Why We Embrace (and Resist) Innovation

Every major leap forward for our species has come through adoption of innovation.  From fire, language and farming to money, electricity, modern medicine and the transistor, each innovation has delivered us capabilities beyond our simple biological shell, and allowed us to increase our capability, security or longevity.

In abstract, we could be forgiven for thinking that innovation (and its adoption) is a fundamental characteristic of who we are, but digging deeper we find that every new scientific, technical or social innovation created a tension between the established order, and aspirants.  “Public debates over new technologies engendering tensions between innovation and incumbency can rage for decades if not centuries,” writes Professor Calestous Juma in his book Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, adding that “debates over coffee spanned the Old World from mecca through London to Stockholm and lasted nearly three hundred years.”

As Professor Juma notes, “…many debates over new technologies are framed in the context of risks to moral values, human health, and environmental safety.  But behind these genuine concerns often lie deeper, but unacknowledged socioeconomic considerations.”

Calestous Juma (@Calestous) is Professor of the Practice of International Development and Director of Science, Technology, Globalization, Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University.  I caught up with him to learn more about the roots of resistance to new technologies, why such resistance is not always futile and how 600 years of economic history show how the balance of winners and losers shapes technological controversies

Q: Why do we innovate?

[Professor Calestous Juma] We are born creative and often seek to transform our surroundings to suit our existence.

Everything around us constantly changes and so creative options for adapting to this change become the only guarantee we have for a meaningful existence.

Humans are not hapless habitants of the planet. They are endowed with a sense of purpose which they express as they relate to others and the environment outside them.

Q: What causes technological optimism?

[Professor Calestous Juma] There is a general sense in a section of population that their creative powers can help them to overcome societal challenges. This belief is not misplaced. It goes with the very sense that we are endowed with… our creative instincts.

We are also aware that technological advancement occurs exponentially as we combine existing knowledge to create new solutions. Without the feeling that new solutions could come out of our creativity we would essentially feel defeated, lose a sense of purpose and not tap into our desire to innovate.

Q: Why do societies resist the influence of technological change?

[Professor Calestous Juma] It is natural that a society would want to keep what they think works, the status quo.

We are also acutely aware that technological changes alters society in unpredictable ways. It is the uncertainty associated with change—especially the fear of losing what we value—that leads to resistance to change. This reaction is not limited to technology but applies on all forms of socio-cultural evolution.

Throughout history, society has resisted innovations including coffee, farm mechanization, margarine, recorded music, refrigeration and transgenic crops. I use these examples as illustrations because we encounter various degrees of opposition to change all the time. Today we have debates over Uber, automation, driverless cars and drones.

Q: Why should societies embrace innovation?

[Professor Calestous Juma] I do not agree that there is an assumption that we always should always innovate as a society. Our reality is one of widespread adoption of change but there are also many cases where we have opposed change. These debates are a result of tensions between the need to adapt to change and the desire to maintain continuity. These are societal dynamics that exist independent of our wishes. In fact, we may be supportive of change in one case and opposed to it in another case. Trying to impose ideological categories on such complex human responses to change only conceals the more important reasons underlying our reactions to change.

All these factors tend to come into at varying degrees when confronted with change so it is not easy to reduce the tensions to just one single factor. In fact, opponents of technological innovation often shift their arguments depending on the nature and context of the debates.

Q: How can society manage the interaction between change and continuity?

[Professor Calestous Juma] For society to manage the interaction between change and continuity, the first key step is to get an understanding the roots of these concerns, which in my view are driven by the fear of loss. I would even say that people really don’t oppose new technologies but they question the way they are used so the challenges are more social than they are technological.

Q: What should be the role of governments in innovation?

[Professor Calestous Juma] Governments are just one constituency of actors. Given the systemic natural of technological impacts on society we need more inclusive approaches. So far, governments have tended to wait until the see the impacts of news technologies. Given the rapid change of rate, governments need to be more proactive.

Q: How can education empower innovation?

[Professor Calestous Juma] The fear of loss is real because it is based on perceptions of reality. It cannot be wished away by education. In fact, in many cases education may have sharpened the ability of society to detect points of loss. The idea that education can reduce resistance to innovation is often informed by the misguided view that people oppose new technologies because of ignorance. This is not the case.

Q: How is innovation impacting the ‘bottom billion’?

[Professor Calestous Juma] The dynamics of the impact of innovation on society are the same irrespective of scale. Society will embrace new technology if it confers benefits to its members. They will reject it if it leads to loss or creates uncertainty. In some cases, it is easier for society to adopt new technologies where they are not competing with incumbent practices. This was the case of mobile phones around the world. But technologies such as improved farming methods may run into opposition if they threaten to replace labour. This is despite their promise of higher productivity.

Q: What is the role of entrepreneurship in society? 

[Professor Calestous Juma] Entrepreneurship is about creating new combinations that add value to society. It is not limited to business. Very often states and other public institutions perform significant entrepreneurial functions. I tend to go with scholarship that argues that there no people called entrepreneurs but people perform entrepreneurial functions at different times. Edison performed great entrepreneurial acts. But he was also fierce opponent of innovation when it threatened his business interests.

Q: How can we make innovation inclusive?

[Professor Calestous Juma] It is not easy to achieve equality in society so I do not talk about “equitable innovation”. But there is a basic democratic principle of engaging the wider society in sharing the risks and benefits of new technologies. It is this shared future that informs my view of inclusive innovation. The idea may go against some core values that are built around excluding others from the benefits of new technologies. That, I think, is the root course of fractured society. I should stress there that this idea is not a variant of “socialism”. I attach no ideological connotations to the concept. It just makes pragmatic sense to me that excluding people consideration of the risks of benefits of new technologies is not a good way to win their support.

Q: What do you think will be the greatest areas where we will innovate over the next half century?

[Professor Calestous Juma] I think the areas that demand innovation are social and institutional. This is an essential companion of any technological advances. But if you are asking me to predict the future, I would defer to Niels Bohr: “Prediction is very difficult, especially if it is about the future.”

Q: What are the key lessons history teaches us about innovation, technology and society? 

[Professor Calestous Juma] The key lesson I have learned from looking at 600 years of technological controversies is that human history is a footnote on the tensions between innovation and incumbency.

Calestous Juma is Professor of the Practice of International Development; Director of the Science, Technology, and Globalization Project at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs; and Faculty Chair of the Edward S. Mason Fellows Program. He also directs the Center’s Agricultural Innovation Policy in Africa and Health Innovation Policy in Africa projects both funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. He also serves as Faculty Chair of the Innovation for Economic Development and Technology, Innovation and Entrepreneurship in Africa executive programs. Juma is a former Executive Secretary of the UN Convention on Biological Diversity and Founding Director of the African Centre for Technology Studies in Nairobi. He co-chaired the African Union’s High-Level Panel on Science, Technology and Innovation. He is also on the jury of the Queen Elizabeth Prize for Engineering, the Africa Prize for Engineering Innovation, and the Africa Food Prize. He has been elected to several scientific academies including the Royal Society of London, the US National Academy of Sciences, the World Academy of Sciences, the UK Royal Academy of Engineering and the African Academy of Sciences. He has won several international awards for his work on sustainable development. He holds a doctorate in science and technology policy studies and has written widely on science, technology, and environment. Juma serves on the boards of several international bodies including the Aga Khan University and the Pan-African University. He is editor of the International Journal of Technology and Globalisation and the International Journal of Biotechnology. His new book, Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies, was published by Oxford University Press in 2016. His current book projects cover regional integration in Africa and innovation for economic development. Follow @Calestous on Twitter

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About the Author

Vikas Shah MBE DL is an entrepreneur, investor & philanthropist. He is CEO of Swiscot Group alongside being a venture-investor in a number of businesses internationally. He is a Non-Executive Board Member of the UK Government’s Department for Business, Energy & Industrial Strategy and a Non-Executive Director of the Solicitors Regulation Authority. Vikas was awarded an MBE for Services to Business and the Economy in Her Majesty the Queen’s 2018 New Year’s Honours List and in 2021 became a Deputy Lieutenant of the Greater Manchester Lieutenancy. He is an Honorary Professor of Business at The Alliance Business School, University of Manchester and Visiting Professors at the MIT Sloan Lisbon MBA.