Innovation in a Fragile Future – Conceptual Empty Spaces in Thinking about the Future

Language is sometimes able to assimilate the new that is already present but not yet named. The term makes the new comprehensible until it becomes taken for granted. In the nineteenth century in the United States, the term technology first emerged and contained a response to two long-term developments that had first become noticeable in the 1840s. One of them, accord-ing to the historian of technology Leo Marx,belonged in the history of ideas. It consisted of ideas about what the “useful” or “mechanical arts” were and what purpose they served. The other development surveyed the organizational framework and created within it space for the concrete technical products and work methods of the incipient industrial age. The history-of-ideas development subtly but profoundly changed the ideas accepted until then about the relationship between technological progress and society’s belief in progress. The Enlightenment had essentially still seen scientific-technological progress as a means to achieve socially and politically desirable goals. The term technology, however, made it clear that the supposed means had in reality become an end.

In a public speech delivered at the opening of a new section of the Northern Railroad in New Hampshire, Senator Daniel Webster praised the “extraordinary era in which we live” and paid homage to the “progress of the age” that “has almost outstripped human belief; the future is known only to Omniscience.” The railroad had ceased being a means of populating the country or tying vastly distant parts of it together. The young, upwardly striving stratum of entrepreneurs comprehended for the first time what the “mechanical arts” stood for: they were concrete objects, infrastructures, and projects. They were the railroad. These changes in the way of viewing things, said Leo Marx, were what introduced the new term that gave expression to them. The mechanical arts were replaced by the new concept of technology.

The second long-term development unfolded in the organization of the useful arts and their material content, the machines. The individual machine was replaced by a sociotech-nological system that introduced new orders of magnitude and incisively changed the organizational preconditions. The railway connections created the earliest, most visible, and most extensive major technological system of that time. In this system, the mechanical components were still indispensable, but they were now part of an expanded whole. At the same time, the organizational demands on its functioning increased, beginning with auxiliary equipment and deliveries and including the enormously increased need for capital for investments, which only the newly emerging great industrial and trading companies could raise. The demands placed on labor’s skills changed in equal measure. The coalescing of scientific foundations with the “practical arts” and industry was already underway in many practical areas. But the entire extent of the transformation did not become visible until the end of the century, when the new system, in particular the electrical and chemical industries, reached the zenith of their growth.

To understand why the process of innovation has become a central concept of the present, we must go beyond economic considerations. Innovation occupies a conceptual vacuum in our collective imagination of the future. This is an important empty space that promises a key for a future that cannot other-wise be found. All thinking about the future is itself historically determined. Our collective imagination has shifted from the belief that the future can be constructed and planned to a heightened sense of its unforeseeability due to its complexity.

As so often in history, here too there was a pioneer predecessor. In 1829, the botanist and physician Jacob Bigelow of Boston suggested the term technology, a word he said was “sufficiently expressive” to include the practical application of science that “may be considered useful, by promoting the benefit of society, together with the emolument of those who pursue them.” But the greatest success in the word’s spread came when it was taken up in the name of an institution, which has carried it since 1861—the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or MIT. See note 77.From an evolutionary perspective, this image of the future looks out onto a radical openness. The projections therefore oscillate between the idea of an emerging order that increasingly arises through self-organization and the feeling of standing on the edge of an abyss. The oscillation takes place in a precarious balance between a suitable degree of stability and a fundamental openness toward the unforeseeable, including the singular events it involves. With increasing knowledge about complex systems and their dynamics, thinking about the future has grown less mechanistic and naïve. Perhaps it has become more reflective in that questions like “What will probably happen?” no longer have primacy. The questions have shifted to the knowledge and imagination of the various social actors and attentively follow how they construct their ideas of the future. Particularly in one area, the financial markets, this way of posing questions with the aid of mathematical tools has reached a high degree of sophisticated elaboration.

Imaginary constructs of the future fulfill various social functions in public and private discourses. But they have also entered into the various innovation scenarios with the intention of mobilizing the cultural, economic, and social resources that are considered the indispensable prerequisites of technical innovation, particularly from arousing desires and articulating latent or manifest needs through the production of identification with new products to the decision to buy or invest on the market, in production, or in the service sector. Public discourses on innovation, the rhetoric that is thereby used, and the target groups addressed have become at least as important as the conveyance of concrete contents. Discourses on technological pulls or pushes, the impetus and consequences resulting from innovations, are based on the assumption that new technological developments are accompanied by corresponding demand and social acceptance. This—mechanistic—viewpoint has lost credibility in a society whose recognized plurality today demands that viewpoints, interests, and voting decisions take the various stakeholder groups into consideration. While the expansion of the group that is regarded as relevant actors and their viewpoint on the future necessarily increases the degree of uncertainty, it nonetheless promises to expand the number and kind of possibilities that present themselves.

There are many reasons for the emergence of a conceptual void in thinking about the future. One of them is the changed relationship between the market and the state. Because innovation is a sociological process as well as a process resulting from the knowledge produced by science and technology, the pro-motion of innovation activity and of entrepreneurship is increasingly in the proactive purview of governments. In their influential 1985 study How the West Grew Rich, Nathan Rosenberg and L. E. Birzell Jr. noted that in well-ordered societies, political authority is dedicated to stability, security, and the status quo, making it singularly ill-qualified to channel activity intended to produce instability, insecurity, and change. One of the things this referred to was the state’s promotion of innovation. Today, all highly developed industrial states have a bundle of policies that aim to promote investments and scientific-technological innovation. Although technological innovation in the narrower sense is still carried out primarily within private companies and can thus be defined as “the successful implementation (in trade or management) of a technologically new idea for the institution” or as “the process by which companies master product design and production processes that are new to them and introduce them in practice,” today it is widely acknowledged that technological innovations need a broader, innovation-friendly environment if they are to prevail. Ultimately, an innovation-friendly society is sought.

A political agenda that aims to promote scientific-technological innovations represents the production of a common idea of the future by means of a political toolkit. This process reveals the necessity of both actively and interactively dealing with the fragmentation and indecision of collective activity in relation to the future. It is precisely not a matter of course for processes of innovation to follow from new knowledge gained in basic research, however great the innovative potential of this knowledge may be. The “linear model” according to which there is a preset path transporting new insights and results in basic research to applied research, which in turn someday bears fruit on the market in the form of new products or production methods, is merely an idealized version of a historical process that predominated after the end of World War II. Nor can processes of innovation be left to companies alone, however impressive their creative “unrest” (in Schumpeter’s sense) may be.

The preconditions can be listed, but they are no guarantee of success. Among them are social and human capital—that is, well-trained people and the networks and suitable forms of organization that aim to connect them with each other under adequate conditions of competition and cooperation. The other form of capital is also needed, particularly venture capital. individual resources are needed, like the imaginativeness and the creativity of successfully assertive individuals and groups and the flexible institutions and state regulating processes that must foster them. Too much planning, too much regulation, and too much centralization inhibit not only research but also the innovative potency. Other barriers to innovation include a reticence to engage in risk and to make creative mistakes. There must also be a knowledge basis that wants to expand and a research system whose orientation roughly corresponds to soci-ety’s expectations since broad public approval and support can be decisive for specific directions of research.

The more effective a renewal is, the greater the changes that appear—for the gain of some and the loss of others. As in earlier waves of modernization, there will continuously (and unfortunately also cumulatively) be losers and winners. This is why innovation always encounters resistance and rejection. They do not always appear openly but can conceal themselves inside institutions and in the inertia inherent in large systems. Nor do innovations necessarily always provide the best techno-logical solutions. Technologies can become locked on the same level. When new technologies are introduced, there is a strategy for consciously bringing about this situation to increase costs for competitors. All this (and more) is generally known and is part of the public discourse, whose intention is to push society forward on the path to a fragile future. The harder it seems to grasp the goal, the more important is the path to it.

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