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Innovation: A path to prosperity or extinction?

Dec 8, 2014

Anyone who believes exponential growth can go on forever in a finite world is either a madman or an economist.” -- Kenneth Boulding, economist and political philosopher

The precedent for a Seal of Good Innovation includes recycling, LEEDS certification, and UL approval.
Credit Wikimedia

As we approach the holidays and we are encouraged to do our civic duty by shopping until we drop, it may be helpful for us to reflect on the concept of innovation and what it may mean to us as consumers.

As a veteran in community and economic development, I am keenly aware of the drumbeat of innovation. Innovation is widely believed to be a critical element of our achieving economic and societal success and, to a large extent, I believe this to be true as well. However, not all innovation is equally capable of achieving this laudable outcome. We need to be able to distinguish innovation that is likely to lead us to an equitable, just and sustainable society from innovation that is likely to lead us down a path of ecological extinction.  Not an easy task, but certainly one that must be considered as we go barreling into the future.

Whether the motivation is to achieve economic success or to create jobs for our community, the quest for innovation is a principal preoccupation for corporate leaders, economic development professionals, universities, the media and, ultimately, consumers.  Innovation is seen by many as the Holy Grail of product sales and economic prosperity.  Entrepreneurs, advertisers, and consumers are engaged in a tireless search for innovation that results in new products and more sales.

In our economy, the sale of more goods is seen as necessary for economic growth, according to the dominant (but misleading) economic indicator, the Gross Domestic Product (GDP).  There are many critiques of GDP as a measure of growth, and several alternative measures have been put forward including Gross National Happiness, but as of yet, these have not been widely embraced in the media or by political leaders.  In our economy, consumption is king and citizens are fulfilling their civic duty when they consume (remember President George W. Bush called for us to shop after 9/11!).

For the past several years I have had the opportunity to co-learn the concepts of environmental planning with graduate and undergraduate students at Michigan State University. I still find it challenging to absorb the full impact that our human footprint is having on the ecological systems of our planet. From water quality (and quantity) to air quality; from the loss of prime agricultural land to energy production and transportation; our presence on the planet is clearly noticeable.  To some extent, I often feel there’s a certain cognitive dissonance between what the ecological sciences reveal about our human-environment relationship and our almost myopic focus on economic growth and development.

The U.S. Green Building Council began the LEED green building certification program in 2000.
Credit Flickr/Byron P

It often seems to me that innovation and the economic growth that it usually seeks to advance are paramount to almost all other concerns.  True, for many of our distressed communities, economic growth and development seem the only path available to achieve economic and social justice. Clearly in parts of our world, providing for basic human needs such as food, shelter, clean water, sanitation, health care and education are of critical importance.  However, in much of the developed world it could be said that we have enough “stuff”. Consuming more “stuff” beyond a certain set of basic needs doesn’t seem to make us any happier , but our global economic engine, often cloaked as innovation, seems to ask that we keep on consuming to ensure economic growth.

If we believe then that continued growth is essential to our economic well-being and innovation drives us to consume more, how do we as a species survive in a finite world where some resources are most certainly limited?  Innovation for the sake of continuous growth and economic expansion seems in many ways not only environmentally unsustainable but dangerously pathological as a social imperative. 

So what’s the Next Idea?  

This is where things get sticky. The ability to distinguish principled innovation from what we might call consumptive innovation is critical. Innovation that is guided by the principles of efficiency and effectiveness can and should be distinguished from consumptive innovation. New ideas that help us solve problems by using resources more efficiently, reducing our energy footprint, reducing our reliance on non-renewable resources, and reducing social inequality and injustice are innovations that are principled and worthy of patronage. Unfortunately, this is not the kind of “stuff” that makes for wonderful holiday gifts.   

So here we are, well into to the 21st Century, struggling to find solutions to some of the greatest challenges humankind has ever faced, and there’s one more thing on the to-do list: We must come up with a way to distinguish between innovations that are principled in their character from those that are not. It sounds complicated, and we could be well served by creating an easily recognizable “Seal of Good Innovation” to be placed on products to make it easier for us to make our informed consumer choices.

The UL, once known as the Underwriters Laboratories, has been assessing product safety for more than a century.

Certainly there is precedent for this type of labeling of products dating back to the 1890’s with the Underwriters Laboratories rating of electronics, and more recently with the introduction of Fair Trade products and the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) standards applied to building construction. Based in a set of rigorous criteria and applied by an independent third party, these types of rating systems inform consumers on the nature and quality of the product and in some cases can result in “green markup” on the product price. Value driven consumers will often pay more for a product that reflects “Good Values."  

Then again, perhaps we might best follow the advice offered by those who made sacrifices in World War II when they were confronted with rationing and resource limitations. While seeking innovation, those of the so-called “Greatest Generation” also sought to be frugal in their use of materials. So this holiday when you’re bombarded with all of the next big things, think about principled innovation and ask yourself, “Does this purchase pass the test?” If not, it’s useful to recall the advice of those who have gone before: “Use it up, wear it out. Make it do, or do without.”

Share Your Ideas:

·        What other ideas do you have for separating sustainable innovations from the rest? 

·       In your opinion, do we need to distinguish between different types of innovation at all? 

Join the conversation in the comments section below, on Twitter or Facebook, or let us know your Next Idea here

Rex LaMore is director of the Center for Community Economic Development at Michigan State University.