Four questions from when “innovation” was new

Matthew Wisnioski (Virginia Tech)

This talk argues that dominant contemporary frames of innovation result from a combination of four modes of inquiry first formalized in the mid-20th century. A growing historical consensus asserts that experts in the United States and Europe pursued innovation as an ideological end in itself and that the resulting “innovation-speak” has fostered a narrow, neoliberal vision of economic growth through technological change. These critical scholars aim to overturn practitioners’ claims that the imperative for innovation results from the need to productively shape the transformative power of scientific and technological change, which will alter global society and self whether we like it or not. However, both interest-based and naturalistic explanations for innovation’s rise contain important truths and limitations. In this talk, I return to the multidisciplinary origins of innovation expertise to instead ask what questions mid-century experts believed that innovation answered. I explore how diverse communities of experts developed theories of innovation to solve local and disciplinary problems, how they built networks to communicate their ideas, and how those interpretations coalesced into a shared belief that “innovation” held the answers to a “better” future. Drawing on archival research, I show four overlapping but distinct communities of practice developed ideas and methods to answer: How are new things created? How do ideas spread? Where does wealth come from? And, how can the world be changed? Spanning respectively engineering and science administration, anthropology and sociology, business and economics, and action research and moral philosophy, these communities established a repertoire that subsequent experts and policymakers configured (and repeatedly reconfigured) in comprehensive visions of innovation, often embodied in the persona of the innovator. In the process, these practitioner-theorists, some famous and some long-forgotten, came to view themselves as the first innovation experts. I then demonstrate how these lines of inquiry evolved and remain central to contemporary reframings of innovation. This pragmatist-guided approach to the history of innovation, I argue, explains why visions of innovation simultaneously spark neoliberal anxiety and progressive hope.