Transcript: The End of Innovation

An essay version of a talk given by Greg Thompson on Tuesday, October 17, 2017.[1]

Thompson provides some thoughts on why we innovate and how to know if we are successful in our endeavors seekign to pull our imaginations to the deeper questions of why innovation matters in the 21st century. Errors and omissions are my own; insights are credited to Greg.

I want to begin by acknowledging how amazing and cool it is that cities all over the United States are hosting innovation weeks, festivals, and gatherings where men and women are seeking to take responsibility for the wellbeing of their cities through innovation of all kinds. This is an extraordinary thing and it is a privilege for me to be here.

I also want to comment on how weird it is that there are things called innovation weeks. I don’t want us to forget that either because innovation – this drive to do something new – has not always been with us. There were ages when the idea of innovation was the prominence of scientists and technological elites and everyone else simply inhabited the structures they were given.

The general populace was not thinking about innovating. My grandparents nor my parents went to an innovation conference and it never would have occurred to them to do something like that. But now, it seems obvious to all of us.

The norming of “innovation” is partly due to this pervasive intuition that we are living in one of those moments in history where something new and exciting is happening around us, to us, and even through us. I agree – something is in fact happening; but, what is it?

A lot of things are happening: the globalization of markets, the pluralization of communities, the acceleration of technologies, among other things. It also seems like all of these things are conspiring to create a new world of experience and interaction. This new world is not optional, but necessary. We understand that we have to rebuild the fundamental structures of our economy (because it doesn’t work – at least, for most of us). So we rightly feel positioned in this incredible, new moment in time – this completely insane – age of innovation. Here we are.

That said, the existence of innovation – this wonderful tumultuous churn that is happening all over the global economy – should not be beyond serious examination. The most important question we have yet to collectively answer in a way that actually shapes how we imagine and invest in business is: “Innovation to what end?” What, if anything, animates, disciplines, and finally evaluates the meaning of innovation?” We are all breathless about innovation but we are inarticulate about the end of innovation.

When I ask people why innovate, there are two answers:

  1. The advancement of knowledge. These innovators want to take an idea from concept to scale. The goal is to pursue the thrill of thinking up something cool and then seeing it realized in the world.

  2. The pursuit of market domination. These innovators are concerned primarily with market success. The goal is to find or create an opening in the market, disrupt it, and if the opportunity arises, sell it for profit.

Both of these answers are important to our understanding of innovation. We need ideas that we can take from concept to scale and markets to validate whether those ideas produce value; however, these answers are unsatisfactory. Neither seem to answer the question.

In order to discover the end of innovation, one has to turn outside of the traditional paths of discourse. For me, I turned to the Christian faith. I’m not a very good Christian but I am a Christian and I’ve spent the last 25 years of my life trying to order my life around the truths and practices of the Christian faith. Even so, the idea of turning to Christianity to understand the purpose of innovation was not intuitive. What does an ancient, largely nomadic, agrarian faith have to say about late modern capitalism? It’s not obvious but as it turns out, the Christian faith says a great deal about innovation.

Christianity for all of its antiquity is obsessed with newness. The faith begins with the formation of a new world that is perfectly good. God then creates a new species, man, who then inhabits a new land and in time is given a new hope that the end of history, as shared in Revelation 21, will be restored anew to its original perfection and goodness. It is really hard to avoid the language of newness throughout the scriptures. The commitment to newness or in Latin, nova, is literally at the heart of in-nova-tion. The striving for newness is not only characterizes God, but the church as well.

During the Middle Ages, Christians created new forms of care for the sick, new forms for burying the dead. During the Renaissance, Christians created new forms of music, new forms of education, and new structures of governance. During the Enlightenment, Christians created new economic structures and new scientific ventures. To this day, Christians are creating new market initiatives, modes of production, etc. It is unbelievable how just in Christianity alone, many are doing amazingly cool, new things. What I found was that innovation was not accidental, but essential to Christianity because it strives to cultivate within people a life that mirrors that of God who seeks to make all things new.

So what is Christianity’s answer to my question: “What, if anything, animates, disciplines, and finally evaluates the meaning of innovation?” The answer is not about the advancement of knowledge or the embrace of the market, but love of neighbor. Yet what does it mean for us to say that innovation is about love? In short, it means that the end of innovation is about the creation of a world in which our neighbors can thrive. It means an insistence that the knowledge that we advance and the markets that we disrupt or create have as their end the wellbeing of those around us.

If the end of innovation is love, it will require us to retrain ourselves, re-engage our neighbor, reprioritize formation, and redefine innovation itself. Below is a review of each of these requirements.

Re-train Self

I understand that some might say that innovation as love is a bit idealistic but I think that perspective is not only counterintuitive, but counterproductive. A perspective that says that love cannot influence our innovation allows the enormous amount of intellectual, financial, and relational capital to be distributed without ever having to be encumbered by the needs of our neighbors. If we do not understand that innovation is fundamentally about love of neighbor, we will continue to distribute capital in a way that neglects our neighbors and no one will think we are wrong because we are advancing ideas and achieving market success without effecting love. So we have to refocus and retrain ourselves on the work of love’s innovation.

What would that mean? If you’re an entrepreneur, it means that your innovations are not fundamentally about your ideas, but about your neighbors needs. It is not asking, “What cool idea do I have that I want to take to scale?” It is about asking, “What need does my neighbor have that we can solve together?” If you’re an investor, it means giving entrepreneurs the opportunity to work in a way that is not just about short-term yield, but about long-term, civic impact. Investors need to develop a more patient way of investing capital in order to give innovators the space and time to see love come to fruition. Innovation is squashed when innovators don’t care and investors don’t see.

Re-engage Neighbor

We have to turn away from ourselves and let go of the merely provincial notion that innovation is about personal genius or market opportunity. Instead, we have to turn towards our neighbors and ask them what they need. Neighbors are those we are impacting in any part of the work that we do.

A lot of people – and I have been one of those people – really care about innovation and want to see things that can impact their neighbors, but ask what does Chattanooga need (or San Francisco, or New York) and you realize that nobody knows. We have anecdotes and assumptions about what is needed, but we haven’t done the work of deeply understanding the needs of our communities. We must if we are to innovate in love. We need to re-engage our cities and to understand how they work, what our cities face, their assets and deficits, and what can be done. I am advocating for a turning to our neighbor not simply in sentiment but seeking out real knowledge.

Reprioritize Formation

The renewal of cities is not a technical act, but a moral one. Healthy cities require strong networks of well-formed leaders who are committed to the wellbeing of their neighbors. It’s the idea that we need to create an overlapping, dense network of men and women working in multiple sectors who are formed in virtue. There are very few business schools and accelerators that prioritize the integrity of the leader. We spend more time trying to find the genius who can disrupt a market.

There is a line where skills can outstrip virtue – and that is a very dangerous place to be. I realized this in the church and it is true in multiple markets that if you’re good at stuff and not really screwing up, people are not concerned about your character. Think about the former CEO of Uber. Kalanick had to do some ridiculous stuff on camera before anybody really cared. It is dangerous to be in a place where people will listen to you, follow you, and put you on a stage and not know anything about your moral life. I think it is possible to be very good at something or to have technical skills and to be a morally unformed person – a disintegrated person, a person that is really good at predictive analytics or a person that is really good at seeing organizational strategy, but to not be a person that is curious of mind and slow to speech, attentive to body, faithful in relationships, and characterized by the daily work of habits that form moral fortitude.

Redefine Innovation

Innovation means the cultivation and the instantiation of love in the institutions of a city. Everything else is antiquated. I’ve already said this but we live in an unparalleled moment of global innovation – it’s nascent and a little bit like the Wild West. In this context, innovators have the ability to not only transform markets but to also shape the discipline itself. As a case study, look at Uber. Fifteen years ago, if you were in NYC and you wanted to ride somewhere, what did you do?

You walked down to a sidewalk and hailed a cab. Nowadays if you want a ride in NYC, what do you do? You pull out your phone and press a button. Uber totally changed the way we thought about an entire industry and completely redefined it. Similarly, I think the innovation space is new enough in its breadth and popularity to be redefined. We have the chance to shift the the larger cultural narrative. Innovation is not simply taking an idea from concept to scale or just disrupting a market; true innovation seeks to see love take flesh in the streets of our world.

As a closing aside, I will say that it is 100% certain that the new wave of innovation is going to reinforce the historic structures of the American economy unless we are deliberate about disrupting it. The work of innovators is in part a participation in the economic future of the Civil Rights movement – a shift from national politics and legislative policies (e.g., the Civil Rights Act) to local economics concerned with inclusive and equitable markets. Remember what MLK Jr. at the end of his life in 1968 was doing? He had turned from racial activism to economic interventions, including work on the Poor People’s Campaign.

What will be remembered of our innovations will not be the ideas we took from concept to scale or the ways in which we capitalized on market inefficiencies, but how well we loved our neighbor. It is the only story that ever lasts. I want to commend the work to you and commend you in advance for the wonderfully amazing ways you will tell the story.

  1. Greg Thompson is the Director of Research and Strategy at Clayborn Reborn, a historic Civil Rights site in Memphis Tennessee. He is also a Senior Advisor for the Tom Tom Founders Festival in Charlottesville, Virginia. Before joining Clayborn and Tom Tom Greg served as the CEO of the Thriving Cities Group, a Civic Design firm based in Charlottesville, Virginia and as the Executive Director of New City Commons, a consulting team that supports faith-based communities in the work of serving their cities. Greg is also active in national conversations surrounding race and equity in America and holds a PhD from the University of Virginia where he wrote his dissertation on Martin Luther King, Jr. [↩]