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[ C H R O N I C L E ]
Contrary to what we may believe, innovation has not always been seen in a positive light. Plato, the eminent Ancient Greek philosopher of Western thought, argued for tradition in Book VII of his Laws. He stated that innovation led youth to scorn the old and love the new. Change, in his opinion, was the worst possible thing, leading to instability. Seen from this angle, innovation was initially forbidden. As a result, the innovators we celebrate today risked imprisonment at the time.
During the Renaissance, innovation was about a constant break with tradition; its association with progress during the Enlightenment gave it the badge of honour it enjoys today. The explosion of two atomic bombs over Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6th and 9th August 1945, seriously undermined the notion of human progress, and innovation took on its contemporary meaning. Now closely associated with economic progress, it gradually came to be considered a way of restarting the economy and finding a way back to prosperity, to quote the words of the 2006 Nobel Prize economist, Edmund Phelps. And that’s precisely where the problem lies.
Numerous measures have been taken to increase and accelerate the emergence and development of innovations, at the forefront of economic policy. This can be illustrated with the creation of innovation ecosystems, such as competition clusters and research tax credit. The French Prime Minister’s grand investment plan of 57 billion Euros, presented on 25th September 2017, and the creation of a new fund for innovation and industry to the tune of 10 billion Euros and launched last 15th January, are in the same vein. One thing is immediately clear though: this policy leaves the issue of innovation’s meaning in the shadows. When exactly was the political question of a common desire to go somewhere raised? In fact, this is nothing more than a technocratic definition of innovation policy, illustrating a theory of action which no longer fixes goals, nor postulates values; it is solely assigned to reflecting on the resources to achieve an action - here to increase our ability to innovate.
The same applies on the corporate scale. The value of innovation for a company is widely accepted today. It appears as a means of finding new growth drivers and a way of dealing with tough competition in low-wage countries. However, as the philosopher Thierry Ménissier underlines, innovation, unlike progress, is not linked to a social or moral goal. This is all the more worrying as the shift from reflection on the meaning of innovation to reflection on its meaning for a company seems to go hand in hand with the idea that everything new will ultimately be beneficial! As Tristan Harris laments, Google’s former “product philosopher”, when talking about our relationship with our smartphone, Silicon Valley companies urge us to spend an increasing amount of time on their interfaces, and “millions of hours are simply stolen from people’s lives without any public debate”.
Could we be schizophrenic? Do not the challenges we face today - global warming, pollution, the ageing population - require a rethinking of the meaning of innovation, to ask ourselves what sort of world we wish to live in together? I believe the answer is resoundingly in the affirmative.
Doctor in Production Economics
Joëlle Forest is a university lecturer at INSA Lyon, where she teaches innovation. She is scientific head of the Gaston Berger Institute’s “Ingenious Engineers Chair” program, funded by Saint-Gobain.