Too much technology, too much innovation

This cracking piece about innovation on BNET got Dugg recently and deserves a share. Whether it's replacing car keys with complex wireless authentication technologies, or grafting endless functionality onto otherwise perfectly usable software - innovation is becoming synonymous with new things you can do, rather than doing what you want more easily. It reminds me of something I used to ask a few years back: how come in science fiction, everything works perfectly? Hover cars don't break down, phasers don't need rebooting, spaceships don't get stuck. Technology is often presented to us as this unstoppable force that will make our lives so much easier. But for every finger-print ID door lock, there is a team of fingerprint ID door lock service engineers; for every automated grocery reordering system, there is a pile of misordered vegetables rotting in the distribution centre; for every matter transporter there will be a matter transportation workers union. The more technology we have, the more humans we need to make it work.

This week I've got Social Innovation Camp, followed by Disruptive Social Innovators, and then an RSA "civic innovation" event, not to mention chats with about a hundred people with "social" and "innovation" in the job/business names. Meanwhile everyone from DIUS to Channel 4 is talking about supporting innovation and the Innovation Nation. We're in danger of overdosing, elevating the new above the useful and throwing away past successes. And more importantly, we risk elevating the technology, the "innovations", above the users themselves.

A line in Clay Shirky's recent Q&A at the RSA comes to mind (slightly paraphrased): "It's not about novelty, but ubiquity. If you are looking for social scale change, it's adoption."

Social progress is often about making more widespread use of what works already, not just putting new things in their place. Car keys work perfectly well, thanks: they're cheap and robust, they never need upgrading, and most importantly, everyone can use them.

So let's focus our energies on making simple, easily-supportable things that everyone can use, and spreading the behaviours and technologies that already work. And fewer hoverboots please. (Although having said that, this is waaaaay cool...)