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Sunday, 13 October 2013

The Importance of Social Innovation in the 21st Century

This is the journey …

Now and then I remind readers of this blog what my writing is all about: a journey of discovery and adventure, providing the opportunity for everyone to begin to open their minds, and to avoid the trap of a mind that has closed in on fixed opinions, from which great madness often flows. And with this reminder firmly planted in your mind, please read on …

Occasionally words of wisdom and great insight find their way into the pages of Institution of Engineering and Technology’s monthly magazine, E&T. This happened twice back in the November 2011 issue – a rare thing indeed! The wise comments I am referring to are the statement by Robin Hanbury-Tenison (in the column For and Against) that “the greed of development leads to the extinction of a culture”, and the comment offered by Heinz Wolf, that “innovation in the 21st Century is not going to be in science and technology, but in the way that society organises itself.” The two remarks are connected, for if we do not engage in social innovation, and move beyond technology driven thinking, then the extinction of our culture is a real possibility. This is not to say that we do not need technology, but to recognise that human civilisation has, for many reasons, reached a transition point which requires a reinvention of the many taken for granted aspects of the modern world, including science, engineering and technology.

There is here, the opportunity for the engineering community to demonstrate some thought leadership, and perhaps also to address the perennial problem of concerns about the poor status of UK engineers in society. But are these people ready to take the lead? Regrettably the answer would seem to be no. Too often one sees engineers and technologists offering technological fixes to challenges that can only be properly addressed through social, human and organisational innovation, with technology following-on in a supporting role, but also not forgetting that sometimes technology can be used as an enabler for these kinds of soft innovations.

However, talking to engineers about social innovation is a depressing and unrewarding way of passing one’s time, even when such innovation makes clear and unquestionable business sense. I have quite a lot of experience of this. One example that I will mention is the inability of most production engineers in the western world, during the 1980s and early 1990, to grasp the importance of what is now called Lean Production. Engineers and technologist working in manufacturing during that period were obsessed with technology, particularly Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), and many visits were undertaken by European engineers and technologists to Japan to view their robots, flexible manufacturing systems, and computer numerical control systems. Yet these visitors were on the whole, completely blind to the organisational and methodological innovations behind this technology, and it was these soft innovations that were the key to Japanese success.

Engineering has not internalised the learning from this period. In an earlier blog I wrote about the either/or mind-sets of engineers, referring to a lecture that I attended which was entitled Is the World Running out of Energy? At the end of the talk I mentioned to the speaker that this was the wrong question to ask. I told the lecturer that a more important question was “do we need all this energy?” There was agreement that we did not, but the speaker added that there is a very real requirement to improve energy efficiency. In reply I said that I did not disagree with this observation, but I pointed out that if we were to change the way society operates, undertake a reorganisation, start doing things more intelligently, etc. (i.e. social innovation to eliminate energy needs), then perhaps we might not need new nuclear power stations and other capital and resource intensive constructions. The response, as I noted previously, was very predictable, but well illustrates the problem, “We cannot put back the clock.”

Social innovation is not about putting the clock back, reverting, so to speak, to an earlier less sophisticated existence, but is concerned with putting the clock forward. This involves leaving behind all these outdated and irrelevant perspectives which are no more that an effort to preserve the past by creating a future that is just the past presented as something new!

I am starting to think that we are living in a lunatic asylum and that all common sense has been abandoned as the world pursues the Holy Grail of economic growth, but which is now looking increasingly like plain corporate greed at our expense, as well as that of the natural world upon which our continued existence depends.  Everywhere one goes people are talking about sustainable economic development, yet just about everyone is proposing to continue doing the things that are so self-evidently responsible for the unsustainability of contemporary civilisation. Few people seem ready to think about how we may need to fundamentally redesign our societies to eliminate consumption that can be avoided, and to engage in de-growth of certain industries that are resource intensive, while at the same time fostering the growth of new less resource intensive sectors. This is indeed bad news for future generations.

What we have here is truly Promethean and most worrying is that the majority are blind to what is happening. We are busy creating an avoidable disaster of epic proportions and yet the message from just about everywhere one looks is – business as usual. And thus the seeds of the next human global catastrophe are sown. We need to take peaceful action now to make sure that this never happens; time to walk a different path!

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