The Lies Told By Innovation

You Can Build It, They Will Come, But Can it Last?

Being innovative requires a sense of the system that innovation takes place and the design sensibilities to make change last. Are we letting innovation lie to us?

I’ve been on the road much of the past three weeks and one stop I was very glad to make was to my hometown of Calgary, Alberta.

The city is nestled in the Alberta foothills with a view of the Rocky Mountains and an hour’s drive from some of the most beautiful prairie, mountain, and river-filled countryside you’ll find. The city I grew up in has been widely known as an innovator, particularly on issues of the environment. It’s light-rail transit system is powered by wind-generated electricity. Everywhere, there were examples of innovative technologies and conversations about innovation in the news and visible as one drives through the city.┬áCalgary’s vigorous culture of outdoor activity, the natural beauty of the Bow Valley combined with a historical connection to land for food and lifestyle has made it hard to ignore the role of the natural environment in everyday life.

And yet, driving through this city — one that has nearly tripled in size since I was born there — it is hard to not see the innovation forest and trees disconnect. Yes, there are waste diversion programs and hybrid cars and more transit, but the city continues to grow (literally) well beyond its traditional borders into territory that was once farmland with barely an eyeshot of the city. I’ve always known Calgary as a physically large urban centre, but the rampant push towards making more suburbs seems at odds with the desire for a liveable, environmentally responsible city.

Calgary is not alone. As I fly to my home in Toronto, the same conversations are taking place and there, like out West, there is the belief that innovation will save the day. As fuel prices spike as they have over the past few days (and reasonably can’t be expected to lower much anytime soon), I find it hard to imagine how innovation is going to reduce costs and impact for people in the short term.

Whether it is on the issue of the environment, improved knowledge translation in health, or better social design for services, innovation can be seen as the answer. If we just come up with the best idea, the thinking goes, we will be able to solve anything. We are creative people, we can do it.

I actually think this is the lie we tell ourselves to avoid going where real innovation is needed and that is: personal and social change. Without a systems approach and a design for those systems, we will continue to ride our horse (to pick up a Calgary stereotype) in the wrong direction. More clever ways to reduce the impact of our lives on the environment doesn’t change that we’ve created systems that pollute and damage the environment in the first place by design.

Creating sophisticated knowledge translation systems aimed at getting the “right information to the right person as the right time” sounds sexy, but doesn’t work unless there is a system designed to support people in accessing that information when they need it and having the time and space to process that information to make meaning of it. Otherwise, we are just shovelling bits at people and making ourselves feel better because we developed something that, on the surface, looks good, but in reality doesn’t address the bigger picture.

If the forest and trees are part of the natural environment, then we need to consider them both at the same time — literally and metaphorically — in the systems we work in and do so with intent (design) otherwise we will continue to perpetuate the lies that innovation allows us to tell ourselves so well.

*** Photo Calgary Dusk Skyline by fung.leo used under Creative Commons License from Flickr

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