02 November 2017

Q&A: Stop praising innovation

Options Winter 2017/18: Johanna Mair is a professor of Organization, Strategy and Leadership at the Hertie School of Governance and a member of the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group, which held its annual retreat in August.

© Peter Himsel| Hertie School of Governance

© Peter Himsel| Hertie School of Governance

Q At the Alpbach-Laxenburg Group retreat in August, you participated in a discussion on governance and institutional transformation towards sustainability. What do you see as the biggest barriers to sustainable development?  

A Sustainability challenges typically require a concerted effort to achieve impact. We still lack the appropriate governance and accountability mechanisms that ensure implementation of well-intended strategies and commonly devised goals. 

Q As an expert in social entrepreneurship and innovation, what new developments have you seen that you think could drive a transformation towards sustainability? Could you give examples of successful innovations that have taken hold?  

A We do see innovation on many fronts. Especially in governance, technology has enabled a number of useful and helpful innovations that allow for more transparent and accountable processes. At the same time we still face enormous challenges that cannot be fixed by technology and require us to face deeply rooted relational and cultural problems. The prevalence of open defecation and lack of sanitary infrastructure in India is just one example.  

Q Sometimes it seems like there are many great ideas, but adoption is slow. What do you think is necessary to make the leap from innovative idea to widespread practice?

A “Most new ideas are bad ideas” as Jim March from Stanford University would say. We must stop praising innovation and start to think and act on linking innovation and scaling as two distinct processes to create impact. Innovation is an investment and creates the potential for impact. Scaling enacts and grows this potential and transforms innovation into tangible outcomes—improving the lives of marginalized people and communities and making progress on stubborn societal and environmental problems.  

We have elaborated on this in our new book on “Innovation and Scaling for Impact – How Successful Social Enterprises Do It,” which I co-wrote with Christian Seelos. 

Q How do innovation and governance go together? What are the challenges and opportunities for bringing new ideas into institutions and governments?

A Governance needs to exert an enabling role. We need to craft and design governance systems that foster innovation. At the same time governance systems need to also make sure that the potential and usefulness of innovation can be tested along the way. This requires reflecting on markers of success that are process- and not outcome-focused.  

Q The Alpbach-Laxenburg Group brings together leaders from business, and young entrepreneurs, along with government leaders and science experts. What do you think can be gained from a meeting of this type? 

A The most important outcome will be a shared understanding of priorities, pathways, and markers of success for this journey.  

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Last edited: 10 November 2017

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