Abusing Innovation

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Innovation and entrepreneurship are very much the flavour of the month. Widely regarded as instrumental in the next wave of economic growth, determining the ultimate recipe for innovation and entrepreneurial success is by many considered to be the holy grail. Indeed, we are all being encouraged to become like Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and other hero entrepreneurs that somehow went from eating macaroni and cheese in a garage or a campus dorm room every night, to becoming obscenely rich by inventing new things we now obsessively use or log into every day.

For the rich, an era of re-branded philanthropy is heralded (although any upfront investment will likely result in an equity stake), while universities and governments are trying to nurture innovation and entrepreneurship through teaching and policy. Yet, can innovation and entrepreneurship be taught? Will enrolling into an entrepreneurial course transform a student into an entrepreneur by the end of the semester? And can policy actually foster innovation and entrepreneurship?

Problematically, innovation and entrepreneurship are concepts that are applied to virtually everything. The danger of over-using these concepts is that it will progressively become less clear what they actually mean, a pitfall that exists at the outset as these terms suffer from conceptual inflation: they display a high level of abstraction and are thus so broad that they tend to neglect conflicting and complex elements from reality.

Where innovation is mostly a very broad concept, entrepreneurship is mostly a vague notion. Indeed, it is debatable whether “the entrepreneur” even exists: “the category of the entrepreneur [. . .] is essentially indefinable, vacuous and empty”, it is a “empty signifier” detached from of reality, symbolising uniqueness, heroism, “being calculating, taking risks, approaching oneself as a business, and seeking out opportunities to make oneself more marketable”.

The danger in stretching the concept of entrepreneurship too far is that any self-employed individual can be branded as such, even if they work for a large company in a labour-for-hire capacity, often bordering on sham-contracting. In other words, it can dramatically increase the number of people that are precariously employed, something that the Australian workforce is already very familiar with as one-third of employees is not entitled to paid or sick leave. Freelancing is up, employee entitlements are down. A shift most make by choice allegedly.

Similarly, in order to “foster innovation”, governments might want to “reduce red tape”. Which, if the concept of innovation is applied broadly, might well entail changes to workplace relations in favour of corporations, making workers more vulnerable and further eroding their rights. Who needs secure employment anyway! Any proposed changes under the moniker of innovation should be approached with skepticism.

It is a sign of high-capitalism and a revitalised neo-liberal agenda that the concepts of entrepreneurship and innovation, and the accompanying narratives of riches and success, are being widely spruiked. You too can become one of those extraordinary people, because after all, “there has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian”!


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