What if the future of innovation lies in the past?

When I was a kid, reruns of the Jetsons were the epitome of future imaginings.  Basking in the glow of the Space Age, the Jetsons promised us food that cooked itself, spaceships instead of cars, and conveyor belts that obviated the need for walking (the Jetsons were remarkably slim given their lack of exercise). The world envisioned by the creators of the Jetsons has failed to materialize, but the sharp contrast between the real and imagined future is instructive because it reveals a deep-seated assumption about progress that impedes our best efforts to be innovative.

What the Jetsons and countless of science fiction movies show is that we tend to think about the future as completely divorced from the past, something entirely new.  Put in the contemporary business jargon, the future is always “disruptive.”   Nowhere is this assumption more prevalent than in the world of innovation. Innovation labs project an image of out-of-the-box, unbridled creativity in order to inspire the next great product or experience. And while creativity certainly plays a role, a narrow focus on the future without a rich understanding of the past can actually inhibit innovation.  In other words, if we want to be more forward-thinking, we need to be more backward-looking.

Nowhere is this more evident than the 2015 World Expo in Milan. The world’s fair is where countries showcase the future and how they intend to shape it. This year, the theme is food and sustainability, and instead of projecting a futuristic vision of mass automation, the country pavilions emphasized a return to small-scale agricultural techniques and practices.  Local agricultural diversity was celebrated as the wave of the future, replacing the intricate supply chains of high modernism with the humble Farm-to-Market roads that link the countryside to urban population centers.  Small-scale producers were presented as the heroes in this narrative, using their knowledge of local conditions and varieties to overcome environmental challenges. The Italy pavilion, obviously the grandest due to its hallowed role as host, included an interactive wall identifying indigenous breeds of livestock–bloodlines that have undoubtedly been superseded by strains deemed more profitable in the global market.  The One Pavilion, sponsored in part by the U.N., did not shy away from the grim reality that while Western nations battle obesity and the concomitant diseases, a shocking number of people around the world suffer from hunger, but its proposed solution was surprisingly and refreshingly humble:  a return to longstanding agricultural practices that protect the environment and safeguard the livelihood of small producers.  In today’s age, we have been instructed to “Think Globally and Act Locally,” but the World’s Fair demonstrates that the converse is just as important:  “Think Locally and Act Globally.”

What I took from all of this is a global vision of the future that comes from the past.  A reinvented past, to be sure, since the lives of farmers were never as tranquil as we imagine.  And technology will play a role, but in a future orchestrated by humans and supported by technology, not vice versa.  The return to local agriculture, then, is not the most recent example of a neo-Luddite sensibility.  Instead, it is an exciting vision of the future based on a reconsideration of the past, a path we may overlook in our quest for novelty.

How might the rest of our projects, both corporate and otherwise, look if instead of trying to radically break with the past, we thought about reinventing in anew?  What would innovation look like then?