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Technology, US News

Are we so hung up on new and novel that we ignore the tried and true?

Peter Caulfield
Are we so hung up on new and novel that we ignore the tried and true?

Tired of hearing how the latest app is going to raise your bottom line or solve the world’s problems?

Then give a listen to Lee Vinsel.

Vinsel is saying we’re obsessed with the latest new and shiny innovations instead of taking better care of what we already have.

Innovation is everywhere, says Vinsel, who is a professor of science and technology in society at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University in Blacksburg, Va.

But, he asks, what if innovation’s benefits have been exaggerated and our obsession with “the next big thing” has taken our attention from work that matters more?

In many U.S cities, for example, suburban sprawl has left local governments with millions of dollars of deferred repairs they can’t afford to make.

And, says Vinsel, sometimes an obsession with innovation can have unintended and even dire consequences.

In 2018, a Miami bridge that had been hailed for its innovative design collapsed onto a highway and killed six people.

Vinsel recently discussed North America’s love affair with innovation in a webcast called Has our Obsession with Innovation Disrupted the Work That Matters Most?

Vinsel says society’s innovation hang-up is symbolized by what he calls “innovation-speak.”

Unlike innovation itself, innovation-speak is “a breathless dialect of word salad that trumpets the importance of innovation while turning that term into an overused buzzword.”

A lot of hype that’s disconnected from reality, in other words.

Says Vinsel, “The world we actually inhabit, including the technologies we use and need, is a very different place from the one described to us by marketing departments and CEOs.”

When Americans talk about technology, they often use the word innovation as shorthand, he says.

“But innovation refers only to the very early phases of technological development and use,” says Vinsel. “It also tends to narrow the scope of technology to digital gadgets of recent vintage, such as iPhones and social media apps.”

A more expansive conception of technology should take into account the many different kinds of tools and machinery that humans use in their day to day lives.

“While innovation — the social process of introducing new things — is important, most technologies around us are old, and maintaining them is more important for the smooth functioning of daily life,” says Vinsel. “We need to recognize the importance of maintenance. Unfortunately, our business culture tends to devalue maintenance operations, because it sees innovation as high-value and maintenance as low-value.”

What Vinsel says about the U.S. goes for Canada too.

According to the latest Canadian Infrastructure Report Card for 2019, a significant amount of public infrastructure in Canada is aging and in poor condition.

Among the findings of the report card, which was produced by the Federation of Canadian Municipalities (FCM), and seven partner organizations:

  • Nearly 40 per cent of roads and bridges are in fair, poor or very poor condition, and roughly 80 per cent is more than 20 years old;
  • Between 30 per cent and 35 per cent of recreational and cultural facilities are in fair, poor or very poor condition. In some categories (e.g. pools, libraries and community centres), more than 60 per cent are at least 20 years old; and
  • 30 per cent of water infrastructure (such as watermains and sewers) are in fair, poor or very poor condition.

“We’re talking about roads, bridges, libraries, arenas and more — things Canadians rely on every day,” says Bill Karsten, who was FCM president when the report card was released. “Good, reliable infrastructure supports our quality of life in communities across the country, so Canadians should find these results concerning.

“The report shows the importance of long-term investments in renewing the infrastructure that’s already in our communities, even as we envision new projects to build.”

Has our Obsession with Innovation Disrupted the Work That Matters Most? is part of the Unleashed series of webcasts that is put on by Results Inc., a Western Canada management consulting company.

“The purpose of the free series is to build community, to inspire hope and confidence to lead employers and employees through the pandemic,” says Results CEO Jeff Tetz. “Each one-hour session deals with a unique subject of some kind and is led by a well-known presenter.”

Approximately 300 people watched Vinsel’s presentation “live,” and thousands of others listened to the podcast or watched it on YouTube.

“We plan to continue the webcasts after the pandemic is over if we can find enough interesting guests with something of value to say, and if people continue to embrace the concept,” says Tetz.

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