223. Innovation is not Problem Solving

Inno­va­tion is the habit, or the knack, or find­ing new premises. It is prob­lem quest­ing rather than prob­lem solv­ing. Our best schools and uni­ver­si­ties hone prob­lem solvers of a cer­tain kind. Give the finest grad­u­ates of these places a prob­lem with well-defined premises and they are awe­somely effi­cient at find­ing a solu­tion that fits the premises. In fact, their edu­ca­tion is largely a mat­ter of fit­ting their brains out with a list of accept­able premises. They are clever twits. His­tor­i­cally uni­ver­si­ties have been hold­ing pens for clever twits, but the high pay­ing habi­tats of cor­po­ra­tions and gov­ern­ment depart­ments have attracted them in increas­ing num­bers. Wit­ness Wall Street’s finan­cial whiz kids for a recent con­se­quence. Most human prob­lems have long been famil­iar, espe­cially the social and eco­nomic kind. That is, their premises have been defined, typ­i­cally by cul­ture and tra­di­tion. In each cul­ture, the local clever twits enforce their solu­tions based on accepted premises. Yet the human social and tech­ni­cal matrix, mix­ing and whirling ever faster, also crashes repeat­edly. Injus­tice is rife, incom­pe­tence endemic, hap­pi­ness elu­sive. When things fail utterly, the clever twits in des­per­a­tion seize, in the most ama­teur­ish way, upon any stray propo­si­tion thrown into the ring, In such unsta­ble envi­ron­ments the clever twits fre­quently have nei­ther a moral com­pass, nor a skeptic’s trained eye, nor the eccen­tric habits of inno­va­tors who can cast old premises through a new prism, and find the hid­den cat­a­lyst in an unsus­pected premise, the key to unlock those old prob­lems that we thought we knew so well.

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