Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Macro-Innov 3: Society, economy, technology

As I start on this macro-innovation series, I first want to make a case that we need genuinely macro-notions.
Societies and economies are not separate worlds, they are interlinked but we have become obsessed with the economy. Indeed, while I generally laud the change from a focus on technology to innovation at the firm and industry level, it is now becoming obvious that a key element of the emerging macro puzzle is not coming together in a coherent way. It will be increasingly important, I believe to study technology coherently, like we have studied economics in the past. A good economics degree can bring together various elements of how we think about economic behaviour - history of economic thought and philosophy, the neo-classical rules, policy, behaviour economics and hopefully geography. But technology studies today are scattered across philosophy and communications, business, economics (hopefully though no guarantees), ethnography, engineering schools etc. It is not possible generally to do a degree in technology studies. 

The nature of discipline based research

Every discipline in the natural sciences, engineering and social sciences has and has to develop a particular perspective and a group of methodologies for conducting its analysis. ‘Holistic’ studies are a nice idea but simply impossible. We can do better at finding linkages between them however. Lets look at a few examples.

Earth Processes (geology, biology and ecology) 

For scientists interested in the processes of life on earth there are three inter-related but separate fields of study.  If for example you are simply interested in geology for mining then there is no need to worry about biology, but geology is very important for understanding ecosystem development and evolutionary biology because, as the earth changes through plate tectonics so the terrestrial systems have had to adapt with them.

But for the purposes here I will focus on two disciplines, biology and ecology. Here again there are components that clearly relate to each other but remain distinct. In a sweeping generalisation we can say that biology is interested in the construction and operation of particular animals or plants (individuals, species etc) and how they evolve across aeons   Ecology is interested in how populations of animals and plants in a particular place interact at a particular point in time. All life in a particular location is interdependent on the other biota and the natural resources (including sunlight).

What is fascinating about ecosystems is that the concept is based in geography but it is scaleable. From ecotopes (the smallest ecologically distinct landscape) through to the biosphere – the entirety of life on Earth, there is a myriad of types of ecologies let alone the huge number of individual ecological patches on Earth. What is important for the discussion here is that there are two disciplines which are co-dependant yet focus on different aspects of the animals or plants. Biology is more straightforward and is easier to conduct in a lab. Ecology because of the complexity of data collection has tended in the past to be more theory driven with some very complex modelling. Gradually, more and more empirical studies are appearing but it is slow.

Society [sociology], (sociologists)

For most of our time as a species that could communicate we have understood ourselves as living in societies (families, tribes, language groups, political empires and political nation-states). The idea of society comes very naturally to us we are relational beings, we are dependent on particular people (carers - mothers, grandmothers etc) for a very long time as we grow up. For most of human history humans stayed within very small geographic places for most of their lives. Not surprisingly we have an academic discipline called sociology. It focusses primary on power and relationships. Power is a universal idea. In every organisation of society, in fact anything above hunter and gather societies there will be leaders.  Likewise relationships, is so universal to human identity it needs no explanation.

Economy [economics], (Economists)
In recent decades we have begun to do away with the notion of society and the language has turned more and more towards economics and business. Thatcher once reportedly said there is no society, confusing governments with societies. 

"I think we've been through a period where too many people have been given to understand that if they have a problem, it's the government's job to cope with it. 'I have a problem, I'll get a grant.' 'I'm homeless, the government must house me.' They're casting their problem on society. And, you know, there is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families. And no government can do anything except through people, and people must look to themselves first. It's our duty to look after ourselves and then, also to look after our neighbour. People have got the entitlements too much in mind, without the obligations. There's no such thing as entitlement, unless someone has first met an obligation."

In the 2000s there was a small movement with the slogan we live in societies not economies.

The truth is we live in both. Economies have always existed, even in the most ancient of societies there was usually complex trading systems. But, while I do not want to live in a communist economy neither do I want to live is in a pure market society with minimal justice and no compassion.

Economic change [innovation studies], (neo-Schumpeterians, innovationists)

In the early years after WWII, particularly after the OECD was established there was growing interest in how first science and then technology impacted the development of economies. As computerisation grew in the 1970s and 1980s there was growing concern over the positive and negative impacts of change. By the end of the 1980s there was a realisation that innovation as it was progressively called rather than technological change had a geographic element. At that point the term ‘innovation systems’ was coined, and ever since the innovation field has focussed on every aspect of geography (nation-states, cities, regions, clusters, industries etc). But as this has become more methodologically focussed it has become narrower and narrower resulting in the emphasis on business competitiveness. At the same time innovation studies has moved from multi-disciplinary research centres such as SPRU to the business schools.

Although conventional economics does not deal well with innovation there are many economists who study innovation. 


The way forward is not generalists researching everything but a university structure that supports a matrix organisational operation. In this way teaching by experts can be utilised to form new teaching units out of the specialisations of the existing disciplinary base.

One area where such capability would be helpful is with technology. The emphasis remains on change but what is happening behind the curve is as much changing as what is happening at the frontier.  

Technology [technosphere], (Techneists)
In the 1960s and 1970s there was great interest in the technological society by sociologists and philosophers but almost all of it was prospective. As the changes were slower and less than expected, there was less and less interest in the topic. Today, as ethnographers have run out of conventional unstudied primitive societies to work on more and more are researching the use of technology (in particular digital technology). 
Kevin Kelly in his book “What Technology Wants” coined the term “The Technium’ to give expression to his idea that technology was the 7th kingdom of life on earth.

Brian Arthur in his book “The Nature of Technology” lays out the following definition of technology.

(1) a means to fulfill a human purpose,
(2) an  assemblage of practices and components(3) a collection of devices and engineering practices available to a culture.  

Arthur seems uncomfortable with the idea of the Technium, yet I think his book lays out an excellent series of reasons why we need to get more serious about the study of technology. The hierarchical  nested, and connected nature of technology is a topic for 21st century exploration.

While I am also uncomfortable with the notion of the Technium, I think there is an itch that is important. We need a biology and ecology of technology.  Just as in biology and ecology there are two disciplines that are closely related it is possible to conceive of two topics innovation studies and technospherics that are different but related. 

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