Innovation is possible even without growth

Right before taking a summer break, I simply cannot resist to take a rather philosophical view on our world, how we live (together) and how we do business. I was inspired to do so mainly by the interview with Harald Welzer (social psychologist) in the TV show “Sternstunde Philosophie” broadcast by Swiss TV station SRF Kultur in October last year.

Most of the calls for more sustainability are based on negative scenarios, asking questions such as “What we no longer are allowed to do” or “What we need to do without” – for example as described in the article by Silvia Liebrich, published in German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung (SZ) last weekend (30th July 22). Harald Welzer simply managed to give the theme of sustainability some positive ring to it. He switches the perspective and looks at our world of today assuming a positive future. In our future, for example, he sees the freedom which we will have achieved when our fortunes are no longer dependent upon the new piece of clothing we just bought or the new, even bigger car. He paints a picture of the future where the cities will have become greener, and there will be more opportunities for encounters as people will be happy to spend time in cities, to name just a few examples. This means that he proposes positive alternatives to ‘business as usual.’

He urges us to find another purpose model as an alternative to growth. He believes that we as a modern society are indeed very much able to change our current culture or purpose model in such a way that economic activity becomes possible without the growth mantra that is dominating everything. Our new culture model has to be aligned to the goal of conserving Earth’s resources and to consume them only to the extent that Earth is able to renew them. Then, success will no longer be measured by growth; instead, it will be assessed based on factors such as a fairer distribution of what is needed (ensuring basic supplies) and a cleaner environment.

This requires the intervention of governments, i.e. by acting as Earth’s representative and allocating reasonable prices for the consumption of resources. Nevertheless, the intelligence of companies is also required in that they themselves are responsible for being able to conduct climate-neutral business operations and hence to remain competitive. 

Innovation will continue to help us overcome the challenges of our time. Examples can be found at the moment primarily in the agricultural industry where indoor farming is being tried and tested over several plant levels to efficiently use space and to save fertilizers and pesticides. Growing vegetables in all seasons throughout the year is made possible by installing specific lighting systems. This means that more agricultural products can be produced in a small area and farmland can be freed up and restored to its original state.

Needless to say that we as individuals also play an important role in establishing a new purpose model. Our behavior and our appreciation for other matters than previously will enable a deviation from the usual path, says Harald Welzer. Another example from the agricultural sector: the appreciation of a well prepared vegetarian dish instead of meat allows us to feed the growing world population with less farmland.

Harald Welzer believes that you don't need majorities to promote changes or to embark on new paths. He is convinced that insights of a small minority are sufficient to have others join the cause. He cites the anti-nuclear movement in the 1980s as an example for such a development which in fact led to the invention of renewable energies.

Naturally, as an Innovation Coach, I am particularly concerned with what turning away from our endless striving for growth and ‘more’ means for the capacity for innovation of companies and organizations. Will there be innovation to the extent we are familiar with? Actually, I am very optimistic about that. If you understand innovation in the sense of ‘creating added value for people, users, and the environment by making something new, which they also perceive as such,’ the incentive and motivation to seek innovation is now greater than ever before. 

The bottom line I get from the interview with Harald Welzer is: stop striving for ‘more,’ rethink our purpose model, follow a different approach for doing business – for the sake of our freedom!

In a nutshell: It is not enough to sound notes of caution and issue warnings as long as they are not accompanied by interesting alternative models. Now then, what are the interesting alternative models we have in today’s world? There is an easy answer to this question – by taking a look back to our present from a desirable future. And then it becomes clear what needs to be done right now…

This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here

Further reading and watching:

We need to learn to do without... [Wir müssen lernen zu verzichten] – Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 30, 2022 – Silvia Liebrich

A different kind of farming [Anders ackern] – Süddeutsche Zeitung, July 29, 2022 – Isabel Fisch

Who we were [Wer wir waren], book by Roger Willemsen (2018)

Obituary on myself [Nachruf auf mich selbst], book by Harald Welzer (2021)

Harald Welzer in an interview with Barbara Bleisch, discussing a culture of stop doing what we have been doing and on an economy without growth - SRF - October 17, 2021

Andrea SchmittInnovationstrainerinAm Mittelpfad 24aD 65520 Bad Camberg+49 64 34-905 997+49 175 5196446
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