Innovation in a Fragile Future – Modernity’s Promises
The idea we currently have of the future is comparable to a probe connected to a spaceship by a tether. It was sent out to carry out measurements in an unknown and uninviting environment. The probe is anchored to a tiny base, while the space it is to explore is potentially infinite, cold, and indifferent. The probe continues its explorations, unimpressed and tied to the mother ship, driven by human imagination and insatiable curiosity. It feels its way forward along a time axis whose scale cannot be precisely read. The probe is equipped with organized determination. Human imagination serves it as an aid to orien-tation—vague promises of a wide variety of improvements; the desire to understand, which accompanies the will to control; but also the unbroken joy in playing with the next big thing that does not know its goal or purpose. There are no historical precursors for this way of dealing with the new, which raises innovation to the status of the definitive though indefinable center of the realm of the future that is to be explored. What is coming, the time and space of what is not-yet, is perceived as something overflowing with constantly generated opportunities and chances. Like information, which is regarded as the new raw material of the electronic age, chances are present in plenty, but they must be selected, processed, and combined with other chances, data, and networks. Opportunities are there to be grasped, but they have not yet been cashed in. They remain promises.
That is the collective wager we have made on the future of scientific-technological civilization: it is called innovation. The social order of the highly industrialized countries is to carry out the promises of the order of knowledge and things as the primary goal on the basis of economic competition with economic growth. In an inescapable pincer movement that is flexibly arranged in accordance with the neoliberal economic dogma, we approach the horizon of an uncertain future. No one has reason to draw back from it, we are assured. Uncertainty is inseparably a part of it. If the knowledge of contingency stood at the beginning of modernity, we are currently in the process of discovering uncertainty as an inherent component of the process of innovation and a fragile future.
Where does innovation’s incontestable pioneer role come from? Creating a connection to an unknown future has always fascinated people. Every culture, every historical epoch strove to read out interpretations or instructions for action for the present. The wish to make predictions promoted ancient ideas of numbers and mathematics in China. Christian theology sketched a picture of the future that was bedded in the idea of salvation. But in many societies, most of history was dominated by the overarching idea of fate, and fate regulated the life of most people. Only in modernity did the idea arise that the future could be planned and current living conditions bettered, at least in part. The steps of progress that were made in various areas of knowledge—for example, the mathematical theory of probability—made it possible to provide economically sustain-able foundations for newly arisen institutions, and today the insurance industry is generally considered an acceptable way to deal with the uncertainties of the future.
Modernity’s promises were also based on new confidence in the achievements that, after “the discovery of society,” were at least partially carried out in increasingly self-organized and self-regulating form. The belief in the possibility of planning and carrying out technocratic ideas that was still widespread a few decades ago has dwindled today to the point of recognizing limits and being ready, at least in principle, to cater to the wishes and expectations of groups like consumers and voters. Today, innovation has become the starting point for negotiating with the future. It takes account of the future’s uncertainties and emphasizes the opportunities opening up. The concept of innovation has changed, as well. While the new configuration of known elements and components is still the core of the concept, it has expanded in a direction that allows the radically new in a socially evolutionary sense.
But why precisely now? Where does the collective obsession with a continuous process of innovation—a process no longer fixated solely on producing the new but also demanding its productive, profit-making implementation with increasing returns and its embedding in social and economic living circum-stances—come from? Even basic research—that segment of the production of new knowledge and discoveries in which breakthroughs press back the boundaries of what is considered feasible and that provides indispensable epistemic foundations whose significance is often not visible until later—has not slowed its approach to possible technical applications and expectations of innovation. Most researchers in this area are indeed aware that behind the walls of the laboratory, behind the fascination of their experimental systems or research apparatus, and behind the computer screens on which they create models, expectations are gathering in accordance with which they “translate” their knowledge and bring it into a form that, sooner rather than later, should be in some way utilizable by and indeed useful to the society. Curiosity and the desire to discover have not disappeared, but they have lost some of their former independence and self-understanding. They have become part of the research machinery that is expected to point the way to innovation.
The current focus on innovation does not mean that this is a new phenomenon or that earlier times did not already equally look on innovation as desirable and central to economic growth. But neoclassical economics still has trouble making sense of innovative processes and Schumpeter’s approaches to a theory of innovation. Economists who seize on Schumpeter for modeling or empirical investigations of processes of innovation ineluctably move away from neoclassical theory. From an empirical standpoint, processes of innovation are the result of specific activities that aim at introducing new products or at altering production processes. At any rate, they cannot be understood as something routine, whose results are foreseeable in detail. The theoretical problematic lies in the fact that the success of innovative procedures is unforeseeable and in the resulting problem of discontinuous change. Investments in innovations cannot be rationally calculated because they face the strategic uncertainty resulting from the actions of others and the uncertainty of the innovation’s usefulness. As Joseph A. Schumpeter already argued long ago in The Theory of Economic Development, entrepreneurs are interested in profit, but innovation is not exhausted in the motivation of a goal-oriented maximization of use.