Re: Show and Tell contribution on Sustainability and Innovation

Contribution to Jennifer Courts Work in progress:


York University
Environmental Studies

Definition of terms:

“Sustainability is a characteristic of a process or state that can be maintained at a certain level indefinitely.”

Source: Wikipedia

“The classic definitions of innovation include:

The act of introducing something new: something newly introduced (The American Heritage Dictionary).

The introduction of something new. (Merriam-Webster Online)

A new idea, method or device. (Merriam-Webster Online)

The successful exploitation of new ideas (Department of Trade and Industry, UK).

Change that creates a new dimension of performance Peter Drucker (Hesselbein, 2002)

The process of making improvements by introducing something new”

Source: Wikipedia

Human beings are wanting animals. (Maslow)

The things that we don’t have are far more compelling than the things we do have.

Part of the motivational forces that have given momentum and credence to a paradigm that offers us the latest and the newest model of the next best thing, has been a product of both our human natures and the industrialization of competition.

The race of nations to be the first, and as industry to be the one to offer what we wanted has placed us in a predicament in which we are, to use an analogy, half way across a poorly built suspension bridge.

Given that want is a deeply rooted motivational force – what was wanted, that is - the objects of our desire, have through industrial competition been fabricated; constructed vessels through which we attain a motivational goal.

Through objects we channel a deeply seated human desire for something we don’t have, as a way to achieve some other motivational goal, and as a way to release other deeply seated feel good states.

But we are rational beings as well. We are complex creatures. We want to be sustainable because its tenets from a rational point of view is something we agree with, it fits in with our ethical and moral conscience. We are also irrational, emotional beings acting sometimes, many times without “knowing”, on impulse. As such we have created for ourselves a dilemma, one in which we desire consciously a sustainable practice, and on the other we desire and crave the latest and the greatest. And that has resulted in not only a mindset of constant renewal, the remaking of our tools with newer and better techniques but also, the mechanism proper that will avail us our quests. It seems that in this regard, sustainability and innovation are at odds with each other; one communicating to the rational intellect, the other subscribing to the emotional preconscious.

How do we reconcile this paradox, and make it work.

The question would them seem to be what are the proper limits to human activity, and not how much we can get away with.

In the contemporary context, innovation seems nothing more than the positive repackaging of planned obsolescence, absent from its negative connotations. And more, occupying a position of privilege in social and political thought.

It seems that we take for granted, that the question and the proposed answers come from a position within the structures that gave rise to it in the first place.

It is such a position that also posits that the best answers will come about as a result of “Innovative” solutions. That is that through a continual “process of making improvements by introducing something new” (innovation) we will achieve a sustainable plane of existence. Innovation, as the mechanism that will take us out of the “mess” we have gotten ourselves into, is a question that still needs to be asked.

Science has given us the tools through which we have created the problem, and the tools through which we now analyze the problem. Will science now also provide the tools through which we solve the problem?

There is a certain amount of faith in science and technology as the unquestionable authority that we must defer all judgment to. Yet when we ask ourselves do we know what is right and wrong, the answer is yes, and that is not a property or quality of science or technology, but a condition of being human - of ethical and moral judgments.

The actions that underpin our ethical and moral judgments precede science by tens of thousands of years if not hundreds of thousands of years.

How do we bring to bear these fundamental human decision-making abilities to the dilemmas we now face?

Can we seek new ways of understanding the problem not framed from a perspective of science and technology?

The quest itself is fundamentally flawed. We cannot achieve sustainability through innovation. Not in its current manifestation, one of rapid successive change and renewal to fulfill human desire, and as the driver of economic, social, global development. Not when you consider that innovation is the agenda on all industry fronts globally, and governmental national development. Where is the fire, I would ask? If we were to pump as much money into “sustainability” as we do innovation, where would we be?

Shall we turn our backs on science and technology as a way deny them the authoritative and privileged position that they have on society – as a way to release the lens cap they have on the psyche and the finger they have on the pulse of society?

The promise of science and technology and innovation is at odds with the very notion of sustainability.

Framed from the promises of science and technology, for the most part, innovation as a construct of science and technology in the name of progress, acts as the operational driver for economic development and prosperity, for individuals, companies and whole nations.

If, by innovation we mean, and this is where I think it plays a role in that it can operate as an agent of change in how we ask and frame our questions.

If it can alter our perspectives allowing us to look at these dilemmas as the results of political, economic, global, competitive, prosperous, progressive acts, in short - frameworks for existence, I would say that we cannot have innovation from these perspectives, for they taint the very nature of the problem space we find ourselves in.

And although we may need to channel the solutions through these frameworks – the answers will not come about as a result of them.

If we ask what drives science and tech to ask the questions that it asks, we might not like the answers that we get. The ethical debates seem and are detached from the actual work that goes on.

What drives science and technology and their research agendas has been for the most part an economical and industrial motive force – legitimized through concepts that measure the worth of a research question from a monetary, return on investment perspective. The “monetization of innovation”, which is of pressing import to researchers, to industry and to funding agencies, presents us with an ultimate dilemma and a paradox in the face of the question, “is there such a thing as sustainable innovation?”

We are involved in a system that is itself culpable, and as the architects of such a system, we are inextricably linked, and yet almost unable to escape or detach our selves and our practices, as individuals and as a society from it.

A system that places the onus on innovation, through science and technology, and not us, as human beings, as in what we do, as a way forward, in light of the deleterious effects we are having on the environment – is in my regard not sustainable.

How can we be sustainable, or even advocate for sustainability, while at the same time continue our consumptive practices – all the while knowing that there is a whole mechanized, geopolitical, geospatial, global economic structure in place that guarantees us a standardized way of living, for some of us more comfortable than others, and for many just downright miserable?

When we think of dependence we usually envision the other, and pay little attention to how dependant we truly are to that system. We are in it and part of it, as McLuhan would say the fish in the water doesn’t realize it is in the water until it is plucked from it. What we have is a culture of dependants. Yet we are not ready to acknowledge that completely. The dilemma seems too big for us to handle.

As an example we do not hunt and gather anymore – we have subcontracted that out to a complex whose totality we cannot grasp equally, one that we only seem to see in slivers at a time, the end product of which is the superstore. This is how modern Homo sapiens hunt and gather.

How can we reunite with nature, back to the source, so to speak metaphorically, as a way to help inform our forages into science and technology?

I think it is an extremely difficult time we find ourselves in given all the competing interests, and the starting point from which we find ourselves currently in, to come up with the proper questions, and to deliver on them for ourselves and future generations.

And that is why I believe that the answers do not lie in technology or in science or in politics and policy, but in our ethics and values. In our essential knowings of what is right and wrong, of what it fair and unfair, of what is just and unjust. These are not stupid concepts. They are grounded in our human natures, as a part of nature and not separate from it. And they can guide us in how we should act.

To end, I would dismiss the proposition that a colleague once stated, “that I only drink out of this paper cup to relieve my guilt.” (as opposed to a polystyrene cup) I would say that in these littlest of gestures lie the seeds from which to sow our ethical imaginations.

How do I want to be remembered by future generations? How would I want to be remembered by my grandchildren’s children, and their children?

As a good ancestor.

A culture of competition through innovation has inevitably commissioned science and technology as its exemplar delegate. To the point that now they inform through the questions they pursue the very nature of the culture itself.

There have however been cultures in our past that did not have a culture of competition as its foundational framework – e.g. political, social, cultural. The Egyptians for example had a civilization that lasted for over 3000 years, and like the Egyptians, dynasty China under the rule of an emperor, in Egypt’s case the Pharaoh, the pressures of competition were not paramount, to progress or success. Case and point, in the “The Evolution of Technology”, George Basalla makes the point that Dynasty China invented gunpowder, the compass, and the printing press, and yet it was the competitive climate of Western Europe (15th century) that catapulted these inventions into “innovations” with ever-successional improvements, and thus the need to innovate in order to compete and to survive.

I don’t propose to know the answers, but what I do propose is that we need new ways of thinking about the problem, not from a techno-scientific point of view, but from a thinking point of view. It is about how we choose and will choose to live in this world.

Building a culture from the ground up, salvation is through the mind.

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