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. Calgary’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.
I’m writing this from a Starbucks. With free wireless Internet, decent cafe Americanos and fast breakfast foods that are both reasonably healthy, tasty and not too expensive, its one of the few chains I look for when I’m in need of a place to sit down when a comparable locally-flavoured establishment isn’t available. As someone who both works long (and often early) hours and travels a lot, places that offer decent food and drink and productivity space are valued above almost anything. When you don’t have time to shop for healthy foods for home and have to eat out it can take a real toll on your health.
I bring with me a travel tumbler, reusable bags and even portable chopsticks to eat with. I buy local and responsibly whenever possible, and when eating at home I aim to buy items with little packaging and, what packaging there is gets recycled with the food waste organics separated and composted in biodegradable bags. When I took the David Suzuki Foundation challenge I got high marks. All is well– right? No. And that’s why climate change and protecting our environment is truly a grand challenge that requires a systems approach. Grand challenge problems refer to exceptionally difficult tasks that stretch the limits of any one group to be able to address them. They are the complex problems that have no single source or simple solution.
No matter what I’ve done to address climate change and help the environment, I am only making a small difference. I’ve been reminded by that because of one product: The Starbucks Vivanno.
This morning my wife and I had a Starbucks Vivanno — a fruit smoothie that is reasonably healthy and pretty decent food option if you’re pressed for time and want some low-fat protein — which is no easy task at the best of time, particularly if you don’t eat meat. If you’ve watched people make these things, they are messy and they are designed for a disposable cup – one that is outside of the regular size cups that a person brings around with them, making it difficult to use the reuasble cup option. This leaves us with a lot of options: 1) Take the disposable cup and make more waste, 2) find a very large cup and bring that around, adding bulk to your bag, 3) don’t drink smoothies at all and either not eat or eat something unhealthy.
Thinking about this a little further, one realizes how tied up layers upon layers of issues are in this drink.
> Why aren’t there other food choices available? (this speaks to the market, to innovation, to location — an easy thing to overlook when you live in downtown Toronto)
>Why am I so busy that I can’t make a decent healthy meal at home? (issues: work demands; social expectations; lack of funding for university research requiring me to work long hours; the expectations of my employer, employees, students and colleagues — requiring me to work long hours; my personality; availability of healthy foods in local grocery stores; ability to cook something I want to eat and meets my nutritional needs)
>Why can’t stores serve drinks in reusables? (issues: cost, breakage, theft, no proper recycling options, people’s busy schedules and need to ‘take away’, no exchange program for containers)
>Why can’t we just get better travel mugs? (issues: our bags are already making us look like sherpas with laptops, pens, books, workout gear, batteries and so forth; they cost a lot for a good one — or you buy a cheap one and add more waste when it breaks, market, etcc.)
These are just four questions with lots of issues — there are many more that you can probably think of. I write this from downtown Toronto, Canada. There are more than 20 other Starbucks locations within a 30 minute walk from my current location and dozens of other coffee shops, pastry places and food outlets to choose from. In some ways, this is really a luxurious problem to have. What about places where you have to drive to get somewhere? What about rural communities where one or two shops is all you have? Yes, the cultural standards will change in each place, but the more I look at this the easier it is to see how I can become the David Suzuki poster boy and still make only a dent on the environment without considering these myriad other issues that influence how a simple product (a cup) becomes a complex issue.