Innovation Comes in All Sizes

In Wednesday’s Chronicle, we saw some local examples of innovation. But innovation, like many things, is in the eye of the beholder.

When we think of the term innovation, we might think of things that are “new and improved,” or represent “a breakthrough” in technology or thinking. It all sounds like a bad advertisement on talk radio: “New and improved! A breakthrough in technology! Call in the next 30 seconds and we’ll add a second for half price!”

In many cases the breakthrough turns out to be a minor tweak of an existing product, and the innovation is actually in the OTT marketing of it. (OTT is, in and of itself, an innovation in communication technology!) From this perspective, innovation appears to be more about getting people to buy things they may or may not need than improving lives or advancing humanity toward a more positive future.

Fortunately, there are other perspectives on innovation, one of which is about doing something better. For example, coming up with a medical diagnosis technique that is less invasive for patients by using medical imaging rather than exploratory surgery. While the imaging technology would have a high up front cost, a hospital would save money over time by scheduling fewer and fewer costly surgeries. Win-Win.

Ironically, many innovations that improve some people’s lives result in a net loss of jobs by replacing other human beings with machines. While the example of replacing surgeons with MRIs and CT scans is a poor one, I recall another innovation from my childhood on the outskirts of Detroit when robotic arms began replacing auto workers and causing high unemployment in the Motor City. The next innovation by General Motors was to close plants in Detroit, Pontiac and Flint, Michigan and open plants in Mexico.

This type of innovation often enriches the innovators but impoverishes many others, and adds to the large and widening wealth gap by increasing income inequality. False narratives from self-proclaimed “Job Creators” have been proven wrong by objective analysis, but the narratives remain among the hard right just as Trickle Down Economics is still embraced despite no robust research ever confirming this weak economic theory actually works.

This all begs the question: What type of innovation actually creates jobs and keeps dollars circulating in the local economy?

I’m sure that Chronicle readers may come up with a few, but of those, which would actually lead to net job creation rather than simply employing six people in a new way only to un-employ eight people in an old way? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for creating jobs in Whanganui even if it means jobs lost in other centres. It’s just that we need to look at innovation from a holistic perspective if we want to be honest about it.

From a holistic perspective, I cannot think of a better innovation than the Eco Design Advisor Service offered by the councils of Auckland, Hamilton, Kapiti Coast, the Hutt Valley, Nelson, Invercargill and Palmerston North.

The service helps owners and renters make their homes warmer, dryer and more energy efficient. The service offers independent, expert one-on-one advice free of charge to all residents. It was created by the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) to inform and empower anyone who lives inside of a dwelling to make the best decisions regarding energy performance, comfort, water conservation and materials. It is not hard to see how this service would help create jobs in these communities and keep dollars circulating locally.

Innovative, eh? Seems others agree. The Eco Design Advisor Service was recognised in April with the Carter Holt Harvey Innovator of the Year Award from the Building Officials Institute of New Zealand (BOINZ). Two more councils are looking at adding the programme as it goes from strength to strength.

New! Improved! A breakthrough! Act now!

Peace, Estwing

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