Why Innovate: 3 Ways Society and Technology Change Each Other

We create things, which in turn change us. These changes are inevitable, but the scale and patterns in which they occur are meaningful in understanding how we can affect change in society through technology. Innovation is proactive, not reactive; it’s about creating change, not responding to it.

To innovate: listen to people, but don’t let them do all the thinking for you.

Technology in the Broader Sense

This is about technology in the broad sense, defined by Wikipedia as “…the making, usage, and knowledge of tools, machines, techniques, crafts, systems, or methods of organization in order to solve a problem or perform a specific function.”

This definition brings up two important points:

  1. Technology also consists of systems, crafts, methods, and techniques, not only physical objects like a computer or an airplane.
  2. Technology exists for a purpose, we create these things to help us accomplish goals. After all, “necessity is the mother of invention,” right?

William Fielding Ogburn wrote about this relationship already in 1947, and many of his points are still valid and relevant today.

Three Patterns

This diagram illustrates three examples of how society and technology interact, stagnation, reaction, and innovation.

Patterns of Change: Society and Technology

Stagnation

This pattern occurs often during the emergence of new technological paradigms. The technology offers society something new, and society adapts to it. The problem is that many creators fail to continue innovating, so our ever-changing society outgrows the stagnant, unchanging technology.

Reaction

Most technologies, if created by people who are responsive to their consumers, exhibit this pattern. Someone recognizes an existing but unaddressed need, creates new technology to address that need, and adapts the technology to keep up with people’s changing needs.

Innovation

When a technology changes society consistently, it’s called innovation. A stagnation pattern often begins with an innovative technology that eventually stops being innovative. True innovation, however, occurs when an innovative technology changes ahead of the curve, making society respond to it, rather than responding to society.

So, Innovate!

When providing services or creating products, it’s always good to listen to your consumers, so you know what problems they face. What isn’t so good is when you let your consumers do all the thinking for you. That is reaction; building a better horse.

In a recent online panel discussion on Focus.com, both Kate Aronowitz and Luke Wroblewski connected innovation with risk. It’s almost a no-brainer, but that simple premise allows us to logically deduce three points on how to innovate (also discussed in the panel):

  1. If you consistently attempt innovation, you will inevitably fail.
  2. If you (or your organization) are (is) not prepared to risk failure, you cannot innovate.
  3. Greater risk = greater failure or greater success

Focus groups, user tests, market research, etc. are great ways to learn about consumers and what they want. Using their insights as the sole input for creating or improving technology is learning what people want and giving it to them. That’s the safe way to go, but the safe way doesn’t put you ahead of the curve or make you revolutionary.

Take risks, get ahead of the curve, and make your change to society!

Special Thanks

This post was inspired by a conversation about postmodernism in culture that happened outside of Prague’s Zapa Bar, between Kate Tarling, Andrea ResminiTerence Fenn, and myself. Thank y’all for the inspiration!

Attribution

Society icon by Castor & Pollox; technology icon by Márcio Duarte

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