Politics and innovation

by The Editor

FEATURE: Innovation is one of those words frequently used but less frequently thought through. In politics in particular, it is used almost exclusively with regards to policy. That is good and necessary, but what about political parties themselves, and the ideologies they espouse? Why is innovation an important principle in a democracy? Why should it be promoted and protected, and what are its benefits? In the short paper below I look at the idea and why it is important.

Politics and innovation

By: Gareth van Onselen

17 May 2012

What is innovation?

Innovation is a euphemism for original thought and progress. It is the conception and creation of something new which, importantly, improves upon that which preceded it. In order to be new, it must be original and, in order to improve upon that which already exists, it must be progressive.

That is as far as its denotation goes. But a series of connotations can also be associated with the idea; and it is perhaps from these, as opposed to the word’s more literal interpretation, that one is able properly to understand innovation on a more universal way: what necessitates innovation, how it works and what it necessitates in turn.

In other words those things that are associated with innovation allow us to better understand the conditions necessary for innovation to take place, how those conditions generate innovation and, when innovation does take place, what its effect on the world around it is.

This paper, then, will look at some of innovation’s more implicit characteristics, with a view to better understanding how it works and why it is of value.

An environment for innovation

Two such associated ideas, often not given due credit for their relationship to innovation, are competition and difference (or diversity).

To illustrate their importance, consider a society or environment devoid of either, rather defined by their opposites: uniformity on the one hand, control on the other.

Already you will have realised something important: these are the hallmarks of an anti-democratic establishment. All those political ideologies which, in their extreme form, result in some sort of totalitarian regime – nationalism, socialism, etc – place an emphasis on uniformity and control. The more fundamental their nature, the greater the emphasis placed.

For such ideologies, difference and competition are the source of fear and insecurity and thus, outlawed. It is no coincidence such societies inevitably stagnate and even regress for, by denuding difference and competition of their worth, they render themselves unable to generate the momentum progress requires.

But why is diversity and competition so important to innovation?

The two ideas are themselves inter-dependent. Difference is one of the fundamental ingredients necessary to generate competition. Not only does a plurality of ideas, in and of itself, produce best and worst practice, but the circumstance necessary for competition to take place. In other words, the fact that something is different forces you to make an assessment as to where you stand in relation to it. And from there, if you so chose, to act in response.

In an environment were everything is the same or difference shunned, not only would one not have anything different to compare and contrast with, but one would not be so inclined.

There is, of course, a relation between competition the practice and a competitive spirit – that is, the attitude. A competitive spirit is what motivates one to act when faced with something better, indeed, even when such a thing is just an idea, in order that it might be improved upon. Competition thus cannot take place in an environment where being competitive is frowned upon or discouraged.

Of equal importance is a commitment to excellence. The pursuit of excellence demands improvement, and to develop new ideas must be constantly generated and tested through trial and error. So, like competition, this attitude needs to be given the requisite space to live and breathe. And where mediocrity is the preeminent force, excellence and with it innovation will be hard to find.

It is for this reason, among others, that liberalism and any liberal democracy safeguards and protects difference and competition, on the one hand, and encourages competition and the pursuit of excellence on the other; for they are the cornerstones necessary to achieve progress.

The missing link

So where exactly does innovation come into play? It is the link between a diverse and competitive environment and the progress that results. It is the practical mechanism which allows one to improve their condition.

And while it might thrive in the environment outlined above, those people able to think innovatively are defined by a number of key attitudinal traits.

What are the characteristics of an innovative person?

There are several characteristics particular to any innovative person. Some of them flow naturally from the above – a competitive spirit, a commitment to excellence – but two others in particular are worth looking at in a bit more detail.

Original, creative, indeed, innovative thought is defined by understanding and curiosity; for innovation is the answer to a question.

The more intelligent the question – the more expertise and experience one has – the better one is able to understand the status quo and to envisage as to how one might improve upon it (thus, the important relationship between education and innovation). But innovation is not the objective only of elites; quite the opposite. It is a question that can be applied to any circumstance, by anyone, and if its answer is improvement, no matter how small, its advantage is significant.

So, a questioning mind is critical. In fact, it is the one thing that allows innovation still to exist – however difficult it might be – in an environment not conducive to it. And here too a questioning mind can be defined by many things, lateral thinking for one – the ability to see things in a new and different ways.

Finally, innovation lends itself to leadership. A good leader will have for the future a vision, the attainment of which he or she will motivate others to achieve. Thus innovation is often critical to success and a leader will both recognise its value in others and, indeed, aspire to innovate themselves.

What is the effect of innovation?

Innovation’s primary effect is excellence. That might sound odd, because many innovative ideas fail and a process of trial and error does not, at first glance, appear to be a model of excellence; if anything, a rather messy affair. In fact, quite the opposite holds true.

Anything that aims to improve upon that which already exists must be a step toward excellence. It is in the trying, much like with the pursuit of excellence, where the true value of innovation lies. One might even see it as an ideal in that sense: a constant drive to improve. In fact, each one fuels the other – a society in which excellence is well established will be marked by innovation and original thought. So, in that sense, innovation is its own reward.

It is also generates knowledge. For any new or original idea brings with it either a more profound or deeper understanding of the world. That is invaluable to any institution.

Why innovation is important to a political party?

Any political party is permanently locked in competition. Indeed, the phrase ‘multi-party democracy’ is a euphemism for competition itself. In such an environment, where competition is the order of the day, as opposed merely to a conducive environment, one must innovate if one aims to win. Only by innovating, by improving, is one able not only to take advantage of best practice but the competition. A failure to do so it to risk stagnating and with that comes the very real possibility one will lose ground and any advantage.

But there is another important reason. A party that is dedicating to upholding the principles and values that underpin a liberal democratic state, should understand and uphold those values inside its own institution. Not just for consistencies sake, but because if it truly believes such things are what is best for a society at large, and as set out above, its internal benefit should be equally sought after and understood.

What are the threats to innovation?

The ability of conformity to stifle innovation is often underestimated, but it can be a mighty obstacle. However, it will only ever be as powerful as the fear that underpins it and here it is helpful to understand that, if one is to break with convention, one must be prepared to be different.

So, the innovative must not be conflict adverse, otherwise the prevailing attitude or orthodoxy triumphs. In the battle of ideas, political correctness acts in this manner. Existing policies are set in imagined stone, the thought of challenging them often an unspoken heresy. This should never be the case.

No doubt there are many questions the answers to which are disappointing or unwelcome, but it is in the act of questioning itself that innovation’s real value lies; for few new ideas are spontaneous, rather they are born of interrogation, and that can only happen in an environment in which innovation is embraced and cherished and its requirements understood, protected and promoted.

This article first appeared on Politicsweb. It was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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