, , ,

For participants in the Critical Religion network, Professor Helga Nowotny’s recent Gifford lecture, ‘Beyond Innovation. Temporalities. Re-use. Emergence’, delivered in the Edinburgh Business School on the 13th May this year is not without interest. The Gifford Lectures, were established by Adam Lord Gifford (1820–1887), a senator of the College of Justice in Scotland. The purpose of Lord Gifford’s bequest to the universities of Edinburgh, Glasgow, St. Andrews and Aberdeen was to sponsor lectures to “promote and diffuse the study of Natural Theology in the widest sense of the term—in other words, the knowledge of God”. Since 1888 a remarkable and diverse range of contributors have maintained the enduring prestige of the Gifford Lectures. The summary notice circulated in advance of Professor Nowotny’s lecture stated that:

The quest for innovation has become ubiquitous. It is high on the political agenda and raises hopes where few alternatives are in sight. It continues to be equated with the dynamics of wealth and even job creation and is hailed as solution to the major challenges facing our societies. Yet, as Schumpeter observed more than one hundred years ago, innovation is not only disruptive, but can also be destructive.

A distinguished Austrian-born social historian of science, Professor Emerita Helga Nowotny of the ETH in Zurich set herself the task of exposing some of the paradoxical difficulties that attend the tensions between the rhetorical representation and the realities of ‘innovation’. Drawing in passing upon Marx and Weber as architects of ideas of modernity, Nowotny then settled as intimated upon a third figure, the Austrian economic thinker and historian of economic analysis J. A Schumpeter, and his conception of innovation as ‘creative destruction’. Innovation is not just technological but social, so that, for example, the quest for the quantum computer when successful will have a heavy impact upon the temporalities by which we live. We have to find a balance and trade-off between explanation and exploitation, whilst also being conscious that the reification of ‘innovation’ in an entrepreneurial culture (in particular that of the United States) can be misleading.

n reality, much so-called innovation is in fact ‘recombination’, and Nowotny illustrated this by reference to the ‘shock of the old’ in the juxtapositional work of the artist David Jablonski. In pointing out how mixed the outcomes of prediction can be, she also related her qualifications of the concept of ‘innovation’ to John Maynard Keynes’ optimistic vision in his Economic Possibilities for our Grandchildren (1930), in which “I see us free, therefore, to return to some of the most sure and certain principles of … traditional virtue – that avarice is a vice, that the exaction of usury is a misdemeanour, and the love of money is detestable”. Technological unemployment might, Keynes foresaw, free humankind for a higher form of existence for which we had to prepare, but present day workplace realities are very different. In short, the most brilliant minds can get things badly wrong, and the gist of Nowotny’s message was that what may save us then we come to the fork in the road ahead of humankind is the capacity to resist binary division and develop informed both/and responses to global crises rendered deceptively manageable because of the inherent unpredictability of innovation. Innovation leads to paradoxical consequences: the ‘natural’ in a post-human world is extremely complex and fraught with problematic real world juxtapositions highlighted by, for example, the contrast between the rapid take-up of cellphones in India as compared with slow increase in levels of basic sanitation.

‘Theology’ in however a vestigial form was very difficult, indeed scarcely possible to detect in Professor Nowotny’s lecture which could not be was not readily assimilated under the rubric laid down by Lord Gifford. Of course such resistance is not without precedent, given that the eminent Swiss-German theologian Karl Barth made it an essential part of his life’s work to deny the possibility of ‘natural theology’, albeit from a very different standpoint. What was, however, very much in evidence was Professor Nowotny’s defence of a distinctive kind of truth-seeking. She argued for the necessity of fundamental research freed from the immediate and all-encompassing diktats of what we in the United Kingdom are required to register in the metrics of socio-economic ‘impact’. Above all, for this listener, Professor Nowotny’s Gifford Lecture was a plea for a renewed sense of global responsibility informed by the full panoply of the ‘human sciences’.

Whilst there was to be a discussion the following day facilitated by the former Episcopalian Bishop of Edinburgh, Bryan Smith, it was disappointing that no questions were posed following the lecture by any of the many theologians currently active in Edinburgh. For this listener, Professor Nowotny’s critical account of the concept of ‘innovation’ was compelling. The risks raised by the unpredictability and unintended consequences of innovation give rise to a conundrum. The character of innovation might suggest that education, and in particular higher education should serve to develop an informed and agile responsiveness to change. By contrast, the societal reality of totalising managerial modernity is manifested in the urge of governments to impose ever greater degrees of control over our lives, and to understand ‘Quality’ as ever more sophisticated protocols of conformity. If, however, innovation is unpredictable then how can we know what we are directed to do will be the right thing? The posing of this question provoked a ripple of recognition in the audience, but no adequate response from the admirable Professor Nowotny.