Innovation is inherently philosophical. Nearly every useful definition of innovation consists of two parts: a highlight of what is “new,” “novel” or “fresh,” and the second part nearly always points to “added value” to some group of people. When “value” is discussed, the conversation turns necessarily to philosophy – What is value? Value towards what end? Value for whom? Value at what other (hidden) expense? To engage in innovation assumes a telos. Much innovation over the last 150 years is largely impacted by the philosophical implications of the Industrial Revolution.
Karl Polanyi’s written one of those books that has weathered the storms and chaos of time. His insightful work, The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time, written at the close of World War II, describes the economic transition before and after the Industrial Revolution. Pertinent to innovation is his concept of double movement. The first movement is an increase in scope and influence of a self-regulated market. The second movement is a counter to the first, and seeks to protect from the overreach of the market into social life. I will argue that these movements have created a dualism in innovation (market innovation and social innovation), unintentionally positioned market innovation over social innovation, and finally, will call for a new, eschatological movement in which to align and orient towards for innovation.
The first movement Polanyi describes has impacted innovation in countless ways. The new fictitious commodities of land, labor, and money provide many motivational drivers for innovation (Polanyi, 71-80). These commodities are now leveraged in unprecedented ways and combine to form a three-headed beast in many ways as wealth is accrued, and the market leveraged in new ways. Much of the current innovation space typified in Silicon Valley is still very much in step with this movement. One of the perhaps unintended consequences of this movement was its formational nature. It provides a picture of the “good life,” informs a telos, and promotes individualism. Innovations of this sort often increase the gap between the rich and poor (Rogers). Polanyi shines not just as an economist, but also as a philosopher, when he writes, “It was this innovation [of the self-regulating market] which gave rise to a specific civilisation” (Polanyi, 3) It didn’t give rise just to an economic movement, but to a particular civilisation forming a particular worldview.
The second movement was concerned with an unbridled reign of the self-regulating market and had high social concern. Uncertainty of labor (Polanyi, 96) the legislation of Poor Laws(Polanyi, 73), and the need for general social reform were quickly realized. One might point to the concept and renewed vigor of “social innovation” to capture the essence of this movement. Stephen Quilley, in his article “System Innovation and the New “Great Transformation,’” writes, “From this historical perspective, social innovation refers to a renewed attempt to tame self-regulating markets and build societal protection into the fabric of economic life” (2). Quilley later asserts the new economy has moved beyond Polanyi’s double movement of concern with economic and social capital to focus on the “twin imperatives of social and ecological capital” (2).
A Delayed Movement
I find many examples of individuals or companies who personally walk these two movements in their own life, often chronologically. The first movement helps them procure wealth, power, and influence, while there often is a pause and a reposturing to consider the second. Let’s consider the case studies of Bill Gates and Ideo – a leading design firm. Riding the first movement, Bill Gates leveraged (digital) land, labor and money to become the richest man in the world. Ruthless (some would say “savvy”) business practices and strategy lead to a deinstentivising monopoly (some would say “leading market share”). Upon riding the wave of Polanyi’s described first movement, then a concern for the welfare of others seems to have become a priority. The social innovation coming out of the Gates Foundation right now is inspiring, but one can left wondering why the delay was needed, or might contrast Bill Gates, the CEO of Microsoft and Bill Gates, the co-chair of the Gates Foundation.
Similarly, IDEO is recognized as one of (if not the) leaders in product development and innovation education. They developed the first mouse as a client of Apple. It wasn’t until they dominated the design space did they launch Ideo.org which seeks to “design products and services alongside organizations that are committed to creating a more just and inclusive world.” The doctrine of common grace shines in these examples in one regard – we were created to help bring about justice and flourishing for all of humankind. On the other hand, it begs the question if there is another way.
Social Innovation and social concern deserves the best minds, best resources, and best solutions, not the “sloppy seconds” of Silicon Valley. It was largely the Industrial Revolution, as Karl Polanyi surveys, that ordered these movements in the minds and hearts of people from a formed telos.
The Call for an Eschatological Movement
Christianity contains within its worldview the resources to circumvent a delayed movement to prioritize social concern and restore a balance in the innovation capital available for solving the world’s greatest problems. Revelation 21 and 22 provide a vision for the Christian telos – life with God in a community seeking justice righteousness and peace. John describes his eschatological vision like this; “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (v. 3-4). Beginning with this end in mind, true innovation surrenders and submits to this agenda. Land, labor, and money are no longer the most powerful innovation commodities in this “economy,” but are eclipsed by a people who are oriented to this vision, walking in the power of the Spirit who hovered over the waters at creation. Innovation in this lane is no longer just a “protective movement” from a self-regulated market, but a new movement altogether, aimed at the redemptive purposes of God, pictured in the new heavens and the earth.
Ideo.org, accessed January 21, 2020. http://www.ideo.org
Polanyi, Karl. The Great Transformation: The Political and Economic Origins of Our Time. Boston: Beacon Press, 2001.
Roggers, Everett M. Diffusion of Innovations. New York: Free Press, 2003.