Wednesday 6 April 2011

Disrupting Disruptive Innovation

In my last post, I made a strong statement about innovation: "Innovation is always framed by inauthenticity". I want to  explore this.

What I mean is that the instinct to make new stuff is part of a pathological process. Stafford Beer complained about this in his 'Platform for Change'. Beer identifies the maker of new stuff as 'homo faber', where homo faber has been the dominant figure in industrialised society. He wants to see the emergence of 'homo gubernator' instead: the steersman who finds the best way to be in the world that exists without creating new 'stuff' to solve individual problems, but instead to find the best ways of organising and coordinating what's already there. By implication, homo gubernator is more 'authentic'. (It's worth saying that Beer's greatest fear is not homo faber, but who he calls 'homo pontificus', the "harbinger of extinction"!)

Whilst it seems crazy to say 'innovation bad', there is clearly a fine line to tread. Innovation enframes: the desperate attempts to deal with the nuclear disaster in Japan at the moment show how one engineering intervention in the world necessitates numerous others to deal with the consequences of the first. It is easy to get lost in the labyrinth of dealing with unintended consequences. This, I think is particularly true of educational innovation.

At some point, there is a moment where someone says "But what's it all about? How have we got here? Does it have to be like this? Given what's happening, what does this tell us about the world?" These are powerful questions and demand a return to authenticity to face them. They are homo gubernator questions. They also demand a level of honesty as people retreat from their innovative ways (to which they have become deeply attached) and are forced to look at the world afresh. It would seem that for every innovation, there may be a corresponding "therapy" where the homo faber instinct is counterpoised by the homo gubernator question: "do you want an iPad2 - or do you want counselling?"; "do you want a portfolio system, or do you want to think what matters in education?"; "do you want an electric car or do you want to rethink our attitude to geography and space?", and so on.

I'm uncomfortable with Christensen's work on Disruptive Innovation because what he's sees as disruptive is just another innovation; just another way of continuing the pathology of the enframing, albeit by coming at things in a different way - but that's often the nature of innovation anyway (if you don't even come at things in a different way, then I would have thought it hardly counts as innovation at all!). Authenticity means going for the powerful question, the homo gubernetor questions, which seek to grasp at the causes of the present condition. Grasping the causes of the world is like an artist understanding their material: one would hope that the intentions of an artist emerge in harmony with the nature of the material which is shaped.

But within this movement to authenticity, the inauthenticity of innovation and the pathology it entails is probably necessary in establishing the conditions for asking the powerful question. That's an uncomfortable conclusion, because it means that within the reflexivity of each of us there is a need to balance the energy of pursuing an enframed making, whilst be sensible enough to know when to stop and think. The serenity prayer springs to mind....!

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