Taking a Purposeful Approach to Innovation
In 1956, President Eisenhower set in motion the largest public works program in history: the creation of the Dwight D. Eisenhower National System of Interstate and Defense Highways (also known as the Interstate Highway System). The program was envisioned as a grand solution for addressing problems of road safety, reducing congestion, creating “arteries of commerce,” and reinforcing defense capabilities for the Cold War. Construction began following multiple rounds of consultation and design, and over the next several decades, the reach of the Interstate was continuously extended.
The Interstate did deliver on two of its main goals: lowering the cost of transportation and igniting economic growth. However, it also introduced new indirect problems, such as urban sprawl, reductions in prime farmland, white flight and other forms of self-sorting (which caused further income inequality), and deprioritization of public transportation systems. Though the intent behind the original idea was good, there were many unexpected consequences to its development and implementation.
Today, technology companies are taking similar risks as they build products and platforms that will reshape society and the economy for decades to come, as the Interstate has done, without considering the potential human — and systems-level effects. While history shows that human intervention consistently leads to unintended consequences, today, new ideas are being built and scaled at unprecedented volumes and speeds without regard for the risk this development presents.
CONTENDING WITH GROWTH
Today’s startups are not short on problems to investigate, nor are they struggling to find potential solutions to test. The abundance of startups, including tech companies, is made clear by startup archivers like Crunchbase and AngelList. The entrepreneurs leading these companies employ play — that is, the exploration and enactment of potential realities – with limited consequence. And they often have strong incentive to do so, thanks to cash- flush multinationals standing ready to acquire businesses and recombine their technology and customer portfolios.
Play has proven incredibly valuable for crafting stories of new company-created realities, which are then enthusiastically sold to investors and customers; however, concern for the potential consequences of these imagined realities is often lacking. Entrepreneurs take advantage of advice from fellow startup founders, who enthusiastically share their knowledge through forums, podcasts, videos, and articles. Meanwhile, taking advantage of the excess liquidity in the market, venture capital firms and corporations seek profit from startups that demonstrate any sort of financial potential – irrespective of the consequences. Entrepreneurs and investors seek out market validation that, in a narrow sense, showcases “usefulness” through quantifiable metrics like user adoption, engagement, growth, and lifetime value – but the broader context of the company’s effect is left unconsidered.
Entrepreneurs and corporate R&D teams are in a lush environment for building out their ideas. There is an abundance of platforms created by giants that startups can leverage for the development of their ideas, including cloud-based web services, computer vision, code collaboration and version control, legal services, and email automation. Developers have also been mindful of how they build new platforms, employing methodologies like agile and lean startup, which alternate between designing, building, and testing products with target users in order to gather valuable feedback for the next iteration of development.
The development of products is only one stage of innovation that has been significantly altered by recent advances in technology. Access to software and the internet has enabled companies to introduce new products with zero or near-zero marginal costs. This means the cost of acquiring an additional customer is often significantly less than that in the pre-internet age. Companies can therefore leverage tactics to “hack growth” in order to bring in more users, who then interact with the product more. This has led to an unprecedented rate of growth; companies that have reached a valuation of at least $1B now take merely six years on average to get there.
In most cases, companies that grow at breakneck speeds are not motivated by malice; most express a desire to change the world for the better. However, even when an organization has the best intentions, their innovations often lead to unexpected outcomes at a systems level: Ridesharing, which was intended to reduce cars on the road, has increased their numbers in dense urban areas; social media platforms were designed to connect people, but they encourage screen time that leads to antisocial behavior, anxiety, and depression; and digital decentralized autonomous organizations (DAOs) were intended to democratize decision making, but they can instead become autocratic.
While there are pronounced Neo-Luddite or techno-utopian attitudes shared among certain segments of the population, there are balanced responses emerging at the organizational, research, and policy levels to proactively prevent undesirable effects from emerging.
Apple Shareholder Activism: Two major activist Apple shareholders wrote an open letter urging the company to address issues of smartphone addiction among children and to study the effects of heavy usage on mental health.
OpenAI: A non-profit organization sponsored by tech industry leaders was created to guide the safe development of artificial general intelligence and ensure its benefits are as widely and evenly distributed as possible.
Extreme Risk Institute: An academic body within NYU is developing new approaches to confronting actions and policies that carry uncertain risks that could cause systemic or extraordinary harm to society.
Deep Lab: A congress of cyberfeminist researchers was founded to conduct critical assessments on how privacy, security, surveillance, anonymity, and large-scale aggregation are problematized in the arts, culture, and society.
Synthetic Biology Roadmap for the UK: A multidisciplinary group representing industry, academia, government organizations, and funders came together to produce a roadmap for the responsible formation of the synthetic biology sector in the UK.
UN Convention on Certain Conventional Weapons: Representatives from nations around the world are actively campaigning to place a global ban on the development and utilization of automated weapons.
The great British cybernetics pioneer Stafford Beer once said, “The purpose of a system is what it does.” Instead of equating technology with progress, we should be critical of ideas that have been created, purposeful about ideas that could be created, and mindful about ideas that we are creating.