At the Crossroads:Innovation and Human Experience

Ramin Jahanbegloo, Nick Mehrdad Loghmani

The concept of innovation usually refers to the emergence of the novelty. Innovation, however, is more than the quality of being new, as incremental improvement can lay the claim to innovation. It can be argued that innovation is a unique human experience, often mistakenly innovation is attributed and limited to its outcome, usually as means and processes of creation. It is important to note the relation between creativity and innovation, creativity is subjective and is manifested as a mode of exchange with the world, on the other hand innovation encompasses and employs creativity as a means to transform the world. Being innovative is to think outside the realm of possibilities, to not only envision but also inspire others to depart from old norms and recompose to a new mode of being.

True innovative thinking is a dynamic and liberating force which has always engendered a revolution of values in human societies. Innovation, therefore, does not bring necessarily something new from the strictly technical point of view, but also reorganizes the whole of the society in each period of time. As such, innovative thinking responds not only to the needs of technology and industry, but mainly to the spiritual and intellectual requirements of each historical period. In other words, a great innovative thought gives birth to a new historical perception, accompanied with a strong liberating force that has enough disruptive dynamism to break us out of everything that is breaking us. Innovation, then, consists largely of transcending what we know in order to find out what we do not know. In this sense, the classical notion of innovation suffers from a certain philosophical default because it is linked to the over- determination of the concept of need of industry and technology and less to the intellectual need for change and transformation. On the other hand, rigid methods and structure of political and economic machinery is geared toward managing complexities by the means of reductionism, determinism and control of the context and exogenous variables. To overcome complexity and increasing efficiency it excludes and repels whatever and whoever that is not contributing to its growth and conforming to its norms, thus it can be argued that our contemporary political and economic system is inherently alienating.

Moreover, one can say that the source of innovation lies in our experience as humans. As Heidegger puts it, it is in the nature of human to be involved in a complex world, be unconventional and be cooperative. In other words, human innovation stems from human beings ability to be differentiative and transformative. Innovation, therefore, should respond to the substantial (and not only physical) need of the human society for transformation and re-organization. For example, the three different industrial revolutions have each influenced and empowered the creative mind of scientists, artists and philosophers. That is why, the logic of the real innovation is to reorganize the spiritual and existential needs of human beings by expanding their virtual possibilities, which by definition are non predictable. In other words, innovation is the potential of transforming and re-organizing the idea that humanity makes of itself. It can be argued that innovation is not a means to achieve something, but a mode of expression. As such, innovation is not confined to building something new, but having a perspective and a way of thought that looks at the world through a transformative lens. A lens that transcends existing norms and constraints and show us how things can be. As a matter of fact, we can raise here strong points of convergence between technological innovations and phenomenological stages of human consciousness as processes of both individual and cultural maturation.

Thus, innovation is not worth having if it does not include the freedom for humanity to access beyond it. Moreover, an innovative thinker is anyone who recognizes the fact that innovation is to be lived, not controlled. And that is the highest degree of innovation. It is perhaps important for us to know why we innovate. If not, one would not be able to find a meaning of a worthy innovation. As we know, we are living in a world of “progress.” But progress does not necessarily mean change and transformation. Thus, innovative thinking does not just help us gain knowledge and progress, but it also changes our way of thought about things in order to make us become more meaningful. In the same manner as in the Socratic dictum which says that the unexamined life is not worth living, we can say that the unexamined life can not lead to innovation. Examined life leads to innovative thinking that helps humanity with its spiritual growth. This is an indisputable philosophical fact that accompanies the idea of innovative thinking, not only as a dynamic of techno-scientific change, but as a new orientation of a human project characterized by a new mode of comprehension of the world.

It is common in our world to confuse between efficiency and innovation. However, we should not forget that while efficiency increases and extends our abilities, it does not expand our possibility frontiers. Efficient products and services may increase access and bring lower prices, but efficiency is not departure from what is norm and known, but tweaking and improving the existing. Therefore, while innovation leads to differentiation through transformation, focusing on differentiation alone does not lead to innovation. To take an example, a common practice between competing firms is to focus on adding features of a product and to extend its technical aspects in order to differentiate it from other products. While this practice conforms to the accepted market norms, it usually provides very little outcomes in terms of transformative experience.

In the same manner, we can argue that contemporary political parties are differentiative powerhouses. By forgetting their responsibility as transformative agents, political parties have inhibited their ability to attract innovative minds as quintessential elements of progressive force in every society. As a matter of fact, the impact of innovation in the political discourse and social organization of American society is best exemplified by the positive influence of the 1960s civil rights movement. According to a study done by Gavin Wright, a specialist of economic history at Stanford University, the civil rights movement contributed to the economic improvement and the stimulated growth of the American citizens.

Therefore, it is important to underline that innovation is a transformative and an enriching experience. The subject of innovation is not the craft itself but the possibilities it creates in enriching our human experience. Innovation, therefore, is the medium of expression through which we can expand our possibility frontiers in every dimension of our being. An innovator is like an artist that uses canvas and brushes as mediums of expression. Let us not forget that humans are not one dimensional beings. As such, all emotional and intellectual aspects are fundamental to our existence. Therefore, being innovative is not limited to our physical dimensions. Going faster, reaching higher or delving deeper does not lead us necessarily to a transformative way of life. Quite on the contrary, it could be destructive to our well -being and to that of our planet.

To be innovative is first and foremost to be able to see and to think beyond the convention of existing norms, be it in business or in our thoughts and feelings. Innovators are not concerned with conforming to rules and exchanging norms, but they are concerned with a transformative departure from what are considered as norms. They are not particularly occupied with increasing existing efficiency, but introducing new possibilities that were not imaginable before. Therefore, innovative societies shift fundamentally from application of processes to aggregation and exchange of knowledge. This aggregation of knowledge, at the scale we are witnessing it today, is a new dimension. This new dimension is exemplified by the existence of social networks that have the potential to cause a paradigm shift in the notion of citizenry. As a matter of fact, they are already paving the way for the emergence of an idea-centric citizenship. In other words, innovation may lead us to a newly defined citizenship based on ideas rather than on geographical or political borders.

Last but not least, the question of innovation gives us the ability to dream, hope and organize beyond our imagination. In other words, to be truly innovative is to overcome one’s imagination barriers and to think in a radically different way. Thinking innovation is, therefore, contingent upon the process of perpetual innovation in thought.

About the Authors:

Ramin Jahanbegloo is an Iranian political philosopher and academic. He is usually based in Canada. Currently, he is Professor and Vice Dean and Executive Director, Mahatma Gandhi Centre for Peace Studies, Jindal Global Law School.

Nick Mehrdad Loghmani is a tech entrepreneur, political activist and researcher. He currently resides in San Francisco.