As part of Australia’s largest business innovation festival, Norman Lewis joins Amplify from PwC’s UK firm to speak on the subject of innovation and creativity.
Drawing on examples from big data, the internet of things and driverless cars, Lewis argues that our technological imagination has been diminished rather than uplifted by what these developments could mean for the future.
Under this theory, what do we need to do to enable a thriving culture of innovation?
You’re joining us in Australia to talk about innovation – and asking us “Where’s the big idea?”
Yes! Everyone says this is the era of immense disruption, but I think we’re actually in a fairly conservative era.
As a society, we in the West have become very uncomfortable with uncertainty, with unexpected outcomes. The result is that a lot of what we strive for in the innovation space, is predictability above all else.
The worrying consequence is that we’re lowering our expectations of what we can achieve. Far from this being an era of unprecedented innovation, I see it more as one of great human meekness and risk aversion, in which we elevate technologies that allow us to hide from the world, that are predictable and safe and help us evade our responsibility to explore, experiment and shape history.
What holds innovation back?
In the first instance it’s the lack of imagination and a willingness to be bold. We have big data, but no big ideas that could realise the potential of the processing power we now possess.
Whether Amazon can tell me what book to read next, or dating websites can find me a perfect partner – what’s being suggested is that algorithms can render better outcomes for myself and for society than human judgement.
The precision of data analytics can have enormous benefits but visualising the patterns of one’s life is not the same as self-reflection or creativity.
The journey from information to meaning involves more than filtering the ‘signal from the noise’. In our quest for innovation predictability, we face diminishing ourselves as conscious agents. We’re driving into the future by looking in the rearview mirror when what we should be doing is questioning why we still drive cars. Where are our jetpacks?
Can you give an example of this force at play?
The ability to manoeuvre a driverless car safely using sensors and communications technologies is an astonishing achievement. But why we are trying to automate what exists rather than transcending the present? When you take the driver out, it’s no longer a car. We have the possibility of creating a fundamentally different transport system that would revolutionise the future rather than automate what already exists. We’re not thinking about that; we’re thinking of ways to make driving more predictable and safe – it’s applying the technology in a very narrow fashion.
Is there a case for a mixture of combining free curiosity with a measured response to data? We can’t ignore data analysis, surely?
Of course not, far from it. Big data has already yielded amazing breakthroughs. The Higgs boson particle would never have been discovered without big data. Los Angeles, the most congested city in the US, has 17% less traffic congestion due to smart systems that link traffic lights to big data sets on weather patterns and traffic flows. From supply-chain monitoring through to the air industry, big data is having a huge impact.
Where this becomes problematic is when the prime driver becomes the quest for predictability.
While every business needs to see a return on its investment, when predictability becomes the driver of knowledge-based outcomes, we are in danger of instrumentalising knowledge itself.
I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the wonderful potential at our disposal today would never had happened had previous generations not tolerated uncertainty, research for research’s sake, experimentation and risk taking. We are not just standing on the shoulders of giants – we’re living off their courage while showing little appetite for this ourselves.
So where have all the big ideas gone?
It’s not, where have all the big ideas gone to – it’s that society no longer feels comfortable with the big idea of progress.
If you think mankind shouldn’t enter into something before being sure of every outcome – what’s enshrined now in the precautionary principle – then it’s impossible to see where anything new can spring from. You can’t solve big problems if you’re using the same knowledge that created the issue in the first place.
Incremental innovation is perfectly fine in the short term, many businesses are very successful at it. But it’s not sustainable because limits, by their very nature, eventually even out or get closed down.
It is time we looked beyond our iPhone screens and remembered that there is still a universe to explore. We need big ideas that can help push the boundaries of our most precious commodity: human imagination and our problem-solving consciousness.
Dr Norman Lewis will present his talk, Rethinking science, technology and innovation: By, with and for humanity, at Amplify’s lunchtime events in Sydney on Monday 1 June and Melbourne on Thursday 4 June.
PwC’s Strategy& are the Innovation Partner of Amplify Festival. Find out more about Amplify, running from 1-5 June.