Creating Purposeful Innovation

by Dimis Michaelides

Creating Purposeful InnovationThe purpose of innovation is important, very important. So, if creativity is in imagining new things and making them happen, is creativity good? Of course it is! Surely the history of human progress leads us to an assertive “yes”. Can creativity be bad? Of course it can! The knife invented to cut fruit from trees can also take lives. The same nuclear force that produces energy to warm millions, can also destroy millions. The warped minds that orchestrated the attacks of 9/11 in 2001 were in some demented way creative.

Creativity can provide methods for the oppressors to oppress the oppressed and for the oppressed to revolt. It can be used for peace and it can be used for war. It can be used to provide luxury and it can be used to alleviate poverty.

As observers of the immense benefits innovation brings to mankind, our enthusiasm should not blind us to the socio-political realities of our times. Innovation does not serve everybody equally in a world where the products of innovation are traded on the open market. The latest, most innovative products/services/processes will be bought by those who can pay for the value they bring to themselves. More creative energy will be spent on where there is more money: to invent and sell latest gadgets and designer drugs rather than to confront seriously debilitating diseases afflicting millions of poor people.

There is a trickle down effect to some innovation. Poor people in developing countries, who are late adopters of mobile telephony, are putting mobile phones to very good use. But not all trickles down. Responsible action can help innovation work as a social agent for the benefit of the underprivileged. Here are some possible directions for action:

• Engage in innovation for social causes. The field is very broad, but innovating for the poor can yield great potential benefits – think of microcredit or efforts to bring energy saving appliances for cooking to low income households.

• Offer education in creativity on a large scale. This requires accepting the (proven) fact that creativity can be taught, learned and developed in each individual and organization. It also requires a conviction from leaders that innovation is a value and an important one at that.

• Change the socio-economic status quo to ensure that innovation spreads and thrives for the benefit of all. Freedom and democracy have helped entire societies become more innovative. The golden age of Athenian democracy, compared to the tyrant systems that preceded it, brought a phenomenal explosion of great new ideas in the arts and sciences. More recently, the industrial revolution which was accompanied by the evolution from monarchy to democratic institutions in the West and which culminated in the innovation explosion of the last thirty years has enabled amazing progress to happen. Sadly, there is often as much creative energy spent in defending the status quo as there is in overturning it.

Of the above three possibilities, I would argue that the second is the most immediately practical and offers high potential impact.

In any case even if there is no universality in the goodness of creativity, we do not have to rule that it must always be the exclusive domain of the rich and powerful. Innovation always has a purpose and the purpose of innovation is more important than the process. Let us try to figure out how we might use innovation for a purpose greater than our immediate personal interests.

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Creativity isn't what it used to beDimis Michaelides, Managing Director at Performa Consulting, is  global business consultant and keynote speaker on The Art of Innovation.  His book, The Art of Innovation: Integrating Creativity in Organizations, was published in 2007.

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