What would technological innovation look like if its goal wasn’t necessarily to make a profit?

Profit and Growth as an Aim

A simple question to ponder: What would technological innovation look like if its goal wasn’t necessarily to make a profit?

Well that presumes of course that the role of innovation is to boost the economy, which is certainly one of the claims made on many fronts.

I learned from reading the new book Responsibility Beyond Growth,  A Case For Responsible Stagnation, that the EU funds its innovation with the aim of producing economic growth within the region as part of its Innovation Union program. Innovation for growth! The aim is economic growth in terms of greater GDP across the union.

Which leads to questions about responsibility: Can innovation be responsible if it doesn’t work for economic growth? Can it be responsible if it would lead to a shrinking economy?

Well these seem like simple enough questions if we take them on face value, of course they can, but maybe not if they are funded by businesses or institutions whose aims are economic growth.

But then what about the question at the top, the question raised in the book, how would the innovation system differ if it wasn’t geared towards growth? How does innovation differ today that is not funded with these aims in mind?

Can we draw a comparison within single fields to look for similarities?


There have long been arguments that technological developments in medicine have been driven by wealth generation. Malaria is often given as an example. One of the most damaging health issues in the world received around 3 billion US dollars a year for research, control and elimination, but this is less than the 5 billion deemed necessary to reach agreed milestones (We have to take these data on face value as I can’t guarantee they are correct).

Critics argue that this shortcoming is caused by the fact that treatment for malaria (new drugs) will not generate much profit for the global pharmaceutical industry.

If we compare this to some of the figures given for cancer treatment the figures are well over 100 billion per year. Cancer treatments are expensive and lucrative for the drug companies, so economic logic would lead them to investing more in research in this line than in others.

If we extend this thinking to global innovation then the question appears again, how would technology develop if it was decoupled from economics? Would more solutions be found for problems that are under-addressed because there is little profit in the solution (or even loss)?

It’s not such an abstract question if we think about open access publishing and the development of free software (UBUNTU as an example). Some argue that these programs are better than their more widespread cousins, precisely because they are developed by users and for users, not necessarily for shareholders. Could this become a broader argument?

The book I mentioned above goes into much greater detail. Check it out if you can.

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