Innovation: Our Planet’s Executioner or Saviour?

Posted on Feb 6, 2013 in Life | 3 comments

While ghostwriting some blogs on innovation yesterday I came across this. Ernst and Young say, “Innovation fuels business growth. The ability to keep on generating winning ideas for new products and services is one of the keys to business success.”

Essentially, the current key to success in business is to keep producing ‘new’ and ‘better’ products so people will buy more.  If you don’t, your competitor will.

We generally look at innovation as a good thing.  It moves our society forward, reducing work loads, providing new forms of entertainment and (should) allow us to access deeper relationships, understanding and parts of our world.

That very same evening, between slurping wriggles of pasta and sips of red wine, some friends and I had a rousing debate on the impossibilities of living in a growth-based world with limited resources.  One friend in particular had some strong thoughts on the stupidity of say, buying a Prius car to better the environment, when the act of even creating a Prius car in the first place consumed far more natural resources than simply keeping your old one.

I’m a realist at heart and while I acknowledge the fact that, really, in a perfect world, we’d all just buy a car and keep it for the next 20 years until it literally couldn’t go anymore, the chances of this being a reality we could create at any point in the future are infinitesimally small.

If we scale the concept back a little bit though to examine this materialistic trend termed ‘rate of change’ we see that it is growing exponentially.  We do consume far more and a far greater pace than we ever have in previous generations.  And nowhere is this more relevant to the everyday person than in the mobile phone industry, courtesy of the Greatest of Innovators; Apple.  I hadn’t even played with an iPad before the second version was out.  We think to ourselves ‘Wow!  What a smart business model.’ and laugh at the feeling of desperation it creates in the average everyday consumer.

But what about the environmental impact of the shortening Product Life Cycle?

Is it moral of humanity to allow a company to utilise irreplaceable resources for a replaceable technology; a product we all know is going to be redundant inside of a year or two?

“But it SPEAKS to me!” cries the Early Adopter, yelling at Siri to call the pizza restaurant three times before she kindly hangs up from the massage parlour and obliges.

We are so tied to this idea of buying, and therefore creating, new products with new features we don’t even need that we are writing the mandate to produce constant waste into the Constitution of our Organisations.

But the alternative is… what?  To stop innovating?  It’s never going to happen that we cease bringing out new versions of iPhones because the ‘last ones do a pretty good job of calling people’.   No one wants it to.

Reality’s a bitch though.  The time is not far away, some would even argue it is here, when a generation will need to grow up and accept that either a) part of living in an eco-balanced world involves scaling back our innovation or b) we need to legislate or design economic incentives to get innovating quick smart in the direction of a circular economy.

Innovation then, is simultaneously our planet’s Executioner and Saviour.

Bit of light reading over your coffee?

  • Of course I agree.

    In-built redundant and artificially short life cycles are the antithesis of sustainability but the fiduciary responsibility of company directors to return value to shareholders will not permit this to change.
    I got very curious about the affect of incentives and short-termism on our endevours to manage our resources.

    Perhaps that is going to be my PhD question.

  • Jason ‘Jase’ Goldsmith:
    Of course I agree.

    In-built redundant and artificially short life cycles are the antithesis of sustainability but the fiduciary responsibility of company directors to return value to shareholders will not permit this to change.
    I got very curious about the affect of incentives and short-termism on our endevours to manage our resources.

    Perhaps that is going to be my PhD question.

  • Jason ‘Jase’ Goldsmith:
    Of course I agree.

    In-built redundant and artificially short life cycles are the antithesis of sustainability but the fiduciary responsibility of company directors to return value to shareholders will not permit this to change.
    I got very curious about the affect of incentives and short-termism on our endevours to manage our resources.

    Perhaps that is going to be my PhD question.