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Innovation—34% of Canadians love it; 22% demonize it! (And the mechanical doll from Jacques Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffmann)

Categories: Alain Giguère

Posted on 05-29-17 at 4:50 p.m.

Innovation: a deep social schism in reaction to the pace of change

This post is a natural progression from last week's, on creativity. Whereas the latter alluded to C2 Montréal, a major celebration of commercial creativity, this post examines our attitude to innovation (artificial intelligence being a notable feature of C2).

Innovation fuels the economy. Its pace-and its spread-continues to accelerate. Many consumers see innovation as a fantastic playground, especially the "Innovators" and "Early Adopters," who are keen to be the first to take advantage of the latest innovations on the market. Here, I am using terminology popularized in the 1960s by Everett Rogers' diffusion of innovation model: from the Innovators to the Early Majority, to the most recalcitrant, the Laggards. Several survey questions must be used to reproduce his initial model, but when we need a quick estimate with an acceptable degree of accuracy, agreement with the following statement has proven quite effective: "Typically, I am the first person I know to try a new product or service." Despite the seeming ingenuousness of this question, our analyses indicate that it sufficiently predicts attitudes to innovation in many areas of life.

Innovation: 34% Enthusiasts, 44% Cautious, 22% Detractors!

The people in agreement with this statement, whether totally or somewhat, are a very homogeneous group. We find them among younger individuals, men, people in higher-income brackets, professionals, residents of large cities and especially in Ontario. By contrast, the most recalcitrant display the opposite profile: older, women, low income, etc.

In fact, our findings can be grouped into three categories, indicating a deep social schism in reaction to the pace of change in our lives today.


The first category comprises people in agreement with the statement, the "Enthusiasts" (34%), who unquestionably play a leadership role in the diffusion of innovation. (In the Rogers model, they correspond to the total of Innovators, Early Adopters and Early Majority.) Next come the "Cautious" (44%), who "somewhat disagree" and who display more wary attitudes. Before they get onboard, they are waiting for innovations to prove themselves.

The final 22% are "Detractors," individuals who find the frenetic pace of change threatening.

Note that the percentages are relatively consistent throughout the Canadian provinces.

Leverage for personal transformation or a threat of social exclusion?

An impressive cocktail of values and hot buttons influences the adoption or rejection of innovation.

Among Enthusiasts, we find a desire to transform one's life, make discoveries, express one's personal potential and creativity, a desire to change the world, but also a desire for status experiences, fun, to connect with others, etc. Depending on the areas affected by innovation, these underlying motivations will be activated to a greater or lesser degree.

Fundamentally, the idea of doing everything differently- listening to music differently, communicating differently, exercising differently-in order to stimulate one's creativity, express one's potential, play and have fun, undoubtedly constitutes the primary motivation underlying the enthusiasm for innovations and their adoption.

Conversely, the Cautious (who somewhat disagree with the statement) feel the world is moving too fast, that they can't adapt to or keep up with all the new demands. They want things to slow down. They remain wary of what they perceive as a flood of change, without necessarily denying its merits.

Finally, the Detractors (22%) see only evil! For them, innovation is a symbol, no matter what its utility. They see it as a cause of social exclusion: every innovation makes the world more complex, creating unemployment and leaving people behind. For them, innovation and technological change are the harbingers of immanent social apocalypse (many of them have lost their jobs to automation).


Opportunity, but also challenges

Change the world! That is what innovation promises to do. Changing the world for people on a personal level means giving them more control by transforming their daily lives, by making even the smallest quotidian tasks fun, more efficient, etc. Changing the world on a societal level means helping people connect to each other better, helping to mitigate our ecological problems, finding unexpected solutions to important issues, etc.

However, innovation too often leads to job loss and exclusion. Our society and institutions must find ways to counteract this collateral damage. Otherwise, the next wave of automation and artificial intelligence is bound to do a great deal of harm!

Tales of Hoffman by Jacques Offenbach

Innovation and progress have long been a source of fascination. Here is a gem, the ultimate chauvinist innovation fantasy-a female robot!-from the Tales of Hoffman (Les Contes d'Hoffmann), the 1881 opera by Jacques Offenbach. Inventing a female robot, a mechanical doll, to fulfil every male desire with docility, was a 19th century fantasy-as if women in this period weren't subjugated enough! There is a slight suggestion of morality in this story: the mechanical doll revolts and breaks down completely in response to male demands!  

Jacques Offenbach - Les contes d'Hoffmann: Neil Shicoff, Bryn Terfel, Jesus Lopez-Cobos, Robert Carsen, Opéra de Paris, 2004, TDK.