14: By, with and for Humanity

The conception of innovation outlined in this Manifesto is humanistic. Science ad technology is vital in this conception, but it’s a means to an end – a higher human quality of life and societal progress. The more humanity innovates, the more quality of life can improve enough for more people to engage in innovation. That’s a future worth striving for.

‘Discontent’, Oscar Wilde said, ‘is the first step in the progress of a man or a nation’. [1] Today it is a mark of discontent to say that innovation confirms man’s humanity, or to say that to be an innovator isn’t the same as making your goals happiness, wellness and a low carbon footprint.

Innovation is done by human beings, and not by nature or by machines. Never a force for democracy in itself, innovation can nevertheless be assisted when it is done with the participation of more people. Finally, innovation is for humanity.


By humanity

Humans are unique, as a species, in their capacity to innovate. They are able to combine natural phenomena and past innovations to make a fresh round of innovations. They are able to identify problems and opportunities, analyse and interrogate them, conceive of, evaluate and rank possible solutions, and make these solutions happen in the real world.

In the late 16th century, the British poet Sir Philip Sidney gave a forthright defence of human beings. He wrote:

‘Nature never set forth the Earth in so much tapestry as diverse poets have done; neither with so pleasant rivers, fruitful trees, sweet‑smelling flowers, nor whatsoever else may make the too‑much‑loved Earth more lovely. Her world is brazen; the poets only deliver a golden.’ [2]

Nature’s world is brazen, but the innovations of poets, of human beings, are what distinguish us from nature. A bee may work in a hive, a beaver may build a dam, but they don’t design things in the kind of conscious, articulate way that mankind does. They pass on no blueprints, and organise no schools.

Through its processes, nature produces new species and mechanisms. It can also often recover from the consequences of human error. But nature cannot innovate in the conscious manner of humanity. Mutation is a random process; innovation, though unpredictable, is a conscious one. Things can be learned from nature, but nature learns nothing itself.

In their history, human beings have invented different ideas of nature, just as they have invented different kinds of machines. But neither nature nor a machine can identify and value an innovation. Only human beings can do that.

With humanity

Innovation in the shape of IT is not, by itself, democratic. It was not West German television that overturned the Berlin Wall, or text messages that overthrew Philippine President Joseph Estrada in 2001, just as it isn’t Facebook that puts pressure on the regime in Iran today. Human beings, not IT and not innovation, are what bring about political change. Nevertheless, IT can help innovation become more catholic, if not more democratic, in its inputs.

 

As the New York journalist Jeff Howe has pointed out, mass use of the computer has contributed to everything from the design of T-shirts to the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence. That, however, does not amount to ‘democratising’ the means of production, as Howe maintains. [3] Two English authors, though they feel obliged to invoke what they call ‘the age of consumer empowerment’, are nearer the mark when they concede that, when surfing the intelligence of crowds, ‘leaders should continue to lead’. [4]

Still, some kinds of innovation today are certainly conducted with a wide number of contributors. In its first two 72-hour sessions, held in 2006, IBM’s InnovationJam brought together more than 150,000 employees, family members, universities, business partners and clients from 67 companies, who posted more than 46,000 ideas. IBM chief Sam Palmisano pledged $100m to invest in 10 businesses issuing from the exercise. [5] Similarly, before he left his job as CEO of Procter & Gamble, AG Lafley made it more open to outside ideas. [6]

These early openings to mass involvement in innovation have their drawbacks. The burgeoning and somewhat uncritical literature of ‘open’, mass collaboration in innovation outruns real results from it. [7] However, it is already clear that some kinds of innovation may be able to benefit from a broader range of participants than was possible in the past.

That’s an additional merit of innovation today.

For humanity

When they are not taking inspiration from slums, today’s architects like to design luxury eco-homes for the very rich. But as the Russian architect Berthold Lubetkin famously and more usefully observed, ‘Nothing is too good for ordinary people’.  From Benjamin Franklin through PT Barnum to Norman Borlaug, the late father of the Green revolution, there is a long and contrasting tradition of universalism in innovation. Franklin’s recent biographer observes that ‘he declined to patent his famous inventions, and took pleasure in freely sharing his findings’. [8] For PT Barnum, the 19th century audience-conscious founder of American show business and ‘Prince of Humbug’ with a hundred faults, a human soul was ‘not to be trifled with’: it could ‘inhabit the body of a Chinaman, a Turk, an Arab or a Hottentot’, but was ‘still an immortal spirit’. [9] Borlaug said that the destiny of world civilisation ‘depends upon providing a decent standard of living for all mankind’. [10]

 

Innovations can and should be for everyone. During the Depression, Allen Lane, the audacious founder of Penguin Books in that era, wrote:

‘There are many who despair at what they regard as the low level of people’s intelligence. We, however, believed in the existence in this country of a vast reading public for intelligent books at a low price’. [11]

Reflecting on her participation in the 1951 Festival of Britain, the textile designer Lucienne Day notes that ‘we wanted to design for everybody, not for the elite’. [12]

Soon, a simple test may be able to identify aggressive forms of prostate cancer right across the world’s population. [13] Another simple eye test may detect Alzheimer’s disease, again assisting millions of people. [14]

In innovation, these are the right ways to proceed.

Conclusion

In 1625, the philosopher Francis Bacon wrote an essay called Of Superstition. He held that the causes of superstition arose, in part, from what he called ‘barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters’. [15]

 

This Manifesto is issued because humanity faces such times now. It’s a moment to catch one’s breath, soberly reflect on what has been achieved by innovators in the past, and uphold what innovation could do in the future.

This Manifesto is a call to arms. Let all those who agree with most of it stand up and be counted.


[1] Lord Illingworth, in Wilde, A Woman of No Importance, 1893. A version is on http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext97/awoni10.txt [2] Sir Philip Sidney, in his Defence of Poetry. A version is on http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext99/dfncp10.txt

[3] Jeff Howe, Crowdsourcing: Why the Power of the Crowd Is Driving the Future of Business (2008), Three Rivers Press, 2009, Chapter 3.

[4] Martin Thomas and David Brain, Crowd Surfing: Surviving and Thriving in the Age of Consumer Empowerment, A&C Black Publishers, 2008, p7.

[5] ‘IBM Invests $100 Million in Collaborative Innovation Ideas’, press release, 14 November 2006, on http://www-03.ibm.com/press/us/en/pressrelease/20605.wss

[6] See AG Lafley and Ram Charan, The Game-Changer: How You Can Drive Revenue and Profit Growth with Innovation, Crown Business, 2008.

[7] See for example Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Penguin Press, 2008.

[8] Walter Isaacson, Benjamin Franklin: an American Life (2003), Simon & Schuster, 2004, p130.

[9] Barnum, speech to Congress, 26 May 1865, quoted in Arthur H Saxon, PT Barnum: the Legend and the Man, Columbia University Press, 1995, p221.

[10] Norman E Borlaug, ‘The Green Revolution: Peace and Humanity’, The Nobel Foundation, 1971.

[11] Allen Lane, ‘Books for the million…’, Left Review, 3:16, May 1938

[12] Day, interview by Sue MacGregor, ‘The reunion – Festival of Britain’, BBC Radio 4,   24 August 2003, on http://www.bbc.co.uk/radio4/history/reunion/reunion5.shtml; cited in Nico Macdonald, ‘Practise, don’t preach’, Creative Review, September 2005

[13] Arun Sreekumar and others, ‘Metabolomic profiles delineate potential role for sarcosine in prostate cancer progression’, Nature, Vol 457 No 7231, 12 February 2009, abstract on http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v457/n7231/abs/nature07762.html [14] M F Cordeiro and others, ‘Imaging multiple phases of neurodegeneration: a novel approach to assessing cell death in vivo’, Cell Death and Disease, 14 January 2010, on http://www.nature.com/cddis/journal/v1/n1/pdf/cddis20093a.pdf [15] Bacon, ‘On superstition’, Essays, Civil and Moral, 1625, on http://www.bartleby.com/3/1/17.html

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