Innovating in the eternal downturn

Peter JonesInnovation, Wu Wei

You know we’re in a very unusual downdraft cycle when articles on keeping the faith with innovation during downturns remain popular. The perpetual (or is it eternal?) financial crisis has lasted long enough to sustain a cottage industry of books and workshops intended to help the waning innovator and entrepreneur. My colleague Walter Derzko in Toronto has just such a book coming out any day now from Wiley, Hard Times, Golden Opportunities. When you expect the situation to remain dire for another year or so, even publishers will buy the normally pessimistic premise. To be fair, Walter’s upcoming Opportunity Clinic workshop offers a glimmer of hopefulness: “Spotting and designing Opportunities in a Recession and later in the up-turn.”

“Green shoots” notwithstanding, the corporate mood has turned and uncertainty reigns. It is a great time for innovators, if not for the classic IPO-seeking “pump and dump” entrepreneurs. And while everyone in our line of work will of course insist that innovation is essential, we also need a set of guidelines sensitive to the creative destruction mindset. We need to be able to anticipate the new values and behaviors that will pick up and sustain the next-gen innovations, in ALL sectors. As Yogi Berra said, “prediction is hard, especially about the future.”

So how long do we keep calling a long-term situation a “crisis?” It appears we can stretch a crisis out to at least 9 months, and counting. Last November we addressed this shared concern at World Usability Day, moderating a panel of 3 brilliant innovators at LexisNexis (a software engineer, a corporate training director, and an innovation VP). Among the things they noted were that some of the most world-changing innovations were invented and launched during the Great Depression. Economic and war pressures push firms to innovate to meet the needs of reality, not big fat comfortable markets.

Half a year later, the issue is still hot. That must mean we’re still in the “crisis.” Until the eternal downturn, I believed that a crisis meant a moment in time that required resolution and action, not a few years of time. Some thinkers, notably Jim Kunstler and Richard Heinberg, predict a global secular (long-term cycle) change in economic fortunes due to the convergences of multiple problem systems: resource depletion, environmental impact and costs, poor risk planning, weak political will, and “peak everything.” They suggest we cannot innovate our way out of this one, and that the Anglo-American cultures will revert to simpler means of bygone eras – except with Internet.

Others, such as Alex Steffen (editor of World Changing) of the “bright green” movement, and designer Bruce Mau of Massive Change fame, point to the vision of coordinated human energy pointed in a positive direction to collectively solve huge problems. In the face of uncertainty, positive coordinated innovation can make huge unpredictable differences in our world. At the Business as Agentfor World Benefit conference, we realized we needed much more than a call for sustainability to make a difference. An energizing and humanistic vision transcending sustainability is needed to motivate a new vision of business and its role in  this change. We call this possibility the vision of Thrivability.