This morning I started my day off reading Allison Arieff’s July 9th op-ed entitled ‘Solving All the Wrong Problems’. The article came to me via an experience, last month, at a Social Innovation Residency called Getting to Maybe. It was shared by a member of the faculty team as, what I took as, a sort of counter-weight to the enthusiastic pursuit of arbitrary change.
The piece begins with the following provocation:
“Every day, innovative companies promise to make the world a better place. Are they succeeding?”
Arieff goes on to list some of the ‘innovative’ products and applications being offered in today’s world (some examples for your reading pleasure):
- An app to locate rentable yachts
- A service that analyzes the quality of your French kissing
- A ‘smart’ button and zipper that alerts you if your fly is down
Besides considering the possibility that it might be entirely desirable and quite according to plan for your fly to be down when French kissing on a rented yacht, the article got me thinking about one of its slightly more productive questions:
“Why are so many people devoting so much energy to solving problems that don’t really exist?”
Now, before you smugly alert me to the fact that you in fact need a French kiss or a yacht this weekend or that you’ve never recovered from an embarrassing class presentation with your fly down know this: the article is conscious of the fact that someone, somewhere has had these ‘problems’. Yes, this means that the above question teeters on the edge of hyperbole and probably gets slightly wet as it tips over, however, the key questions that the article has me thinking about are a bit more subtle.
Arieff tells us about the history of the term ‘hack’ — used by many to talk about (subversively) disrupting a system, process, or market that could benefit from a change. The term is everywhere, we even used it during my time at the London Youth Advisory Council—we talked about ‘hacking democracy’. At it’s best, the term is useful because it inspires people to think about moving from a state of status quo to a state of energetic experimentation, but at it’s worst it can mean (as Arieff says), “to cut, to gash to break. It proceeds from the belief that nothing is worth saving, that everything needs fixing.”
We’re winding up to the punchline, so get ready.
The article alerts us to the fact that ‘hack’ is also prison slang for ‘horse’s ass carrying keys’ (anyone who has ever been called a ‘political hack’ might be able to relate to this usage—I say this with love). This shadow side of the word ‘hack’ leads Arieff to ask a series of questions:
- Are we ‘hacking’ the right things?
- Are we fixing the right things?
- Are we breaking the wrong things?
So many of the ‘innovations’ that we see in the headlines are innovations designed to benefit a very select few people with the privilege of having problems related to yachts, zippers, and French kissing. All the while, these innovations are trumpeted as ‘game-changers’ or about making the world a better place. Are they really? Better for who?
The focus of this article is innovation, without the ‘social’ part, but the lessons applies to social innovation as well. It’s easy to think that every social change that you see ahead of you is worth pursuing, but perhaps there are moments when we need to look critically at whether our social change initiatives are about the social versions of yachts, zippers, and French kisses or about walking with individuals who need systems to change for them.
To sum up, the key question of the day is—better for who?