The Innovation Delusion | Lee Vinsel, Andrew L. Russell | 2020

As an irony, the 2020 book, The Innovation Delusion by #LeeVinsel @STS_News + #AndrewLRussell @RussellProf shouldn’t be seen as an innovation, but an encouragement to join @The_Maintainers where an ongoing thought network can continue.

The subtitle “How Our Obsession with the New has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most” recognizes actual innovation, as distinct from innovation-speak that hasn’t taken on the hard work of the long view.

The book is easy-to-read, yet well-researched. Some excerpts are provided to entice more readers.

The Innovation Delusion (2020), Penguin Random House

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CHAPTER ONE: The Problem with Innovation


For the rest of the book to make sense, there is a distinction that we must make. The distinction has to do with the way we talk about change—specifically, innovation. There is actual innovation, the profitable combination of new or existing knowledge, resources, and/or technologies. The Austrian economist Joseph Schumpeter argued that innovation is the motive force of economic change, capitalism, and indeed history itself. But genuine innovation is quite distinct from innovation-speak, a breathless dialect of word salad that trumpets the importance of innovation while turning that term into an overused buzzword. As we will see, the world we actually inhabit, including the technologies we use and need, is a very different place from the world described to us by marketing departments and CEOs—replete with the technologies they’ve convinced us to buy and rely on. [….]

To be clear: Innovation is important. It has played an essential role in economic growth and improved quality of life [….]

But much of what passes for innovation is actually innovation-speak. In recent years, economists have noted that the rate of innovation has decreased since about 1970. To put it another way, there’s no evidence that actual innovation or technological change has increased during the period when everyone started talking about innovation. At its most extreme, innovation-speak actively devalues the work of most humans, especially those who do the dirty work that keeps our technological civilization running. And, as we will see, it fails to capture the essence of human life with technology—where maintenance and reliability are far more valuable than innovation and disruption.



In the chapters that follow, we’ll show how the innovation mindset has led to a devaluation of maintenance and care, with disastrous results. We’ll meet lawyers, teachers, and engineers who have been told they need to be more innovative—even though they know that their success in many ways depends upon resisting the pressures to “fail fast” or “move fast and break things.” We are fascinated by their acts of resistance and how their attempts to maintain their integrity and do their jobs shed light on a different way forward.

In some ways, maintenance is the opposite of innovation. It is the practice of keeping daily life going, caring for the people and things that matter most to us, and ensuring that we preserve and sustain the inheritance of our collective pasts. It’s the overlooked, undercompensated work that keeps our roads safe, our companies productive, and our lives happy and secure.

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There’s a pointer to the April 2016 essay, “Hail the Maintainers”, that received notoriety.

— begin excerpt —

CHAPTER TWO: Turning Anxiety into a Product



Perhaps the most important factor that led to a positive revaluation of the notion of “innovation” was the role that actual innovation played in the massive economic, technological, and cultural changes that took place after the Industrial Revolution. The scale and scope of these changes, which began in eighteenth-century England before spreading across the world, are hard to comprehend. Some writers understandably call them a “miracle,” though that miracle has always exacted significant costs, including harm to workers and the natural environment. […]

Changes in values and social status were an essential part of this overall shift. In the eighteenth century, inventors were disparaged as “projectors,” an archaic term for promoters or hucksters who pushed dubious new business ventures.1 Very few people aspired to be inventors in a world that extolled military heroes, statesmen, and members of the nobility.

But slowly, starting in the nineteenth century, these ideals underwent a profound transfiguration. Technical creators rose in social status, particularly in England and the United States, whose leaders linked national power to the “industriousness” of their citizens. [….]


Use of the word “innovation” took off in the years following World War II. This change in language had several causes, and professional economists—those vanguards of the dismal science—played a crucial role. [….]


To the extent that there was a recipe for the rise of Silicon Valley, the most important ingredients were prepared by Frederick Terman, dean of Stanford’s School of Engineering from 1944 to 1958 and university provost from 1955 to 1965. Terman redefined Stanford by aligning the school’s research with military priorities, and using money from defense contracts to recruit faculty members from the growing electronics industry. Terman also encouraged Stanford faculty to work as consultants in the private sector and create their own companies. The resulting flows of knowledge, people, and technology between the military, industry, and university earned Terman accolades as a father of Silicon Valley. [….]

The late Clayton Christensen, a long-time professor at Harvard Business School, is a good example of this phenomenon. In his 1997 book The Innovator’s Dilemma and a stream of subsequent publications, Christensen spelled out the idea of “disruptive innovation,” a process by which a new technology or business model can upend existing markets, firms, or products. Christensen’s concept caught on like a new, great, powerful drug. All around the world, corporate boardrooms filled with smoke as executives took turns either imagining themselves as the next disrupters, creating the killer app that would blow away the competition, or worrying that they themselves would be disrupted by some unseen start-up in their field. […]

Another example of a hot idea that unraveled on closer inspection was the notion of a “Creative Class” promulgated by the urban planner Richard Florida. In The Rise of the Creative Class and subsequent publications, Florida put forward a kind of Field of Dreams “build it and they will come” theory of public planning, only for hipsters instead of baseball players. Florida argued that the presence of the “Creative Class,” including “scientists and engineers, university professors, poets and novelists, artists, entertainers, actors, designers, and architects,” led to a virtuous cycle of investment and economic growth. […]

Another innovation product that’s recently come under scrutiny is called Design Thinking. Its roots extend back to the 1950s and ’60s, and it began as a reasonable discussion within the professional field of design. The most popular form of Design Thinking today is associated with the fabled design firm IDEO, which is most famous for creating the original Apple mouse in 1980. David Kelley, one of the company’s founders, asserted that a core aspect of good design involved “empathy,” which he characterized as “the ability to see an experience through another person’s eyes, to recognize why people do what they do. […]

We see important similarities between the Christensen, Florida, and Design Thinking stories—most of all, that they center on consulting. An enormous market of organizations and individuals yearn to be innovators and will pay big bucks to become one. Innovation experts benefit from a deep-seated human frailty, which the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called “the craving for generality.” General statements are crucial for living, of course. You aren’t going to last long if you can’t learn principles like “fire burns” or “that red berry is poisonous and will kill you dead.” [….]

CHAPTER THREE: Technology after Innovation


[….] Let us emphasize two fundamental points again. First, technology is not just “tech”; it’s more than digital consumer devices and apps. Second, technology is not just innovation. Most of the technologies we rely on are so common that we barely think of them. They fade into the background of our culture and—crucially—our financial planning. And yet, it’s essential that these things continue to function—as anyone who has experienced a power outage or water main break can attest.

Since technology is not just innovation, and the tools that we use daily consist mostly of old things, then a logical next step is to think about not only what technology is but also when it is.

A piece of technology passes through three basic phases: innovation, maintenance, and decay. We spent the last chapter talking about innovation; now it’s time to focus on what happens after innovation. […]

CHAPTER FOUR: Slow Disaster


If these examples are any indication, it’s no wonder that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) regularly gives the United States near failing grades in its Infrastructure Report Card. Nearly 10 percent of the nation’s 613,000 bridges are structurally deficient—meaning that some elements of the bridge require monitoring and/or repair—but the ASCE finds that the country’s dams, levees, and drinking water are even worse off, with mass transit sitting in the sorriest shape of all.

The historian Scott Knowles has created a helpful term for describing these situations: slow disaster. Fast disasters, or what we normally just call disasters, include hurricanes, flooding, tornadoes, earthquakes, industrial accidents—events that sweep in quickly, damaging people’s lives and the technological systems that support our everyday existence. Fast disasters leave lasting wounds. Long after the story-seeking news cameras have packed up and gone, victims are left picking up the pieces. Some businesses and homes never come back. Lives are shattered.

A slow disaster, by contrast, is the accretion of harm from incremental neglect. It happens when children ingest chips from lead paint or when a potholed road becomes unsafe for traffic.



Charles “Chuck” Marohn is a straitlaced, even square, civil engineer. A soft-spoken Catholic and registered Republican, he grew up as a farm boy and served in the National Guard before marrying his high school sweetheart and moving to a small town in the largely rural Midwest. All of this makes Marohn an unlikely candidate for the title “thought leader.” Yet, from his hometown of Brainerd, Minnesota, Marohn and his colleagues have started a growing, influential movement called Strong Towns, a nonprofit that works to make American cities financially resilient. [….]

There was still a tension between what Marohn had witnessed in places like Remer and what he had learned in graduate school, but he didn’t see it yet. “I think that…every planner believes that if you just had the right set of zoning regulations that you can solve every problem. Like, you can cure cancer and have world peace….It’s seductive. You start to believe that you have way more knowledge and way more insight than other people.”

Marohn was open-minded enough to realize he could be wrong, and he had an intellectual awakening after reading Malcolm Gladwell’s essay “Blowing Up.” Gladwell contrasts two different investors, Victor Niederhoffer and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the latter of whom went on to write bestselling books like The Black Swan and Antifragile. Niederhoffer was in many ways a traditional investor who believed that you could find opportunities for profits in a market through mathematical analysis. In the 1980s and early 1990s, he raked in cash using this method.

Many people attributed Niederhoffer’s success to his expertise, presuming he possessed some form of knowledge that others couldn’t access. But Taleb took a completely different approach. He assumed that he was fundamentally ignorant and could not predict the future—that tomorrow was and is much more uncertain than he could possibly estimate. He used options to bet on dramatic swings in the market, wagering that things would change in ways no one could anticipate.

In Gladwell’s telling, the moral was clear. Niederhoffer’s investment company tanked and was dissolved in 1997 after taking heavy losses—and his next company failed about a decade later. Taleb’s method of building robust, or resilient, strategies was superior, because it would not be undermined by unexpected negative events.

Marohn saw a deep truth in Gladwell’s essay and believed it raised fundamental questions about his own professional fields of planning and engineering. [….]

CHAPTER FIVE: Growth at All Costs


[….] This chapter will explore the impact of the Innovation Delusion on institutions, including businesses, schools, and hospitals, that structure some of the most important aspects of our lives. These stories provide a more vivid picture of the price of neglect, the pressures of long-term decline, and the dangers of buying into fantasies of renewal and endless innovation. The same kinds of problems and the same patterns detailed in chapter 4 are evident: the preponderance of superficial ideas of innovation and growth; the political risks involved with (responsible) investments in maintenance; and the fact that neglecting maintenance often brings disproportionate harm to people already grappling with social and economic disadvantages. [….]


[….] Kirsch and the economist Brent Goldfarb define “bubbles” as dramatic changes in asset prices that fail to reflect changes in underlying intrinsic value. In other words, bubbles are fundamentally social phenomena driven by collective behavior. When people keep telling themselves stories that justify continued faith and investment in a particular market opportunity or way of doing things, a narrative develops and strengthens. These narratives, in turn, help to sustain the collective hallucination. [….]


[….] The report card notes, “More than half (53%) of public schools need to make investments for repairs, renovations, and modernizations to be considered to be in ‘good’ condition.” But while billionaires flood educators with digital gadgets and promises of “revolution” and “disruption,” the report card found that “four in 10 public schools currently do not have a long-term educational facilities plan in place to address operations and maintenance.” [….]

These problems are not confined to K–12 public schools. Public higher education has also been receiving poor grades, albeit from a different teacher. Each year, Moody’s Investors Service publishes a “higher education outlook,” and the news in 2018 and 2019 was not good.13 The core problem was that universities could not meet their revenue growth targets, resulting in the need to control costs.

The existential financial dilemma of higher education in the twenty-first century is simple. The revenue-generating strategies of the late twentieth century—including annual tuition hikes of 5 to 10 percent, which shifted financial burden to students in the form of interest-bearing loans—are increasingly untenable. Administrators are scrambling to keep up with the rising costs of instruction and student services, but traditional veins of cash, such as philanthropic giving and sponsored research, continue to be dominated by a handful of elite institutions. Universities also experiment regularly with “strategic partnerships” with industrial and government actors, often framed in the dialect of innovation-speak—incubators, innovation parks, and so on. But existing evidence suggests that these gambits rarely create the jobs and economic benefits promised by their promoters. [….]


[….] the undeniable benefits of innovations in medicine and healthcare have cast a harsh light on the problems that remain. Healthcare is at the heart of a paradox that has aggravated generations of American policy makers, reformers, and health professionals: Americans spend the most money per person on healthcare—up to twice as much as citizens of other high-income countries, according to some studies—but with worse outcomes in areas such as infant mortality and life expectancy.

The pressure to find solutions has created a system that is horribly misshapen and full of contradictions. […]

Each of these problems flows from a common source: Americans aren’t putting their good ideas to work in a systematic way that benefits all of their fellow citizens. And that general problem fits the familiar trend we’ve seen in business and education, where leaders choose to steer their organizations toward innovation, with the implicit assumption that doing so will lead inevitably to financial success. [….]

CHAPTER SIX: The Maintainer Caste


[….] Ralph plays an important role at the university. He keeps 450 physical Linux machines running—equipment often used by a bunch of rowdy undergraduates—as well as a number of virtual computers. Yet it will surprise no one that the professors are the ones with status at the college. The university website is festooned with innovation-speak, including news items on how professors have introduced this or that innovation, and how the school held hackathons, coding camps, and other events meant to turn students into disrupters. The people who keep all of the computers running in the school are, of course, nowhere to be seen on the webpage. Though their labor is crucial, the IT workers are overlooked and taken for granted.

Ralph’s experience is not unique. Within organizations and society at large, maintenance roles often fall at the bottom of status hierarchies. Nearly all maintainers experience condescension on the job, whether it takes the form of being ignored, talked down to, or taken advantage of. In many organizations, for instance, janitors and maintenance workers are required to wear uniforms—often one-piece coveralls—that mark them out as maintainers. Where do these traditions and mindsets come from? [….]


[….] From 2012 to 2016, both of us worked at Stevens Institute of Technology, which had (somewhat awkwardly for us) trademarked the motto “The Innovation University.” As part of their senior engineering capstone project presentations, Stevens students were required to describe how their projects were innovative. Of course, most of the projects were not in the slightest innovative, so the primary lesson students learned was how to bullshit and sell themselves as something they were not. Performance and drawing attention to one’s work as novel is an important part of being an “innovator,” something we’ll return to in a moment. But the deeper problem was how badly the Stevens innovation requirement misconstrued the nature of engineering. The sheer reality is that about 70 percent of engineers maintain and oversee existing systems.8 Only a small minority of working engineers have jobs focused on invention and the “research” part of R&D. As a rule engineers are maintainers and operators, not innovators. [….]


[….] Soon after we started talking about maintainers, people started telling us about Susan Cain’s book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking. In Quiet, Cain argues that our culture overlooks and undervalues introverts, individuals who prefer to work alone and are reserved and quiet in social situations. Classic self-help texts like Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People are basically primers on extroverted behavior. Such outgoing behavior is prized and rewarded in organizations and society at large, whereas introverts often find it hard to be heard or recognized.

We see two big connections between Quiet and what we’ve been hearing within The Maintainers community: First, like introverts, maintainers often work quietly in the background, keeping things chugging along while “innovators” get the glory. Our society tends to ignore such people and neither recognizes nor rewards them, which creates all kinds of problems, both for the maintainers and for the society itself. For instance, if employees at an organization find it hard to get credit and promotions for maintaining open-source software—something we’ve heard a lot—they become frustrated, even resentful, and therefore suffer personally. They are also more likely to move on to a different job and be replaced by someone with less experience. In other words, often enough, the software suffers, too—and so do the users who depend on it.

Second, we and others have found that maintainers often (but not always) are introverts. They prefer to work alone and find extended social interaction stressful and unpleasant. Ralph, the IT worker we met at the beginning of this chapter, said that he enjoys working with his other IT peers because they “aren’t showboats,” and they “genuinely enjoy helping people with their problems.” The flip side of this introversion, however, is that maintainers can find it hard to advocate for themselves and their labors. [….]

CHAPTER SEVEN: A Crisis of Care



When the journalist Stephen Dubner interviewed us for an episode of Freakonomics Radio, he said that bodily maintenance was the first thing he thought of after he’d read one of our articles. As you get older, he pointed out, “You spend more and more time maintaining yourself.” Maintenance is the war against entropy—not only in technology but also in biology. Bodily maintenance is a constant part of human life, whether in the form of diet, exercise, or grooming. (Of course, many nonhuman animals clean and preen themselves, too.) [….]


[….] How maintenance works in any given household depends heavily on how much money it has. Wealthy people hire help to keep up their homes and yards. Drive through any U.S. city and you can tell where the rich live and where the poor live first and foremost by how the houses and landscaping are maintained: that golf-course-perfect American lawn of the well-to-do versus the crabgrass-infested, bare-spot-pockmarked yards of the poverty-stricken. In some neighborhoods, homeowners’ associations pressure households to keep entropy in check, lest newcomers let standards slide.

Most families cannot afford help. They make do on their own. But as we’ve seen in other contexts, putting off or deferring maintenance work is a constant temptation. […]


[….] In the meantime, even when an object in our life is expensive enough to repair, it has become much more difficult to do so. Much of this difficulty is because computers have been built into so many things around us—most notably our cars. Automakers first put computers in cars in the 1980s and ’90s to meet federal air pollution standards, but the companies soon saw strategic potential in the technology: They could use computers to monopolize repair and force owners to go to dealerships to get work done. Consumer advocates call these corporate strategies “repair restrictions.” […]

CHAPTER EIGHT: The Maintenance Mindset

[….] in our interviews with successful maintainers, and at the conferences where we’ve brought together people who are passionate about upkeep and care. From all of these conversations, we have distilled three general principles of the maintenance mindset.

First, there is the principle that maintenance sustains success. Maintenance consists of activities that, when done correctly, ensure longevity and sustainability for a company, a city, or a family home. To put the point a different way, no innovation can persist without maintenance. Second, there is the principle that maintenance depends on culture and management. Good maintenance is possible only with good planning that takes an organization’s preexisting culture and values into account. The third principle is that maintenance requires constant care. The best maintainers take a nurturing and supportive approach to their work. They are often detail oriented, creative, and, more than anything else, dedicated to their craft. [….]



[….] The two first steps of adopting the maintenance mindset involve coming to grips—often painfully—with where we are at on deferred maintenance and then starting to think about maintenance costs ahead of time. As we’ll see, both of these steps—but especially the first one—face real obstacles: Oftentimes, we simply lack knowledge and measurements of the conditions of our infrastructural systems, which systems need attention first, how much their repair or replacement will cost, and so on. So, in order to even begin the process we have to get up to speed. […]


[….] A big reason the true cost of infrastructure and the maintenance thereof is not visible is a trick of accounting. Municipalities are not required to count infrastructure as liabilities, even though they are on the hook for taking care of them in perpetuity. [….]

[…] Making this accounting shift would be painful, pushing the books of most American cities massively into the red, but it would provide a more realistic picture of where we are and would allow us to grapple with reality, even if only on a triage basis. [….]


If you ask Chuck Marohn what he recommends localities do about infrastructure, he gets quiet. A big part of his philosophy is that there are no premade cure-all solutions that can be applied in all situations. His general recommendation is that planners and citizens start by paying attention to small details in their communities. Often this means literally walking around by climbing out of our cars (which is the medium through which we often experience small to midsize towns in this country) and getting a feel for the place by examining which neighborhoods are thriving and why, how different parts of the community are or are not connected, and how infrastructure like roads is contributing to this picture.


[….] As we have seen repeatedly, standards of maintenance and order have changed a great deal over time. They are culturally dependent. When you ask people who think a lot about infrastructure if there are examples of cultures or nations that are good at maintenance, they bring up a few repeatedly.

One is the Shinkansen, a high-speed rail system in Japan that began operations in 1964. The Shinkansen is a marvel of efficiency and safety, in large part because of its highly developed maintenance practices. No one has ever been killed by an accident on the Shinkansen, and there have only been two derailments in the system’s history—one from an earthquake, another from a blizzard. (For contrast, check out the sprawling Wikipedia page “List of accidents on Amtrak.”) With a top operating speed of two hundred miles per hour, the line has had an average delay of less than one minute per train, with the exception of 1990, when it just surpassed that mark. In 2002, the average delay was twenty-two seconds. […]


[….] In some cases, the goal should be selective and graceful degrowth—paring back our infrastructural burden and getting smaller. People often bring up Detroit in conversations about the future of cities. […]


[….] How do we put elected and appointed officials on the hook for maintaining existing infrastructure systems? We’ll need to be creative. […]

CHAPTER TEN: Supporting the Work That Matters Most



[….] There’s a lot to be said about the data and anecdotes that maintainers provide in their own unfiltered voices. We encourage you to look them up on social media. You won’t find anyone clamoring for simulators, Big Data, biometrics, or macro-innovation, that’s for sure. Rather, what you will discover are suggestions and needs that fall into the categories we’ve observed across all groups of maintenance and care workers: the need for better material rewards (such as pay and benefits); better intangible rewards (such as recognition and respect); and suggestions for fighting burnout by creating more space for maintainers to revel in the intrinsic joy of their work. We’ll take these in turn.


[….] Many of the most popular digital platforms are sustained by unhealthy labor models. […] Analysts use a variety of terms to refer to these workers—“code janitors,” “commercial content moderators,” “ghost workers,” “microworkers”—which speak volumes about the status bestowed on this form of labor. [….]

Companies should account for the importance of maintainers, protect them from undue harm, and compensate them in a way that reflects their contributions to these enormously profitable systems.


[….] Herein lies one of the most poignant ironies of the digital age. The promoters of software and digital technologies have long promised their benefits for enhancing community and connectivity—but in many cases these technologies are being used to reduce human contact. To resolve this tension, our society needs talented and empathetic people who understand the importance of connections, know how to make other people feel like their perspectives are valid, and are able to direct their frustrations and concerns down a productive path. Our digital systems and digital societies need maintenance and care in this vital area. [….]

CHAPTER ELEVEN: Caring for Our Homes, Our Stuff, and One Another

[….] While repair cafés, fix-it clinics, and similar events are still relatively rare in the United States, they are part of a growing movement that seeks to help people maintain and repair their own things—or at least be able to take them to local repair shops. These movements bring up a broader question of what we can do to make our world more maintainable, more caring, and thus more sustainable. What would it be like to live in a more caring world? There are many ways to answer that question: We can make improvements as individuals and members of households; respond collectively as communities; and effect change through public policy at the local, state, and federal levels.

EPILOGUE: From Conversation to Action

[….] We (Lee and Andy) are two of the three codirectors of The Maintainers, a global interdisciplinary and interprofessional community that examines maintenance, repair, infrastructure, and the ordinary work that keeps our world going. Together with our third codirector, Jessica Meyerson, we have organized a variety of activities that include conferences, video discussion groups and seminars, email and social media chatter, and focused, in-person convenings of experts in specific fields like digital archives or workforce development. From these activities we have contributed to coalitions around policy issues, such as the right-to-repair campaign, and we have secured grant funding for projects to build advocacy tool kits for librarians and archivists.

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In my journey through the systems sciences, I’ve learned to be wary of intervening in a system that we don’t understand. This might be extended to a caution to not intervene with an innovation that we can’t maintain.


Russell, Andrew L., and Lee Vinsel. 2016. “Hail the Maintainers.” Aeon, April 7, 2016.

Vinsel, Lee, and Andrew L. Russell. 2020. The Innovation Delusion: How Our Obsession with the New Has Disrupted the Work That Matters Most. Penguin Random House.

#innovation, #maintainers