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How best to protect vital societal interests without stifling innovation

In concluding his review of three new books on innovation, John Thornhill, the Financial Times Innovation Editor, says “one of the most difficult and demanding challenges of our times” will be working out “how best to protect vital societal interests without stifling permission less innovation.”

In this article, I am not going to refer to the three books he reviewed, all written by journalists, and all offering “different answers to why innovation is so maddeningly difficult to achieve.” That seems to be an ongoing and endless question, which none of the books actually answer in Thornhill’s view.

On the first book he says, “In truth, Ridley [the author] never fully answers the questions he raises, partly, no doubt, because it is such a complex subject.” On the second book he says the author, “wanders through nine areas of science and technology with an expert eye, puncturing all the balloons of hyped expectations” whilst applying “her healthy and informed scepticism”. And of the last book he says, the author takes a “critical look at who runs the internet”.

My hope is that you will agree, that Thornhill’s concluding statements are far more interesting than any of the reviewed books appear to be. So these are the questions I am going to focus on. How can we best protect vital societal interests without stifling permission less innovation? And, is this one of the most difficult and demanding challenges of our times?

In my opinion, the problem does not represent one of the most difficult or demanding challenges of our time, and it is not difficult to work out how best to protect vital societal interests without stifling permission less innovation. Government policy could, and should, incentivise innovation that best protects vital societal interests. And this should not be challenging.

A few years ago, Kate Raworth produced a short video introduction to the three horizons model created by Bill Sharpe, showing how it might be used when thinking about transformative change i.e. innovation.

Raworth is a University of Oxford economist famous for her work modelling the balance between essential human needs and the ability of our planet to resource them. I think you will agree that is of “vital societal interest”?

In the video she describes the three horizons model as way of visualising the gap between “business as usual” and “the future we want”. Bridging the gap is achieved by innovation.

New technology can be put to two different uses, with very different outcomes. It might extend the life of business as usual which does not help us reach the future we want, or it can facilitate the development of alternative business models that do help us realise the future we want.

Harnessing innovation to get us to the future we want is a choice that every enterprise can make, and enterprise can be encouraged to make the right choices through government policies and incentives.

The challenge, as I see it, is not that the right choices are difficult to make, it is in making sure those with the power to make or influence those choices have not been corrupted by their own vested interests, or the lobbyists fighting to protect the vested interests they represent, especially if those interests are in conflict with the vital interests of society.

Another challenge is reaching agreement on what the “vital interests of society” are. But that is not really hard to work out either. The interest of society is anything that contributes to the sustainable widely shared prosperity of society — measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing — or that mitigates, or irradiates, a threat to sustainable widely shared prosperity as I have defined it.

The Social Contract concept, which originated in the ideas of Plato and has been addressed by many other leading philosophers since, can be applied. Companies can be asked to explicitly state how they view their social contract obligations, i.e. how they will contribute to the prosperity of society, in return for the implicit license society grants it, so it can operate.

Additionally, I believe they should also be accountable for their contributions. My partners and I are developing Social Contract Accounting for this reason.

You may be wondering what prosperity measured in terms of human flourishing and wellbeing means in a practical sense. If you are, ample research has been done on this topic, and has been published by organisations such as the World Economic Forum and the United Nations. The Sustainable Development Goals offers one example. Other work has been done to create measured such as the Human Development Index.

Today’s status quo means much innovation is bad innovation and resources are not being well directed. Many of the incentives are perverse. But that is not because the challenge of protecting our vital societal interests is a big one. It is because our politicians and other institutions are serving the vested interests that have captured them, putting them in conflict with wider society.

The thinking I have expressed is consistent with the goals of the Enlightened Enterprise Academy which I am in the process of launching. Other related articles can be found on the website.



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