12 November 2020 | Reading 6 mins.

Why we need to reinvent the nature of innovation


Leen Gorissen
Innovation Biologist

Leen Gorissen, Innovation Biologist

As humans, we created and achieved incredible things. We colonized every piece of land and mobilized every bit of resource for human expansion. We overcame the harshest conditions, from mining the deep sea to flying into space, but our progress came with serious side effects such as resource depletion, climate change, biodiversity loss and deforestation to name a few. That is because most of our innovations start from a degenerative value logic.

To make stuff, we extract resources from nature, use massive amounts of energy to heat, beat and treat those resources into materials, which we use to make products that, pretty soon, end up as waste. Innovation-as-usual therefore extracts value from nature and generates waste. It is a degenerative value system. Not only are our manufacturing processes highly inefficient, Cambridge University estimates that our entire industrial system operates at only 10% efficiency, they also severely degrade our life-support-system. So much that we are now facing collapse of entire ecosystems and complete meltdown of the climate conditions that allowed humans to evolve and flourish in the first place.

When did innovation become the synonym for degradation?

And while 20.000 scientists are sounding the alarm bell – again – (World Scientists’ Warning to Humanity: a second notice, see Ripple et al, 2017), business-as-usual prevails. When did innovation become the synonym for degradation? And why do we even invest in science if we decide to ignore our most brilliant brains? As a biologist, I have difficulty catching sleep at night because more than others, biologists are aware how interdependent our life is with the rest of life. More and more, we are learning that the fundamental unit of nature is not the self, but the network. Individuality is nothing more than the temporary manifestation of relationship. The self, in itself, is in fact a society (after Haskell, 2017). Everything is connected to everything. And “the smaller parts of the system gain meaning through their beneficial contribution to the proximate whole they inhabit” (Mang & Haggard, 2016). Think of it like this: a heart cell contributes to the functioning of the heart, which contributes to the functioning of the body which contributes to the functioning of a family, etc. The heart cell on his own needs the higher order systems it is nested in to be healthy for it to function properly and it needs to add value to those higher systems for them to remain healthy. Just like the heart cells, we humans need to add value to the larger systems we are embedded in, our communities, our environment, our planet.

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This article first appeared on the nexxworks blog
Inspired? Read more in Leen Gorissen’s recently published book – Natural Intelligence