Innovation and Maintenance: In Salute of the Little Things

Innovate: To introduce as or as if new, to effect a change in.

Maintain: To keep in an existing state, to preserve from failure or decline.

I want to take some time to consider the buzzword “innovation” and give some praise to its neglected stepsister “maintenance”.  According to a couple of very interesting articles from Aeon and the Atlantic, the term innovation really gained steam in the 60s and 70s because it was more culturally resonant than the terms “invention” or “progress”.  “Innovation” implied the excitement of newness and creativity, but not necessarily the burden of any moral or social advancement, a perfect compromise.

But why did we become so obsessed with it as a society?  There’s no positive or negative value associated with the actual definition, it means only novelty and/or change.  But as with all buzzwords, it got imbued with some additional perceived value on its way into the zeitgeist.  My guess is that “innovation” gets at our subconscious sense that something is broken, and only the new exciting shiny thing can fix it.  But that’s just me.  Regardless, innovation is highly valued, and it should be.  At the moment this laptop, my window air conditioning unit, and my stupid smart phone are innovations that I value quite a lot.  Innovation deserves its place in the sun, unless it comes at the expense of the yin to its yang, maintenance.  I’ll explain my take on this from my two worlds, individual health and international development.  Here, the innovations are not necessarily technological, but the concepts have a similar impact.    

 The innovation that has simplified and complicated most of our lives.

The innovation that has simplified and complicated most of our lives.

International development

My first exposure to the concept of innovation in international development came as a blow, as I realized that the work I was passionate about was not terribly innovative.  That doesn’t matter to me so much or to local stakeholders, but it does matter to potential funders.   ParticipAid works to build slowly on what’s already in place, in a way that local people are familiar and comfortable with.  Our project results are usually positive, but they happen in small increments.  We are a maintenance sort of organization.  While we like it this way, none of that is very exciting for a donor unfamiliar with our work.  I don’t blame them because as mentioned before, our natural inclination is to favor the new big shiny thing over the old little thing.  However I do see this as problematic in many development initiatives.  Rarely does sustainable positive change occur with a single dramatic innovation.  I actually can’t think of one example, though vaccinations come close.  The far more common case is that the innovation needs continued attention.  It needs adjustment and maintenance for the long haul in order to make its intended impact.  No matter how dramatically a village economy improves with the construction of a new road, that road will still need regular drainage ditches dug and pot holes filled.  No matter how much malaria infection rates drop from a bed net program, follow up must still be done to ensure the nets are being distributed and used appropriately and consistently.   Let’s not forget about this less glorious but equally important work.  In my experience, it’s the little things that count.

 Between 2008 and 2010, a total of 294 million nets were distributed in sub-Saharan Africa. Insecticide treated nets have been shown to reduce the death of children under 5 years from all causes by about 20%. (CDC)

Between 2008 and 2010, a total of 294 million nets were distributed in sub-Saharan Africa. Insecticide treated nets have been shown to reduce the death of children under 5 years from all causes by about 20%. (CDC)

Individual Health

When it comes to our health these concepts become very personal, especially for those of us suffering with chronic disease.  An innovative cure has the potential to get us healthy faster and/or more completely than our current options.  That is not only valuable, it’s priceless.  But what are we going to do with our health once we’ve got it?  And what can we do in the meantime?  We can do the maintenance work, the little things.  Health is an active and dynamic state, and it’s the cold hard truth that it takes continual effort to preserve what we’ve got.  Health maintenance can be particularly hard to manage in the typical western lifestyle, where our to-do lists grow ever longer and our free time grows ever shorter.  I think seeing health maintenance and innovative cure as two sides of the same coin can help us here, because we need both throughout our lives.  There’s no magic pill, herb, or diet that will fix everything forever.  If we want wellness, we must prioritize our health and happiness, and that is a commitment to action.  It’s a commitment to do the little things for ourselves, as much as we can, every day.  Move our bodies, eat some vegetables, stop doing the things we know are making us sick and miserable, and do what we can to improve our relationships with ourselves and our loved ones.  Lucky for us, health maintenance doubles as disease prevention.  The everyday maintenance is not nearly as dramatic or exciting as the innovative cure, but its impact can be just as profound.     

 Everyone make sure to eat your vegetables!

Everyone make sure to eat your vegetables!

I’m drawn to maintenance work in both areas of my career because I think it’s important, underappreciated, and also really rewarding.  Part of me feels like I’m in on the secret that all the incremental rewards of maintenance feel just as good as the big reward of innovation.  And I think we forget that the little stuff is usually a lot easier to do than the big stuff.  Part of the challenge in elevating the work of the little things is to frame it in a way that doesn’t feel like mundane drudgery.  It’s about recognizing the value of what we’ve got, and accepting the responsibility of preserving it.  It’s up to each of us to charge our maintenance work in whatever realm with creativity and freshness.  This is lifelong work, may as well figure out a way to enjoy it!       

 Sometimes it's steep, sometimes slippery, sometimes you'll lose it all together. Just keep truckin!

Sometimes it's steep, sometimes slippery, sometimes you'll lose it all together. Just keep truckin!

I like to sharpen my chain saw. I like to keep all my knives sharp. I like to change the oil in my truck. Creativity and maintenance go hand in hand. And in a mature ecosystem as much energy goes to maintenance as goes to creativity … Creativity is not at its best when it’s a by-product of turbulence.
— Gary Snyder, 1973