11 Sceptical voices
Clearly many innovations signal important benefits or potentially wide-ranging impacts. However, some claims about the transformative power of certain innovations need to be treated with caution. Online shopping may be convenient, and Facebook may have ushered in an age when people could have an almost infinite number of ‘friends’ regardless of their location or whether they have actually met, but shopping without physically entering a shop and ‘virtual’ friendships both existed long before the advent of the internet, through mail order or catalogue shopping and pen pals writing letters to each other. Mail order shopping and writing letters were made possible by innovations that were groundbreaking in their day.
Compare the impact of the introduction of running water, electric lighting and indoor plumbing with some more recent innovations. As Chakrabortty (2012) comments, ‘You might love your iPhone, and I might spend too much time on Twitter, but we’d both be fine if they’d never been invented’.
Few would doubt the huge social changes associated with ICT-based innovations during the internet age, but Mitra (2017) observes that, so far, ICTs do not appear to have delivered the level of revenue that society benefited from during previous periods of technological change.
We can also debate the extent to which a new good or service adds value compared with previous offerings. Wilby (2012) notes that:
Supermarkets are full of things that claim to be “new and improved”. Technologists tweak vegetables and fruits to make them last longer and look better, without regard to flavour. Bankers develop “products” that, however you cut it, are still about borrowing and lending. We have digital radio and high-definition TV, though not everybody thinks either improves on what existed before.
So, there are sceptical voices raising questions: Is an innovation novel? Is it transformative? Is it tackling the right challenges? Does it deliver economic growth or anything of value? Embedded in these questions is the broader question of the relationships between innovation, novelty and value.
Box 2: Thinking about innovation critically
The use of the term ‘innovation’, and the willingness of some to attribute groundbreaking powers to it, has become an idealised – almost mythical – construct over the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. It can seem that if we can be more innovative, then people and societies will benefit, economies will automatically grow and solutions will be found for environmental problems.
Innovation is one of the most well-used terms in the organisational literature, irrespective of whether we are referring to private, public or third sector organisations, or national and regional institutions. Tidd and Bessant (2018) state ‘It leaps out at you from 1000 mission statements and strategy documents, each stressing how important innovation is to “our customers/our shareholders/our business/our future and most often, our survival and growth”’. In reality, the overuse of the term is in danger of devaluing its utility. It is for this reason that we would like you to develop a critical approach to thinking about the nature, value, impact and consequences of technological innovation.