Innovation Is Not as Important as You Think in Solving Today’s Social Problems

We live in the 21st century. So why does the Guatemala City Garbage Dump still exist?

Written by Tim Takechi

What exactly does the word “innovation” mean?

Think about how often you’ve heard the words “innovative solution” in regards to solving the world’s problems.

Information technology (IT) companies promise innovative thinking when fixing your computers. Environmental engineering firms say they’re developing products that will pioneer the 21st century green movement. The latest government official in charge of education has some great new plan to boost test scores. Each new smart phone is smarter than the previous model.

You get the idea.

But what does it all mean? Humankind has walked on this earth for centuries. The historical roots of technology, society, and politics are not far behind. Hasn’t every good idea been thought up yet?

In a word: maybe. In two words: maybe not.

It seems “innovation” is a commonly misunderstood concept. Truly original ideas are very hard to come by. Just look at every movie you’ve ever seen. Isn’t everything just a rehash of something that came before it? Think about it.

Global Visionaries prides itself on developing young people to become future leaders of our planet. The Global Leadership Class instills in high school kids an ethic of philanthropy and thinking on a global scale.

One important aspect of our leadership training is encouraging young people to think about “innovative” ways to solve society’s challenges. See? There’s that word again. So what do we mean by this?

“Innovation” doesn’t mean coming up with new ideas. It means finding a new spin on old ideas.

Look at the social media-inspired political revolution that just happened in Egypt. At a grassroots level, young people were able to organize demonstrations to protest President Hosni Mubarak’s authoritarian rule. He resigned two weeks ago.

Some political analysts have called this event a turning point in global politics. Though Facebook and Twitter did not singlehandedly bring down Mubarak, it marks one of the first times in history that web communication played a significant role in creating large-scale political change.

But when you look at it, how is this any different from anti-war pamphlets that circulate during every major conflict? Or media moguls William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer rousing pro-war sentiments during the Spanish-American War? Or the Washington Post exposing Richard Nixon’s role in the Watergate cover-up? Or Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses on a church door to protest the Catholic Church? The list goes on.

For good and bad, history has shown that what happened in Egypt has happened before. “New” forms of political activism aren’t really new. They’re just a revised version of what’s been done in the past with obvious technological improvements.

There’s an old saying that “Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” But that famous quote ignores the other side of history: learning about its successes.

Not all history is doom and gloom. Some of the greatest ideas ever conceived were thought up by people who have been dead for hundreds of years. Just read the writings of Henry David Thoreau to see how much he influenced great modern historical figures like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi.

So if you’re depressed about the present (and dreading the future) and don’t see anyway that mankind will survive, don’t freak out if that great “innovative” idea doesn’t come to you.

Odds are, that idea has already been written down somewhere. It’s your job to find it.

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