The limitations of innovation without wider backing?

With our series of discussions on Social Innovation in mind, here’s an excellent piece on why innovation is failing to tackle big problems, Tech Review editor Jason Pontin notes that in fact technology cannot solve everything.

He quotes Famine as a Grade A example:

Amartya Sen, a Nobel laureate economist, has shown that famines are political crises that catastrophically affect food distribution.

(Sen was influenced by his own experiences. As a child he witnessed the Bengali famine of 1943: three million displaced farmers and poor urban dwellers died unnecessarily when wartime hoarding, price gouging, and the colonial government’s price–controlled acquisitions for the British army made food too expensive. Sen demonstrated that food production was actually higher in the famine years.)

Technology can improve crop yields or systems for storing and transporting food; better responses by nations and nongovernmental organizations to emerging famines have reduced their number and severity. But famines will still occur because there will always be bad governments. [emphasis added]

The point Pontin is making here is a much larger one than we often draw from our own historical experience of famine. And that is that in order to create meaningful innovation there needs to be a degree of wider public will to make it happen.

Tomorrow’s #DigitalLunch for the Building Change Trust on Social Innovation asks what makes Innovation sustainable into the medium and the long term?

Join us then, either here on Slugger, on Twitter using the hashtags #BuildingChange and #SocInn, the live YouTube page (which I’ll post tomorrow) or best of all via Google Plus itself.

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  • BarneyT

    It’s not often that the Indian holocaust gets a mention…and there were many throughout India’s history, most of them, like the Irish famine, avoidable. And there is one common denominator, The British Empire. Perhaps we can find parallels with other colonial powers down the ages.
    The Indian Famine in the 1940s was I understand brought about by commerce, greed and also the need to fund the war effort. The British (Tory) reaction to the Irish famine was one of non-intervention on the basis that the solution would evolve through market dynamics. Not a great time to push an ideology.
    Churchill has been quoted as making very distasteful comments about the Indians as a race, similar to the level of hatred shown by our beloved Charles Dickens, albeit a different era. Internally I would imaging Churchill, whilst highly revered in the UK, is seen very much as a Hitleresque figure in India. I realise that there is a difference in how crimes are administered, such as directly gassing Jews and over time causing the starvation of Indians, but it has the same net result.
    The term social innovation just doesn’t quite do it for me. It’s going to take social revolution with some Asimov psychohistory style intervention behind the scene to generate a sufficient level of care and empathy, to solve even the smaller problems, never mind famine. There is insufficient good will throughout. One I feel will have to look towards the indigenous tribes of the Americas or New Zealand or perhaps a pre-Christian Ireland and Britain for a relevant sample to furnish the social innovation Petri-dish from which a decent and usable culture can grow. There is I’m afraid, an uglier world ahead and this will flourish when the resources we take for granted do become scarce and continue to be subjected to financial instrumentation.

  • Mick Fealty

    Actually you do Robert Peel and his Tory government a massive disservice there Barney. It was Lord John Russell’s Whigs (and some free trade Tories) who cut off the free Indian meal Peel had been sending in.

    The point Pontin makes here in part is that politics still matters. It can have an enabling or disabling effect on innovation within society.

  • BarneyT

    My India references were from the WWII period, but I do take your point. Clearly Peel attempted reforms that would have lessoned the impact of the Irish famine and its consistent that he would have taken simular approaches elsewhere. Perhaps he represented the “Good” side of government in the 19th century.