March 29, 2009

Kudos to the Bean Counters

Innovation is powerful, and with power comes responsibility.

When we think creatively and “out of the box”, we break the mental bounds that constrain our ability to go beyond what we know today and build capabilities that were unimaginable just the day before.

Yet, innovation is not like creation. G-d creates something from nothing. Man builds on the ideas of those who came before us—this is incrementalism.

And doing so, we are able to go beyond our own individual human limitations.

Incrementalism is a force multiplier. It is like layering one new thought, one change, one innovation on top on another and another. With each incremental development, we as a society are able to go beyond those who came before us.

Of course, some innovations are more evolutionary and some more incredibly revolutionary, but for all there are influences that underpin their development and they are there even if we cannot readily see them.

In short though, we are constantly changing as a society and as individuals—for better or possibly, for worse.

In the introduction to the novel, The Prey, by Michael Crichton, the author talks about the how everything—“every living plant, insect, and animal species”--is constantly evolving and warns of the complexity, uncertainty, and possible dire consequences if we do not manage change responsibly.

““The notion that the world around us is continuously evolving is a platitude; we rarely grasp its full implications…The total system we call the biosphere is so complicated that we cannot know in advance the consequences of anything that we do.”

I think the point is that even if we can envision or test the consequences of innovation one, two, three or however many steps forward, we cannot know the limitless possible downstream effects of a change that we initiate.

Crichton states: Unfortunately, our species has demonstrated a striking lack of caution in the past. It is hard to imagine that we will behave differently in the future.”

We don’t have to look too far to see how we have irresponsibly used many innovations in our times, whether they be complex and risky investment instruments that have led to the current financial crisis, medical products that have had serious unintended side effects resulting in serious injury and fatalities, and of course our endless thirst for and usage of fossil fuels and the general disregard for our planet and the negative effects on our environment such as global warming and pollution to name just a couple.

Crichton warns that “sometime in the twenty-first century, our self-deluded recklessness will collide with our growing technological power.”

The warning is particularly apropos in light of the ever increasing rate of change enabled by and manifested in various technologies such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, nuclear technology and information technology.

With each new advance in our technological prowess come risks of these new tools getting away from us and causing harm. For example, nuclear technologies have provided weapons of mass destruction that we struggle to contain; biotechnology has stirred concerns in terms of cloning, mutations, and deadly pathogens; nanotechnology stirs fears of toxic microscopic organisms that can easily get into our bodies, and IT viruses and cyber warfare that threaten our world of bits and bytes as we have come to know and rely for just about every daily activity we are involved in.

The point is not for us to be scared into mental stasis and inaction, but to be cognizant of the potential for serious side effects of changes and to take appropriate safeguards to mitigate those.

Innovation is exciting but it can also be seriously scary. Therefore, we need to be brave and bold in our thinking and actions, but at the same time we need to be cautious and act responsibly.

What this means in real life is that when new ideas are introduced, we need to evaluate them carefully so that we understand the range of benefits and risks they pose.

While it is not very sexy to be the voice of caution, great leaders know how to encourage new thinking while reining in potentially dangerous consequences.


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