Tuesday, January 18

A critical view of the implicit consensus on innovation

Many times, from the private sphere, and also from the public sphere, we associate the term innovation, exclusively, with very disruptive technological processes that, mainly, take place in cosmopolitan cities in which there are many startups technological and venture capitals.

Continuing to relate innovation to this type of thing does nothing more than reproduce an economic logic with which we do not always pursue – or achieve – the progress of societies.

Let’s go by parts, since there are several objections to this paradigm.

In the first place, the one referring to the very concept of innovating. It is generally accepted that innovation is simply doing things differently. That is, using new techniques to solve a specific problem that we have before us. However, unconsciously – or sometimes not so much – we associate it exclusively with the use of new techniques based on the improvement or discovery of an original technology. A technology, usually digital and very cutting-edge, that will radically change the way we usually do things. As is the case with recent quantum processor developed by the IBM company. Instead, these new techniques can also be based on the use of a traditional element in an alternative way to its original use. Innovating is not, exclusively, looking ahead, it can also be looking behind, to the sides or diagonally.

Very often, we think that success in innovation occurs with the development of a disruptive digital technology and is measured exclusively in economic, and especially business, terms. Thus, let’s imagine the commercialization of a new technology, for example, an algorithm to establish the most efficient route, to offer the product that you still do not know you want, or to connect through an APP suppliers and demanders of the same product or service . In this way, a new or more extensive market and buoyant commercial results are generated. Instead, there are innovations through “traditional elements” that do not generate a large market or buoyant commercial results, but that have a great impact on society. As was the case of the project Hippo Water Roller. An innovation as simple as adding handles to a water can to facilitate its wheeled transport between South African towns. This innovation has implied a notable improvement in the levels of access to water, and therefore, in the levels of health and life expectancy in this specific geographical area.

We tend to see technology as the outcome of an innovation process. That is, as the end result of the process and the product that will place a company in an advantageous position compared to its competitors. Instead of conceiving it as a tool that we will use to respond to the real problems that we face, driven by the achievement of some social objective that goes beyond the mere obtaining of profitability.

Second, the sacralization of the company and the obsession with direct profit opens the door to another of the great consensuses mistakenly assumed. Innovation is not only a matter of the business world. Truly effective innovation processes come as a result of a harmonious and fruitful interaction between the business world, the academic world, and public administrations. A relationship in which synergies are established and horizons are broadened in the ways of acting of each one. This collaboration between the three planes is what truly leads economies to reap the fruits of innovation.

In addition, when talking about this, known as the triple helix that drives innovation, it is also advisable to try to get away from the topic that the academy investigates, the company applies and the administration regulates. In all three spheres there can – and should – be a renewal and improvement of the processes to which each one is accustomed. Synergies go through finding new procedures for the transfer of knowledge and applicability between science and the market. New forms of collaboration and public-private financing in previously unexplored areas. And also, why not ?, for providing greater flexibility and capacity for action to the Administration. In short, to create a virtuous, multidirectional circle with the purpose of social progress, moving away from the vision of a linear, compartmentalized process and oriented exclusively to profitability.

When this virtuous circle is put into operation, it is when new categories, new organizational forms and new capacities begin to emerge, which are what truly transform reality. And this is where the third set of wrong assumptions about innovation underlies. These new creations are not exclusively typical of urban areas and centers of concentration of technology companies. From which they would move to the rest of the territories, as if it were a simple process of geographical expansion. That kind of innovative paternalism, by which the development of the rural world is dictated from the cities, it does not usually respond to the specific needs of these territories.

Rural environments require specific innovations and the rural environment itself must be the source of the innovations that its environment needs. The preponderance of primary activity in the rural economy is undeniable. Autonomous innovation processes in rural areas, aware of this fact, have a double effect. On the one hand, they serve to introduce technical and organizational improvements in the primary activity itself. On the other hand, while consolidating a solid and modern primary activity, they serve to generate another series of industrial activities and complementary services to the exploitation of natural resources. Contributing, therefore, to improving the living conditions of the inhabitants of these areas, and reducing the gap in access to opportunities that exist with respect to life in urban environments.

It is difficult to briefly conceptualize the term innovation. But if we can assume something, it is that innovation, in any of its forms, is only effective when it brings with it a positive impact on society. And this occurs when it directly intersects with an opportunity offered by the real world. A real world defined by certain historical, economic, social and cultural conditions that are in turn origin and destination of innovations. For this, it is necessary that the interaction between technology and opportunity be carried out under a paradigm absent of physical, mental or procedural barriers.

Economistas sin Fronteras does not necessarily identify itself with the author’s opinion and it does not commit any of the organizations with which it collaborates..