How Shall We Understand the Public Interest?

By Aditya Dev Sood

Panchayat meeting on Village Sanitation in Khera village, Budaun District, UP

At the Design Public Conclave, we are concerned to explore how Innovation serves or is related to the Public Interest. In order to address that large question, however, we must first consider what we might mean by this high-minded term. And to do, we first ask, what is the Public?

On account our Socialist past, and our nearly extinct figuration as a ‘developing’ society, one still commonly encounters references to the ‘sectors of society,’ organized as (i) the Government (ii) the Public Sector (iii) the Social Sector and (iv) the Private Sector. Whereas, prior to liberalization (i) and (ii) were seen to operate more or less indistinguishably from one another, their roles now appear to be diverging, with the role of Government having to do more and more with the creation and regulation of markets, while the Public Sector is either privatized or else outsources all its core functions and operations to the Private Sector.

While representatives of each of these sectors may operate in ways which it claims are in the Public Interest, the ways in which they make these claims are varied. Moreover, in each case, it is difficult for anyone to articulate how the interests of the particular bureaucracy or organizational or financial-communications network is actually aligned with the putative Public Good. The collective interests of society, when described as the vector sum of all the diversely oriented forces operating upon and within it appears as a static quantity, which can easily be reduced — through corruption, inefficiency, venality, cupidity, and the concomitant destruction of value — but which cannot easily be increased except in so far as a functioning service-providing entity continues to operate with its own enlightened self-interest in mind. Thus do we once again derive, through a metaphor of vector integration, Adam Smith’s famous Invisible Hand, whereby private ambitions are channeled towards the larger aims of society.

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What does the inside of Innovation look like?

Joseph Schumpeter, widely considered the father of innovation theory, wrote of innovation as the gale force of capitalism, with a large focus is on the entrepreneur as the catalyst of innovation. He writes, “the function of entrepreneurs is to reform or revolutionize the pattern of production by exploiting an invention, or more generally, an untried technological possibility for producing a new commodity or producing an old one in a new way, by opening up a new source of supply of materials or a new outlet for products, by reorganizing an industry and so on.” Innovation, to Schumpeter, is the driver of change in a Capitalist economy, where a process of “creative destruction” and dynamic competition ensures that old paradigms and markets are incessantly replaced by new ones.

For the influential management consultant Peter F. Drucker, innovation is both conceptual and perceptual, i.e. it must be market-focused and market-driven. Moreover, Drucker asserts, innovation is organized, systematic and rational work that can be integrated into any organization. Drucker proposes that most innovation arises from the methodical analysis of the seven major sources of opportunity: unexpected events, incongruities between the expected and the actual, new process requirements, unanticipated changes in industry or market structure, demographic changes, changes in perception, mood, or meaning, and, lastly, new knowledge.

Another, highly functional view, is that of the famous robotics engineer Joseph F. Engelberger, who asserts that in order to innovate regularly, one requires only three things: a recognized need, competent people with relevant technology, and financial support.

Although these three theories of innovation developed by the respective ‘fathers’ of modern economics, management and robotics are different in various ways, a common thread running across them is that they all view innovation from the outside, as it were. They give accounts of the various physical elements, resources and external conditions that are needed to make innovation happen, but do not delve into the internal processes that actually generate innovations, which are twofold: the first is the process of collaboration and interaction amongst members of a team along with all the tools and methodologies they use, and the second is the cognitive technique intrinsic to each individual participating in the innovation process. Answers to such intimate questions about how innovation actually happens cannot be found within these business-management or technocentric theories of innovation.