Point/Counterpoint: To Innovate or Maintain?

We live in the era of SpaceX and Blue Origin, often prioritizing breakthroughs over preserving the foundation of our existing technologies. As we devote quantifiable focus and media bandwidth to the next great technical disruption, we hear markedly less about what is being done to sustain what we already have. Is it enough to fund the dreamers, or should we be focusing more on maintaining our critical infrastructures? Is there a way to healthily mix both, to ensure that we can adequately innovate and maintain? The technical community weighs in below.

Have you had enough with the innovation-only mantra, or do you believe most investment should be made in R&D? Let others know.

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The Maintenance Habit: Andrew Russell and Lee Vinsel

Does “innovation” really need any more advocates?  Our culture is saturated by innovation-speak: it has seeped into the mission statements and branding strategies of corporations, cities, and universities.  Seen in a critical light, the popularity of “innovation” and its conceptual sidekicks—“disruption” and “creative destruction”—reveals a culture lost in its myopia.  Why do we valorize innovation, disruption, and creation, but fail to sustain and nurture the benefits they generate?

Americans are among world leaders in innovation—and certainly in innovation hype—but our national infrastructure is an embarrassment.  Experts convened by the American Society of Civil Engineers gave Americans an overall grade of D+ for the decrepit and underfunded condition of our roads, schools, dams, and drinking water. To put the problem in a nutshell: Elon Musk makes headlines promoting futuristic hyperloops, while Americans lose $3 billion annually because of damage from potholes. Potholes!

What’s the alternative?  In his 1958 book The Strategy of Economic Development, the economist Albert O. Hirschman proposed the cultivation of the “maintenance habit.” We would be wise to follow this suggestion, for two reasons.  First, today’s innovation is tomorrow’s maintenance liability: think about the landmark achievements of past generations, such as Grand Central Station and the Hoover Dam, that need continual upkeep and repair. Second, public celebration of a maintenance habit would simply recognize work that we already know is important—whether it’s the maintenance of our bodies, our relationships, our homes, or our technologies.  “Innovation” doesn’t need any more acclaim; it’s time to give maintenance its due.

Andrew Russell is a professor of history and the dean of arts and sciences at SUNY Polytechnic Institute. Lee Vinsel is a professor in the department of science and technology in society at Virginia Tech. For more from Russell and Vinsel, please read: “Let’s Get Excited About Maintenance!” (The New York Times, July 2017) and “Hail the Maintainers” (Aeon, April 2016).

Innovate: Ella Atkins

The human mind thrives on stimulating challenges. The most remarkable inventions ranging from the wheel to the motor to the digital computer have required a combination of persistent innovation and identified need. “First flight” sparked our imaginations and enabled us to travel the world. The US still holds a competitive edge in aviation-related product development and sales.

Students at all levels need to struggle to achieve and dream of creating the next big thing. Parents need to dream of a better future for their children and realize that persistence and creative thought are keys. Embracing and supporting R&D is essential to engage our minds, offer new products, and realize our dreams of a better future. What was innovative decades ago may be better to replace than repair.

The caretaker will fix potholes, treat disease symptoms, and find food, water, and energy for today.  The innovator will tirelessly seek fatality-free transportation, cyber-secure information on demand, and a truly sustainable planet. Don’t settle and grow tired. Continue to dream and don’t give up.

Ella Atkins is an IEEE Senior Member and a professor of aerospace engineering at the University of Michigan.