From Innovation to Sacred Cows

We set out this season in search of solutions, specifically solutions that were innovation based. Our sense was — still is — that our thought leaders talk a good game about innovation, but a lot of what passes for “new and exciting” is pretty underwhelming in terms of social good. Bottom line, innovation without public benefit is trivial at best.

Not to denigrate specific products or processes, but will the iPhone 5 — which we’re eagerly awaiting — really increase human well being? Likewise with all the social media action out there. OK, maybe social media has facilitated some of the Arab Spring uprisings, but let’s not forget, it had to start in a very non-virtual way: with a guy lighting himself on fire. So communication innovation can be a force for change, but so far it’s mainly a way to waste time, with the convenient cover of “connecting to friends.” We’re open, however, to the evolution of connectedness.

Currently, many thought leaders are infatuated with the network model of innovation, perhaps because digital networks are a dominant part of our lives. Prior to that, we thought of innovation in a much more linear text-based way, because physical texts were the technology we had at hand. And before that we transmitted ideas and practices orally, person to person. But no matter how we transmit information, connectedness without purpose or meaning doesn’t just lead nowhere, it leads to information entropy — the diffusion of meaning into cultural white noise.

Our presenters this past season have offered some structure to our thinking about innovation. From Roger Pielke’s admonition that we’re not going to innovate our way out of climate change just by focusing on carbon dioxide targets, to Richard Jefferson’s insistence that agricultural innovation has to be open-sourced to the actual growers of food for it to benefit the rest of us. David Bollier extended this open source paradigm to the rest of the planet’s common resources.

Beth Noveck spoke with us about “tipping over the sacred cow” of government by helping to transform the way it works. Her ideas and initiatives have already put digital networks, social media and expert crowdsourcing to work to help government agencies do their jobs more effectively. This is innovation with purpose and meaning. It’s innovation that first asks the question, what do we want to get out of government? Rather than, look at this neat tool; what could we use it for?

We’d like to apply that same filter to some of our own environmental sacred cows — green building, local food, recycling, bicycling, and of course the big one, sustainability. Not that there’s anything wrong with these things. Just the opposite. We’d like to see more of them. No, our concern is two-fold: First, what do we want to accomplish, and which green tools will get us there most effectively? Second, how do we avoid over-promising and under-delivering? We don’t know the answers to these questions — and we suspect many “green experts” haven’t thought them through either — that’s why we’re asking.

This is where you can help.  As we’ve been saying for years, ticket sales cover only 1/2 of the costs of producing the Illahee Lecture Series.  That’s why additional contributions from Illahee Society members are so important. One logical response we might expect: “Well, then raise your season pass prices! Or, cut costs. Or both.” Believe us, we’ve considered the former, and have cut costs to the bone over the last two years (that doesn’t mean we’re still not trimming costs — have you seen our web site?).

We have a mission — providing a forum for evidence-based, policy-relevant inquiry — that goes beyond the bottom line. And we want to make that forum affordable to as many of our region’s citizens as we can. So, we’ll continue to ask questions and look for partners who want to leverage the answers we may uncover. To a large degree, those partners are you; the organizations and individuals who support Illahee beyond the lecture season.

As our fiscal year winds down, we need your help by June 30th in order to launch next season’s line of inquiry, keep it affordable for a wide spectrum of citizens, and yes, to keep us in business.

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