Techno-social optimists tell us that humanity is in a good place. We hear that our innovations have reduced human mortality, increased quality if life across the globe, increased our ability to feed the growing world population and so on. All of this is true.
And we can have multiple things be true at the same time.
Yes, we don’t hear of houses burning down or people dying because their couch caught fire. But we hear of people getting sick because of environmental contaminants, including toxic flame retardants on their couch, their car seat and pretty much every piece of furniture they sit on. Each piece has toxins way beneath any risk threshold. But combined, each exposure builds up enough toxins in our bloodstreams that we can pass them along to our unborn children.
Yes, we live in more comfortable homes and can afford more groceries and consumer goods compared to our ancestors. But we have to own a car to bring home that massive cart of groceries because the grocer is 20 minutes away. We can’t just walk to a store and carry that weight home. Over time, we lose muscle mass and joint health from under utilizing our body such that when our cities start becoming green, most of us don’t feel comfortable just hopping on a bike.
Yes, we can talk to our loved ones on video across the globe every night. We can exchange what’s happening in our lives, give long distance hugs and kisses and never feel disconnected. But the same piece of tech we use to engage with them also has news, entertainment, messages awaiting our attention and endless notifications. After a heated conversation, it’s so much easier to hang up and tune out rather than sit in discomfort and learning.
Yes, our farm equipment, irrigation and bioengineered seeds ensure we don’t starve. But we also have large-scale diversion of freshwater, depleting aquifers and river systems. We have excessive synthetic fertilizer runoff into the soil, water, air, and rainfall. We get toxic algae blooms in lakes, oxygen depletion and “dead zones” within bodies of water, where nothing can survive.
I believe people working at these diverse companies don’t wake up with dreams of harming the planet. But our innovation processes are typically siloed and growth-driven. Isolated innovation makes us move incredibly fast. We aren’t weighed down by anything and can keep experimenting, iterating and launching. One impactful product launch after another, in the service of humanity. But we can still come away with long-term negative impacts that are hard to clean up and reverse.
Our current framework for innovation asks us to zoom in, iterate, speed up, and think in fast approaching time increments. What would happen if we innovated by zooming out, by slowing down, by thinking of a future seven generations down, when we’re not even alive. I can’t help but get optimistic about the compounding effect of a more integrated approach to innovation.
“There is too much bad news to justify complacency. There is too much good news to justify despair.”― Donella Meadows, environmental scientist, systems thinker, educator, and writer