A Modest Proposal for Building the Future

November 23, 2020   •   By Alex Soojung-Kim Pang

The Innovation Delusion

Andrew L. Russell

I SHOULD HATE The Innovation Delusion. I’ve made a career as a futurist in Silicon Valley, helping big companies think about the business implications and commercial opportunities of emerging technologies. My father-in-law spent his career in the computer industry, my wife helps run her school’s “maker lab,” and my son graduated from d.tech, a high school that puts “design thinking” at the center of its curriculum. I have friends and relatives at Google, Apple, IDEO, Facebook, Intel, and Stanford. As Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell put it in their book, we are the class of people fluent in “innovation-speak,” “a language built for telling breathless stories of amazing creativity, incredible opportunity, and existential risk.” It’s “a sales pitch about a future that doesn’t yet exist,” they write. And, they add for good measure, it “is fundamentally dishonest.”


To which I say: Yeah guys, you’re right.


Innovation-speak is not the same thing as innovation or creativity. Indeed, Vinsel and Russell, professors at Virginia Tech and SUNY Polytechnic respectively, have lots of respect for creativity, work, and ingenuity. But they argue that just as technology has the power to shape our lives, language has the power to shape our thoughts, and the Valley has used both with ruthless effect. Innovation-speak allows us to acquire the power of Imperial Rome while insisting on its fundamental innocence. It lets us declare with absolute certainty that disruption is inevitable, unavoidable, and for the long-run benefit of humankind (and, incidentally, our short-term gain). It makes us winningly bashful about all the attention we get, and the influence a few of us have over billions of others. And it helps us sustain a childlike wonder at the trillions of dollars that keep pouring onto our balance sheets, which almost (but not quite) distract us from our mission of Bringing The World Together, or whatever.


Yet all is not well. People keep complaining that we’re invading their privacy, leaking their data, giving their jobs to robots, addicting their children to screens, and letting their elections and democracies be subverted. (We also still haven’t delivered those jet packs and flying cars.) It’s starting to look like innovation-speak … doesn’t really work as a description of the future, and it’s losing its power as a distraction from the present.


Beware geeks bearing gifts, Vinsel and Russell warn. The pursuit of novelty for its own sake doesn’t just fuel income inequality or threaten the environment (though it does contribute to those): it takes resources and attention from what really matters, which is maintenance and repair. These more modest activities are undervalued in just about every way. Despite their invisibility, they are indispensable, and absolutely essential in a crisis. There’s nobility in “keeping daily life going, caring for the people and things that matter most to us, and ensuring that we preserve and sustain the inheritance of our collective pasts,” they write. “It’s the overlooked, undercompensated work that keeps our roads safe, our companies productive, and our lives happy and secure.”


How central is maintenance? As Vinsel and Russell note, “about 70 percent of engineers maintain and oversee existing systems,” and “60 and 80 percent of software budgets are spent on maintenance.” Indeed, according to one estimate, two-thirds of US workers are engaged in maintenance of infrastructures, places, or people. Yet they’re often underpaid (65 percent make less than $20 an hour), and maintenance itself is chronically underfunded. (Maintenance is also largely overlooked by Russell and Vinsel’s fellow historians of science and technology, who are as focused on innovation as any comms shop in Palo Alto.)


This comes at a cost. If, as social scientists James Q. Wilson and George Kelling famously declared, “broken windows” signal a level of public disorder that invites more serious criminality, it is also true that neglected bridges and shabby public buildings impoverish civic life, slow economic growth and social mobility, and in the long run cost more to repair than to keep in good order.


Maintenance is also a deeply collective enterprise. It represents a willingness to invest in common goods, to choose the public benefit over private advantage; but public spaces also support social life in a way that private goods cannot. It takes a village to build a square; in turn, the square becomes the heart of village life.


The irony is that our focus on innovation leads us to under-invest in maintenance, which in turn makes innovation harder to sustain. You can’t run a fleet of robot vehicles on poorly maintained roads, and underfunded schools can’t train tomorrow’s engineers and entrepreneurs. And because we devalue blue-collar jobs like plumbing and carpentry and glazing, we take students who would be happy and successful in trades, and push them into going to college and taking on debt in pursuit of “creative” jobs that are often more precarious and impecunious. (Ask any adjunct professor about the broken relationship between education and income.) Better respect for maintenance would make for better, and more valuable, innovation.


How can we do this? At the practical level, Americans need to pay maintenance workers more, fund infrastructures for the long run, and redesign the balance between maintenance and innovation to acknowledge that each needs the other. Indeed, maintenance and real innovation can be deeply entwined.


For the last several years, I’ve been studying companies that have permanently moved to four-day weeks, without cutting salaries, productivity, or revenues. These are businesses — including tech startups, restaurants, financial services, marketing agencies, and design firms — that worship innovation, and where overwork is the norm. They also struggle with recruitment and retention, and with work-life balance, burnout, and even mental health and substance abuse.


Shortening the workweek is an exercise in continuous innovation. Some companies invoke IDEO’s design thinking practice, and talk about redesigning time and work the same way others talk about redesigning products. Companies and individuals have to rethink everything about how they work. They dig through data about meetings and productivity, sift through project post-mortems, and study their balance sheets to find ways to become more efficient. They redesign meetings, find ways to automate time-consuming work, schedule unobstructed time for what Cal Newport calls “deep work.”


Long hours no longer signal passion and commitment, but pathologies; their company cultures value time and sustainability. Good work no longer requires long nights, nor does it demand that people sacrifice their health and happiness. Moving to a four-day week gives people more time to exercise, care for family, deal with what the English call “life admin” — home repairs and doctors’ visits and fixing those loose stairs — the equivalent of more than seven more weeks of paid vacation per year. And having time for that maintenance work enables them to do better work. At many companies, revenues and client satisfaction actually rise. Workers are happier, more productive, and have better ideas. And a number of companies have been recognized with industry prizes, government awards, or Michelin stars.


So are these companies innovators or maintainers? The answer, I think, is “both.” These companies have to challenge industry conventions, reinvent themselves, and learn to work in new ways — all very creative and innovative. Yet their objective is to become more sustainable, to give everyone better lives, and to become places where people can develop and grow their skills.


The COVID-19 pandemic and the subsequent economic disruption have accelerated the movement to shorter hours. Companies around the world have found that going remote has let them experiment with new technologies and processes, just as employees — especially parents — need more time to attend to the demands created by the lockdown. These last few months have been costly, but they’ve shown us that we can, individually and collectively, change how we work more rapidly than we ever imagined; revealed the importance of essential workers and maintainers; and given us a glimpse of a future that could be radically different — more prosperous, better maintained, and more sustainable — from the world we left this spring. Vinsel and Russell have given us a modest manifesto for building that world.


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Alex Soojung-Kim Pang’s book Shorter: Work Better, Smarter, and Less — Here’s How, on how the four-day week could improve individual lives and the world at large, came out in March 2020 with Public Affairs.