Unnovation for Sustainability (not a typo!)

Source: https://antidotesforchimps.com/2019/07/01/slowing-down-appreciation/

Innovation, preferably of the continuous kind, seems to be what drives much of what we do. The idea being that in order to ‘stay on top’, ‘remain ahead of the game’, ‘be responsive’ to constant change – ironically the result of the same pre-occupation with innovation – and to be competitive in a rapidly changing and expanding market, one cannot sit still.

Ideas of contemplation, conservation, preservation, just ‘being’ in a place or in a moment of time, slowing down, are not popular and are even considered detrimental and a distraction from the way ‘forward’. To use the four seasons as a metaphor: in the world of business, but, indeed, also in our private world, it must always be Spring and Summer, where things grow, expand, pop-up, and where we can be productive, ‘add to basket’, harvest and ‘consume’. The Fall and Winter where there is decay, slowing down, decomposition, hibernation, regeneration, and, yes, even death, are to be avoided or kept to a minimum at best.

This tyranny of innovation has many of us in a constant state of restlessness, distraction, anxiety and guilt. Doing nothing or being bored, for that matter, is almost impossible in an ‘always-on’ society, where screens and digital devices – all products of innovation – continuously and successfully capture our ‘eye-ball attention’. Observe people in a train or bus as they look at their smart phones scrolling for something exciting, gazing into a rabbit hole. Watch them pause for a moment when the run out of scrolling options, even putting here phone in their pockets, and then count the seconds until they have thought of something else to look up on their phones. Typically, based on my own limited research, it will take less than 30 seconds. Try to be bored on the couch with your phone within reach. Being bored on the couch or talking a walk I the forest, is not only difficult, but also not what companies want: nobody is making any money when you’re not on your phone or, worse when you phone is off, and nothing can be mined.

And, ‘yes’, I too find myself frequently on scrolling on my phone, tweeting, LinkedIn-ing, checking my mail, and tomorrow’s weather, so being aware of this happening is not enough to do something about it. It is a highly resilient mechanism that is hard to change.

The point I am making is that the tyranny of innovation and associated growth and expansion thinking, is deeply seated and is a part of the current sustainability problem, not a part of the solution. Even when adding ‘responsible’ to innovation, we are stuck in a narrative underpinned by a paradigm of ‘extractivism’ (colonization of the mind as the last frontier) and commodification (the idea that everything can be owned, packaged, bought and sold, from water, to land to air, to personal information and ideas). Even personal growth, ‘working on yourself’, yoga, meditation, has become an industry. If we are to move towards a more sustainable world then we must interrogate this abuse of innovation. I say ‘abuse’ to indicate that it is quite alright to change, learn, grow and unfold, in light of challenges, but there needs to be a balance with being at peace with who you are, where you are and what you have; a time to connect, wonder, ponder, reflect and to just be.

As a counter hegemonic concept that might help shift the narrative, I would like to introduce the concept of unnovation (noun) and to unnovate (verb). Unnovation is the process of becoming contemplative, cherishing who you are, where you are in terms of time and place and what you have. It is at heart of mindful preservation and conservation and a more cyclical way of living characterized by a dynamic equilibrium between times of being responsive, inquisitive, searching, (co)creating – times of ‘becoming’ and times of slowing down and ‘being’. Sometimes this will require the undoing of innovations that have turned out to be highly unsustainable and damaging for people and planet. This refers to the more active verb version of unnovation: to unnovate.

Basically, I am throwing this out there to solicit some responses and check if this gets any traction. Feel free to comment or add references/sources.

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