weapons.

A more down home example comes from the American historian Ruth Schwartz Cowan. She has written that in the past couple hundred years technological change has shifted the burden of domestic labour from adult men and children to mothers and wives.

Washing machines and vacuum cleaners, she writes, “which promised to save labour, literally created more work for mother as cleanliness standards rose, leaving women perpetually unable to keep up.”

Politicians contribute much to sustaining the reverence for innovation. It is much easier to lure voters with the shiny and the new rather than the dull and practical. Announcement of a new bridge sells much better than repairing of an old, rusty one.

Also, one way to hold government budgets in check is to follow the ancient saying:  “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

Much of North America’s infrastructure – roads, dams, bridges – is suffering from lack of preventive maintenance. Too much of the maintenance we see now is simply reactive – fixing something already broken.

There is a growing movement saying that society can be much better served by putting more emphasis on preventive maintenance and giving less  adulation to innovation.

Innovations at the lake, meanwhile, remain on hold. Maybe it’s better that way. We’ve gone years without the electronic wizardry and perhaps we are better off without it. Besides do we really need something else that needs to be maintained?


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