Institution Innovation

Some types of innovation are well understood and celebrated, like technology innovation and business model innovation. If I write and app that does a new thing, that’s innovation, and if I find a new way of selling solar panels, that could well be important innovation.

We’ve seen novel institutions emerged in societies through history. Usually they have emerged to wield power or to regulate power, whether it is economic power, or to establish a monopoly on violence, or to balance powers. Establishing division of power into legislative, executive and judicial branches was an innovation with profound implications for society.

Now, the emergence of companies that are at least as powerful as nation states should prompt us to consider how they derive their power and if we can balance that power through new institutions. This would be institution innovation, and believe it such innovation is instrumental to balance certain forms of power.

For example, I think that the technology industry to a great extent derives its power from controlling essential knowledge about how the systems we rely on operate, and from implementation capacity. By forming an institution that develops Normative Technology with a democratic mandate, the institution balances these two forms of power, and doing so is currently very urgent.

In detail, such an institution would be focused on creation. With that, it would ensure that technology innovations are made in lockstep with moral and political thinking. This would also have broader outreach since it would happen in collaboration with commercial and civil society actors. It would firstly establish infrastructures (for example identity and data management systems) and then by developing technologies that would address the reasons why citizens are tied up to platforms by creating things that are immediately useful to them so that they can be set free from such platforms.

Beyond technical innovations, new institutions need to make innovations in fields of for example

  • governance of digital commons,
  • methods of interaction between political authorities and technological implementers,
  • development in cross-disciplinary teams,
  • project management given more complex teams and stakeholder views,
  • oversight to ensure that development is in citizen’s best interest and power remains balanced,
  • legislation based on needs identified by technological progress.

Setting institution innovation in motion is hard. If I was writing an app, I could just start doing it. If I had an idea for business innovation, I could just start selling something. Institution innovation requires a consensus to form within societies that it is needed and helpful. It is absolutely dependent on political support.