Maybe Innovation Is Just Too Sexy For Good Policy

Early in my graduate education it was drilled into me (and I was quite receptive) that technology is not just high tech, and it’s not just new tech.  But it is hard to avoid those perspectives in science and technology policy.  There’s a whole category of innovation policy, and often one of the criteria for deciding what grants to fund is the novelty of the proposed research.

But it presents an incomplete picture of the science and technology ecosystem.  Today’s innovations become tomorrows commodity items, embedded infrastructure, or other things we take for granted.  Historians can help highlight the ‘routine’ aspects of technology, and the processes by which what was novel is now quite ordinary.

Some of them are looking for collaborators in such a project.  Called “The Maintainers,” Lee Vinsel at Stevens Institute of Technology is looking for a few good scholars to help push back on the narratives surrounding innovation.

“I am writing this blog post to find like-minded individuals who are interested in exploring this the history of maintenance, infrastructure, and mundane labor, broadly construed. We believe that such investigations could have practical upshots, and we are especially keen to involve practitioners, including standards engineers, forensic engineers and architectures, managers in charge of safety and maintenance, policymakers who focus on upkeep and infrastructure health, and others involved in such pursuits. Furthermore, this effort must have an international and transnational dimension, including work on “developing nations.” (Some of us, for example, are interested in the development economist, Albert O. Hirschmann’s insistence that, to survive, societies must develop a “maintenance habit.”)”

Vinsel acknowledges that the work he wants to do is not new or necessarily novel.  But when the dominant narratives focus on the leading edge of science and technology development, other valuable stories aren’t told.  And we can always use more stories.


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