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Why We Should Be Less Innovative—Or at Least, Less Obsessive About It

Two scholars say our drive to innovate breeds indifference to the basic upkeep that keeps things running.Mike Clarke Getty Images

Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell are professors studying technology at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken. But, perhaps surprisingly given their specialty, they say recent conversations about technology have placed too much emphasis on “innovation,” at the expense of something just as important—maintenance.

Starting with a conference this weekend and a lengthy essay at Aeon, they’re working to emphasize the work done, not by the Elon Musks and Bill Gateses of the world, but by the engineers, cleaners, and repairmen who keep things running.

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Of course, innovation has huge benefits, for both companies and society. Businesses like Apple (APPL), Google (GOOG), and Amazon (AMZN) have thrived by overturning old ways of doing things. And many of their innovations make life better for everyone, both in day-to-day practical terms, and by growing the economy as a whole.

But Vinsel and Russel argue that, particularly in the last twenty years, talk about innovation has become increasingly counterproductive. One key example is America’s ongoing infrastructure crisis, which they say can be blamed partly on a culture that celebrates investment in innovation over upkeep. Only a wave of train crashes, subway meltdowns, and poisoned water reminiscent of the developing world has pushed infrastructure maintenance back into public debate in the U.S.

Companies, too, can be harmed by an overemphasis on innovation. Externally, the failure of things like transportation systems can inflict significant direct costs. And employees can’t be productive without ‘maintenance’ work backing them up, from housekeeping to education.

The same principle applies inside the office. Even fairly early-stage companies need their internal ‘maintainers’—skilled, smart people who keep customers happy and systems running. If that work is devalued, innovative ideas can’t live up to their potential.

Vinsel and Russell write that shifting the tech conversation towards maintenance makes it easier to grapple with a host of other issues—from income inequality to racial justice to disaster preparedness.

For more on the ups and downs of innovation, watch our video.

But they also make an even more radical claim. Though we increasingly treat innovation “as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility,” they argue that change isn’t actually good in and of itself.

“Crack cocaine, for example, was a highly innovative product in the 1980s,” they write, “which involved a great deal of entrepreneurship (called ‘dealing’) and generated lots of revenue.”

Crack cocaine, of course, came with some serious downside risk. And so does today’s most ominous consequence of the business world’s mania for innovation: An IPO boom that’s teetering precariously on the edge.