Is Innovation the Enemy of Maintenance?

Workers at Blue Plains Wastewater Treatment Plant in Washington, DC. Photographer: Robert Madden/National Geographic Creative

Innovation is sexy. Maintenance is not. Urban innovation is driverless cars, public wi-fi, and smart sensor arrays. Urban maintenance is filling potholes, desludging septic tanks, and retrofitting generators. While scores of authors continue to extol virtues of innovation in books and articles, few pay attention to the value of maintaining what we already have to the society. No one is opening “Maintenance Labs” or launching “Calls for Maintenance.”

In a recent Freakonomics podcast, In Praise of Maintenance, the host Stephen Dubner discussed whether our current obsession with innovation is detrimental to taking care of existing infrastructure systems in our cities. His guests — two professors of science and technology studies — make an argument that maintenance “simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.” They both believe that innovation has become grossly overvalued, and the term “innovation” itself has suffered from “overexposure and cooptation” turning into a buzzword with no meaning.

It is true that leaders often seem to forget the definition of public sector innovation as “new ideas that create value for society,” which causes them to propagate innovation for the sake of newness, not value creation. In my professional past at the World Bank, I had first-hand experience with “innovation fetish,” when a mayor of a small industrial city with pothole-ridden streets, frequent power outages, and a lead-contaminated lake nearby, asked my team to come up with a “brand” for his city as a priority item. He mentioned “I heart New York” and “I AMsterdam” as the two examples he liked. What he seemed to disregard, however, is that just like learning to walk before you can run, a city cannot build a brand before getting basic infrastructure right.

Is there a way to reconcile our fascination with the “next new thing” with the need to maintain what we already have? Perhaps a sensible approach would be to not put innovation on a pedestal while dismissing maintenance as drudgery. Instead, we should be recognizing and celebrating efforts of maintainers along with innovators. In order to harness the potential of technology to disrupt and elevate quality of life of all, we also need to choose bold leaders with an ambitious vision for the future of our cities, who at the same time are grounded in reality of having to sustain existing facilities and institutions that work, no matter how “unglamourous” these projects are.