Innovation in a Fragile Future – The Ambivalent Answer of Innovations
Here the term innovation enters the existing vacuum and begins filling the gap that discontent left in society. Innovation signals the emergence, the arising of something that may already be present but is only partially recognized or recognizable. It directs the gaze to invisible or unexpressed connections to other terms and weaves them into a net of newly configured meanings. Despite all attempts to celebrate postmodernism as an epoch that has broken with modernity, we retain modernity. We are condemned to modernity and probably also for a long time to the need to confirm it anew and to give it content, even if the design, the irony, and the reflectivity with which content is conveyed, altered, lost, or shifted become themselves components of content.
Modernity is no longer the program that provides answers to prefabricated utopias, even if the building blocks that it once contributed to furnish institutions and societal structures are still present and usable. Nor does modernity answer any longer to explicit or implicit expectations: the majority of its promises have been fulfilled, even if differently from what was expected. It still functions as a substitute for a belief in progress that has collapsed under its own hubris and the illusions it created for itself. But modernity must continue to create itself out of itself,
In the 1960s, when the cultural scholar Raymond Williams investigated the changes that the term culture had gone through in the first half of the nineteenth century in England, he discovered a fascinating correlation between societal change and change in the language. The term culture stood in close connection to other key terms of the time (like class, industry, and democracy), and it altered its meaning in response to the societal changes that were expressed in the other key terms. Raymond Williams, Culture and Society 1780–1950 (London: Chatto & Windus, 1958). And to this end a future is needed that is radically open and uncertain. It is accompanied by the belief and the ideology that something new can be created that bears within it the effective power to create additional valuable new things that can con-tribute to societal affluence and well-being—however vaguely defined these may be.
The process of the generation of the new must be adequately open for societal values—for example, as they are expressed in the demand for sustainability. Other values, like security, which presents itself in a number of mutually contradictory meanings, also wait to be included in the next package of modernity. In contrast to the term evolution, aside from the problematic of the term’s metaphorical transfer from biology to the area of living together in society, the term innovation holds room enough for societal values and human action.
Innovation proves to be a slippery term that is vague enough to remain in flux. Thus, it can easily shift terrain because innovation is in demand and potentially useful everywhere. Demand exists in the realm of culture to make connections with the creative industries, to mix the genres creatively, and to create a system that is itself in turn fed by the innovative power of subcultures that make use of the new technologies, of design, and of wittiness. It is needed in organizations, where managers want to institutionalize it for the long term to create the flexibility that companies need to adjust to a changing environment but also to create a favorable environment.
Because innovation is open for human action, it can endure mistakes. It can reassure people to keep trying. It indicates failure as well as the successes that can be taken as examples and displayed for it knows only one form of proof— success. The path to success is arduous, thick with setbacks and uncertainties that should not be swept under the rug because innovation seeks to encourage and create the audacity that is needed to enter into skillful negotiation with the unforeseeable and fragile future.
The initially abstract-seeming goals of the next wave of innovation—for example, in the life sciences (or should the term be life technologies?), which correspond to the desire for health, longer life, the postponement of aging, or expanded possibilities in human reproduction—can be achieved only by means of research processes whose consequences and prerequisites are far from understood. But the discontent with biotechnology and related research directions, despite the attempts to underscore their directly useful, therapeutic purposes, has deeper roots. What manifests itself here is the feeling of ambivalence. On the one hand, this ambivalence greets the improvements that are made to seem possible. It plays with our inexhaustible wishes and fantasies. On the other hand, it stands as a direct threat to the seemingly immovable idea of identity and self, of kinship relations and other socially or culturally molded net-works of relationships. And yet these are not given by nature but made by us humans. To carry out this mental step, however problematical it may be in a concrete situation, also requires something of the audacity, the heroic gesture, that innovation demands in full knowledge of the possibility of failure.
No wonder that behind every supposed or real shift in the boundaries between the self and the others, behind every intervention in allegedly immovable natural limits, and behind every discussion of an ethical case, we hear the invocation of unchangeable values and an ethic that offer guidelines for a firm orientation in the middle of the unhinged categories. But numerous historical examples evidence that not every slippery slope necessarily leads into the abyss. Values may appear unchangeable, but they are subject to societal changes against which they cannot muster enough immunity. Caught up in the tension between the understandable wish to preserve the given order, thereby resisting change, and a new hybrid order whose contours are only vaguely visible, the impulse finally prevails to move forward because standing still is tantamount to falling back. This is another, deeper reason why we are condemned to modernity. Innovation is the social form that this impulse takes on to move toward the new order.
The meaning of the term innovation changes through the process that the innovations go through. Innovation no longer stands primarily for a recombination of known components or elements, as Joseph Schumpeter presented in his classical analysis at the beginning of the twentieth century, which gave Schumpeter’s idealized figure of the entrepreneur a crucial.
A little-known example is the controversy that arose in the late nineteenth century in the United States about contracting life insurance. The opponents rejected it vehemently with the argument that it would be immoral for human beings to presume to make the time of death, which God alone could know, into the object of a business deal. The controversy gradually ended only when the counter argument was fielded that taking precautions for the children and widow of the deceased was also a moral duty. Advantage over his competitors. This form of innovative behavior is as widespread as ever. But it has been supplemented by an expanded concept of innovation that builds on the potential of the radically new and the associated inherent insecurity. In the 1970s, the economist G.L.S. Shackle already called the “essentially new” the characteristic trait of an evolutionary approach to investigating sociotechnological innovations that are radically open in the face of an unknown future. The process of innovation presumes contingencies and decision-making situations that surpass by far any recombination of known components.
In this way, innovation fills the vacuum arising from genuine insecurity, which in turn is an indispensable part of the process of innovation. Innovation can fill this vacuum in the interpretation of the future because of this circularity, which in turn is a form of modern reflectivity. Innovation is not an unmoved mover that acts by means of the impersonal powers of a technocratically organized society. Technocracy itself, as a historically molded societal structure, is undermined by the process of continuing innovation in the form that includes the radically new. The process of innovation spreads throughout society, just as its scientifIc-technological objects and their network-organized infrastructures do. A kind of mimicry is at work here, but it is not exhausted in mere imitation. It imitates by actively intervening and appropriating what it can use. It imitates, but at the same time it interprets and commentates and changes the meaning by inventing new meaning. There is no longer the one great actor, either Schumpeter’s flgure of the entrepreneur or the state and its agencies. Now all are called on and empowered to take part in the process of innovation—at their own risk, of course!
In this way, innovation presents itself as a key concept and as the only currently available and plausible answer in the face of the insecurity to which it constantly contributes, aside from the various kinds of fundamentalism that offer their deceptive securities as an alternative. Innovation’s credibility comes from the basic willingness to include the diversity and plurality present in the society. Variation is the precondition; it is cultivated to make selection possible because the process of innovation is based on both. Diversity also means that a scientifIc-technological innovation cannot be successful without social and cultural innovations. The more sweeping and radical the scientifIc-technological objects or technologies are, the more cultural and social innovation is needed if the package contain-ing the renewal is to be embedded in the societal context.
A language is required if something is to become recognizable and pictures are required to convey what language cannot or cannot yet express. Literature and the arts are invited to pose questions, express doubts, and make ironical commentary. What initially narrows scientifIc-technological innovation and brings it into a rigorous form must then be culturally expanded again to do justice to the plurality of society and its future users but also to take their ambivalence into account. In this way, innovation becomes a key that seems able to open all doors, whether to escape the threats of the present or to dare a leap into the unknown future. The insecurity inherent in innovation corresponds to the openness of the future. Innovation cannot anticipate anything; it seeks to include, not to exclude, even though its nature is that it will exclude.
Here we are not yet speaking of innovation’s forms of expression and its consequences. They already manifest them-selves in preliminary form—for example, in the artistic, creative professions. For people who work in these fields and who regard themselves as innovative and creative, this means repeatedly and voluntarily letting themselves in for the outstandingly staged forms of competition whose function is to maximize variation to carry out selection all the more rigorously. This proceeds under the sign of seeming transparence and in adherence to the criteria shared by all, though these can be unjust and disputable in individual cases. The mixture of the various genres and the exploration of new technologies are part of the creative way of dealing with them. At the same time, the inequitable logic of economics enters into every creative act.
Innovation offers enough room for human action and does not hide its dependence on such action. Where else should innovation come from if not from human activity and, of course, the preconditions that make innovative activity possible? These are the forms in which cooperation and competition are regulated, the social skills as well as the ability to manage the creativity of others, venture capital that is available to small start-up firms, but also the framework conditions and the rule-book governing the behavior of the collective actors, transnational corporations, governments, and interstate institutions. Science and technology’s offer to produce the new is always an oversupply. The result then depends on the continuing course of the process of innovation, on a product’s successful placement on the market, and on the goals of the productivity spiral, which can be achieved in many different ways.
The term innovation plays with the multiple meanings inherent in changes that know no precise goals, since these too must remain open. By betting on human action, innovation should broadcast the calming message that the unforeseeable will nonetheless be manageable. Dealing with risks? Not a real problem, for if needed, there is the precautionary principle. Instead of being intimidated by the apocalyptic warnings of the risk society, the decision can be made in favor of a “modern risk culture,” as prevails in the global financial markets. These are institutions that cultivate a culture of risk in which market configurations and technological developments come together within certain social groups that develop their own ideas of leadership, expertise, and creativity. There the ambition to know encounters the market’s ambition to turn this knowledge into commodities. That too is a form of innovation—though certainly not for all.
In contrast to other, related terms (like knowledge society, which evokes counterterms like ignorance), the term innovation captures the essence of modernity in its iterative dynamic. This expects fractures and continuities, successes and failures. For innovation contains a self-fulfilling prophecy—namely, that only further innovations will provide the means to master the problems that innovation also creates. This circularity is solidi-fled by the proof adduced by innovative achievements and in this way opens the present for a fragile future.