Innovation and disruption: tools for social good, or get-rich-quick schemes?
We hear the term "disrupted" a lot. But what does it mean, and why does the fear of change it represents perfectly describe how President Trump won in 2016?
Michael Slaby is a global leader in digital and social media strategy, technology and data analytics, and explores how together they can elevate mission-driven organizations. For Michael, it is not only about developing the necessary technological platform, but understanding what it is that brings people together to take action online, as well as offline. Currently, he is Managing Partner of Timshel—a new company working to help solve social, civic, and humanitarian problems via better technology, engagement capabilities development, and creative capital. Previously he was a Fellow at Shorenstein Center at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.
In 2012, when the Obama administration began gearing up for re-election, one of the first calls went to Michael Slaby, who was chief technology officer in 2008—when the historical campaign leveraged the internet and social media to raise funds and organize volunteers in ways that had never been seen before.
Michael helped lead Obama for America as Chief Integration and Innovation Officer in 2012, overseeing the CTO, CIO, and CAO, in order to ensure effective implementation and integration of technology across the entire campaign.
Michael Slaby: I think it's really easy—in sort of the world of marketing in general—to sort of fall victim to this “shiny object syndrome” of like innovation for the sake of innovation and disruption for the sake of disruption.
I think both of those concepts are ultimately pretty bad for society. Innovation and disruption for the sake of innovation and disruption is like driving a wrecking ball blindfolded. Unless there's some real reason and mission and goal for turning an industry upside down, if our only goal is turning one dollar into two or ten I'm not sure that sufficient motivation to up end an economy.
Sometimes innovation and disruption are necessary for progress, they're necessary for rethinking things and for getting out of stale habits that aren't working, but I think especially when it comes to technology relative to social good—and politics having a clear understanding of the communities that you're engaging and a clear mission—that you're talking about the role, that people are going to have in the mission that you're trying to drive is much more important than any particular technical innovation. Using new tools is a good idea. Reaching people in ways and reaching people where they are, reaching communities where they're comfortable and in their own language and listening on those platforms and in those networks where people are, these are all things that we should do.
But the goal here isn't to do something new, the goal is the same as it's always been, which is to build a relationship with a person that sees our vision for the future or an issue or the country the same way we do and to inspire in them a desire to participate in the future that we're trying to lay out and that we're trying to lead.
I think this is where there's a real challenge in a world where attention is so divided, where we consume so much content from so many places, if we are too quick to skip to tactical conversations or in politics too quickly to skip the policy—“So I hear that you have anxiety about the future of your job. I have a 39-point plan”—when we're too quick to skip past the emotion of anxiety and the need for that person to feel comfortable and confident in that we understand the anxiety that they feel, we lose track of people really fast.
And I think that's a place where President Trump was extremely successful in 2016. He spoke to a frustration and an anxiety about the pace of change that scares people, and it's disruptive to all of us. The pace of innovation is so fast that we are all living through more disruption and more change than we've ever had to before.
And speaking to that anxiety and that uncertainty is a really important part of leadership. Leading a community through change is about confidence and managing anxiety and managing change.
And I think skipping to I think ultimately the promises that President Trump made during the campaign are ones that he can't deliver on. I think that ultimately he's a little bit like a seventh-grader running for a class president saying he's going to put Coca-Cola in the water fountains. But he's speaking to a feeling and an intensity and an emotion that is important, and not speaking at that altitude about values and belief is a real deficit for progressives I think.
"Disruption" sure is a word that tech bros like to bandy around a lot. Sure, there are companies like Uber and Facebook that really shook the world up, and those companies warrant the title of "disruptive." But at this breakneck rate of change that we're experiencing, is that good for the overwhelming majority of us who don't work for these tech companies? Are we experiencing a looming jobs crisis with AI, and will the jobs and money lost in the 2008 financial crisis ever really come back? Is this why, Slaby posits, Trump truly won the election—because people are scared of the rate of change?
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