Innovation for the common good

The concept of innovation enjoys great prestige. There are innovation awards, grants and subsidies, and it is considered one of the key factors of progress in successful societies. The spirit of innovation, economic and technological, is key to our societies' self-image, at least in the last few centuries. By itself, this idea is neither positive nor negative, but simply speaks of something novel.

According to the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) innovation is the introduction of a new or significantly improved product (good or service), process, marketing method or new organisational process into internal business practices, workplace organisation or external relations (OECD, 2005, p.56) . Following this definition, we can recognise four forms of innovation: product, process, marketing and organisational. There are also various taxonomies of innovation, such as the one that distinguishes between incremental and disruptive innovations.


Innovation, invention and discovery

"Invention" is an idea that, in common parlance, is equated with innovation, although in technical language there are differences between the two. Innovation is considered as such if it results in "new" processes and products reaching the market. On the other hand, there are many patented inventions that are never commercialised.

A broader, less utilitarian perspective includes chance inventions and discoveries, with their derived applications, as part of innovations. For example, the serendipitous discovery that led to Fleming's development of penicillin


Risks of innovation as "novelty".

But innovation has not always been innocuous, and already in the last century voices began to be raised questioning its results in many cases. There is a broad consensus that new technologies, or new processes, do not always contribute to the future, well-being and stability of human beings, or of the world of which they are a part.

For example, at a time of rapid advances in robotics, there is widespread anxiety about how robotics can negatively affect jobs and daily life. Similarly, the widespread use of the Internet raises concerns about the use of personal data and the violation of individual privacy. Or what about suspicions about genetically modified seeds or fears about the effects of fracking?


Innovation and the common good

Recent currents of thought propose that all innovation, in order to be beneficial, must benefit the common good, and must not only enrich the group that launches or uses it, at the expense of the rest of the system in which it is inserted.

INNO3000 adheres to this trend and affirms that, for innovation to be useful as a lever for a better future, it must have the common good as its main objective.

The main beneficiary of innovation must be humanity as a whole, not only a part of it or a specific economic interest group.

Moreover, this common good must not only be the one for humanity, but also for the infinite number of living beings with whom we share our common home, GAIA, the Earth. Innovation must therefore be integrated into a global systemic vision. In this vision human beings must live in harmony with the other inhabitants of our planet.


Guiding principles

How is this commitment to be realised?

To begin with, we propose a series of guiding principles for the innovation process, aimed toward the common good.

The proposed principles are work in progress and we look forward to their future development and enrichment, for they are living ideas that aspire to be appropriated, reformulated and improved by those who wish for technology to serve the common good. It should also foster the unfolding of the human potential, both individual and collective.

For as the Frenchman Rabelais wrote::

“Science without conscience is the ruin of the soul”

7 Principles for the Common Good

1 Principle of novelty

In innovation, it matters least whether something is novel or not.

“Novelty" is at the core of today's concept of innovation: new and different products, which are covered by patents and thus become legally protected intellectual property. However, curiously, it is the least relevant of the principles of innovation for the common good, as it is motivated more by private economic objectives (patentability of products and processes) than by a criterion of utility for the majority.

Moreover, the concept of "novelty" is often applied only from the perspective of one society or group, not of humanity as a whole.

Also, which inventions, innovations or discoveries are truly new? Many "inventions", which are new to a particular country or culture, existed before in that same country at other times, or in another place far away. Metal water pipes were common in Europe during Roman times, and only came back into use in the 19th century. The movable type printing press, gunpowder, or the compass were already known in China hundreds of years before they were "re-invented" in European countries.

Nor should we forget that the concept of "discovery" often carries with it an ethnocentric arrogance: can we say that Hiram Bingham "discovered" Machu Picchu, when he was taken there by a local guide? A guide who, by the way, does not appear in the history books. Similarly, it would seem strange to read that the first Americans that Columbus brought to Spain were the "discoverers" of Europe. But, in fact they were... from the point of view of the Americas.

All this detracts from the idea of innovation as the creation of something "new". So, we suggest a change of focus, where creativity and utility for the common good take precedence.

2 Principle of evolution

In an ever-changing world, new solutions to specific problems will always be needed.

This is perhaps the principle that is most closely linked to the concept of innovation. The world is not static, everything we know is in perpetual evolution. Therefore, what may be useful and relevant at one point in time will cease to be so at a later point in the evolutionary cycle.

We propose the urgent evolution of our economic model, and the industrial activities that derive from it, towards a "new" model; a model that returns to an ecological-systemic vision of the world and of the relations between Human Beings and Nature.

The Sustainable Development Model, proposed by the United Nations in its "Agenda 2030", represents a step in the right direction, with a vision that solidly integrates the economic, social and environmental dimensions.

3 Principle of efficiency

Economy of resources is a basic principle of innovation. It is increasingly fundamental at a time when resources are becoming scarce.

Efficiency means achieving the desired objectives using the least number of resources. As resources are often scarce, the concepts of efficiency and economy are strongly related. Unfortunately, resource economy does not seem to be a widespread principle in today's economic activities.

For example, most of the software we use today, such as MS Office, easily offers hundreds more options than we need on a day-to-day basis. In principle this does not seem a bad thing, but in practice it comes at a significant cost: we need computers with more powerful processors, and plenty of RAM, to perform functions very similar to those we performed with Office 97 on computers hundreds of times less powerful. It is the equivalent of hunting mosquitoes with a shotgun: a waste of resources that fundamentally violates our proposition about true innovation.

And there are even more shocking examples: a plastic bottle consumes 80 litres of water to produce it, or bitcoin transactions in the world consume more electricity than an entire country like Argentina.

When many resources such as drinking water, clean air, oil, etc., are becoming scarce, it becomes increasingly urgent to do more with less. However, there are common practices, such as planned obsolescence, or the use of unnecessary and non-recyclable packaging - to give just two examples - that contradict this principle in an almost tragicomic way. For those who want to wake up from their placid ignorance, we recommend seeing some images of the many dumps where the technological waste that we send to poorer countries is stored, just so we don't have it near our homes.


4 Principle of synergy as a source of creativity

To innovate, human beings can - and must - integrate their analytical and imaginative faculties.

Innovation benefits from synergistic solutions to common problems. Synergy means that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. We propose to extend the concept of synergy beyond teamwork, where synergy is a clearly desirable goal.

Our synergy proposal applies to the two great areas of the human psyche, the symbolic-intuitive and the analytical-rational.

These areas are synthesised in the functions attributed to the two hemispheres of the brain: the left, specialised in the analysis and logic of the parts, and the right, which uses synthesis, imagination and a holistic perspective.

Thus, when concentrating on technical, pragmatic and concrete details, one does not lose sight of the bigger picture, which can open the door to inspiration at times when one cannot find a way out - what is commonly referred to as "thinking out of the box".

A systemic and global vision is also an excellent antidote to the manifest selfishness of patentable innovations. Discoveries, inventions and innovations are usually humble applications, on a human scale, of natural laws. For an engineer, it would be a success to reproduce the mechanical characteristics of a simple spider's web or the flight of a beetle.

5 Principle of harmony and order

Rediscovering natural beauty and order offers an endless source of inspiration for innovation.

There are two opposing ways of thinking about scientific and technical progress. One sees ideas and achievements as separate elements, like stones that accumulate to create the sum of aggregates that we call science or technology; the other sees the world as a harmonious whole, of which humans still only know a tiny part. Thus, each discovery is, in reality, a "lifting of the veil" that was covering the part now discovered.

Harmony and order are intimately linked. The Greek word kosmos, which we commonly use as a synonym for "universe", meant both "harmony" and "beauty" and "order". The ancient Greeks thus recognised that the entire universe is beautiful and harmonious, and that in it we find infinite ecosystems that reflect the order and beauty of nature.

Integrated order and beauty are powerful drivers for true innovation. The principle of harmony is inspiring and creative, it inspires lines of enquiry and makes the already known a gateway to the as yet unknown. In the same way, the search for order, expressed in beauty, is a stimulus to innovation, more powerful than the simple will to solve everyday problems.

It is perhaps no coincidence that some of the main innovation spaces and models, such as the MIT Media Lab or cradle-to-cradle design, are closely related to architecture. Architecture, "frozen music" as one poet called it, is one of the most harmonising and systemic of all practical disciplines, as conceived by the Roman Vitruvius in his famous Treatise on the Principles of Architecture.

6 Principle of respect for life and nature

The results of any innovation process must serve the common good and respect nature.

Innovation is expressed through varied ideas and creations, which will only be useful if the natural balance is respected and real human needs are considered.

The “doughnut model”, created by Oxford economist Kate Rawoth, is a great example. It posits that we must meet the fundamental needs of ALL human beings, which the economist believes are well reflected in the UN development goals. At the same time, a number of natural limits must be respected. As many studies have already concluded, if we do not respect these natural limits, we risk undermining our own future. Our current economic model can sadly be described as "bread for today and hunger for tomorrow"!

7 Principle of intergenerational responsibility

If we act considering the impact of our actions on the seventh generation, 150 to 200 years in the future, our actions and decisions will be significantly more responsible and beneficial.

This is perhaps the most neglected of all principles. It is inspired by the principle of the seventh generation, common to many Native American groups; a principle whereby, when making important decisions, the impact of those decisions on the seventh of the generations to come was considered.

Our culture, on the other hand, only acts in the short term. And as a consequence, mines that poison adjacent territories for centuries are endemic to our recent "progress". So is the deforestation that unbalances habitats and turns sources of wealth and life into deserts, thus hitting almost every country.

To illustrate the importance of this principle, let us cite a historical example. Concerned about German research into the military exploitation of nuclear energy, Einstein wrote a letter to US President Roosevelt. This led to the birth of the Manhattan Project, which resulted in the nuclear bomb. When two of these bombs were dropped on the civilian populations of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, physicists like Oppenheimer, who had been involved in their development, were horrified. These scientists banded together in the post-war period to try to stop the next breakthrough, the hydrogen bomb, but it was too late. The Soviet Union got hold of nuclear technology through espionage, and the H-bomb was developed.

It is illusory to think that the development of technology, under its many aspects, should be amoral, that is, proceed without ethical considerations. There are discoveries and technologies that can be highly destructive to the common human good, and as long as tribal sense takes precedence over the conscience of One Humanity, it may be better that some discoveries and advances do not come to fruition.

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