Fix Things First; Then Innovate

Anyone who’s driven the nation’s highways, crossed its bridges or slogged through its public transit systems knows we have a crumbling infrastructure. On the surface you could point the finger at federal, state and local governments that do not allocate the resources necessary for preventive maintenance. But as Professors Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel wrote last week in The New York Times, governmental inaction is a symptom of a deeper problem: Americans have an impoverished and immature conception of technology, one that fetishizes innovation as a kind of art and demeans upkeep as mere drudgery,” the profs proclaimed.

As we’ve mentioned several times in this blog, technology is not necessarily innovation and vice-versa. Russell and Vinsel seem to agree with us. Innovation they argue, refers only to the very early phases of technological development and use—which also narrows the scope of technology to digital gadgets such as iPhones, social media apps, etc. “A more expansive conception of technology would take into account the diverse array of tools, including subways and trains, that we humans use to help us reach our goals.”

Most technologies around us are old, and Russell and Vinsel argue that for daily life to go smoothly for us, maintenance is more important than innovation. In the computer industry, they said, software maintenance —fixing bugs and distributing upgrades — can account for more than 60 percent of total costs, they say. And roughly 70 percent of engineers work on maintaining and overseeing existing things rather than designing new ones.

“It’s not just maintenance that our society fails to appreciate; it’s also the maintainers themselves. We do not grant them high social status or high salaries,” Russell and Vinsel, noted. Typically, maintenance is a blue-collar occupation: mechanic, plumber, janitor, electrician. There are white-collar maintainers (like the I.T. crowd) and white-jacket maintainers (like dentists). But they, too, are not celebrated like the inventor, the profs said.

Like many folks, Russell and Vinser said that once you notice this problem — “innovation is exalted, maintenance devalued — you begin to see it everywhere.” They said media hounds like Elon Musk have been given “verbal” government approval for an underground transportation system between New York and Washington. He has also proposed a similar project that would revolutionize transportation in Los Angeles by creating an enormous system of underground traffic tunnels.

Apart from the logical issue of creating a tunnel system in LA–a region known for geological instability–Musk’s idea perpetuates the Silicon Valley cliché of scrapping reality and start over from scratch. With urban transport, as with so many other areas of our mature industrial society, “a clean slate is rarely a realistic option. We need to figure out better ways of preserving, improving and caring for what we have,” the profs noted.

From a personal standpoint, I have learned about the importance of maintenance vs. innovation as co-author of Naylor LLC’s annual association communication benchmarking study the past six years. More than 2,000 trade association senior execs have taken part in this survey since 2010.

When asked what they could do with an unexpected 50 percent increase in their annual budgets, more than half said they would “hire more staff.” No surprise there, but even more said they would improve and significantly upgrade or improve their offerings and systems than launch new ones. Here are the most frequently cited responses:

  • Improve quality of existing communication vehicles (52%)
  • Hire more staff (51%)
  • Upgrade publishing tools, technologies or processes (43%)
  • Put more muscle behind social media (41%)
  • Improve mobile strategy (39%)
  • Launch new communication vehicles (29%)

Conclusion

Trade associations have no choice but to be responsive to their members’ needs and do so without raising dues. Too bad we can’t replace the word “trade association” with government, “members” with taxpayers and “dues” with taxes. Imagine a world in which our best and brightest minds focused on “fixing what’s broke” rather than disruption and creative disruption so that a very few could get rich at the expense of many.

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TAGS:  Fix before you innovate, innovation over-rated, Andrew Russell, Lee Vinsel, Elon Musk not practical



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