The fickle mantle of innovation

Innovation™ has become both a rebranding exercise and an apology for a host of regressive corporate practices that look suspiciously like business as usual.

But let’s be clear: there is nothing unconventional or remotely innovative about corporations that rationalize exploitation—of a workforce, of political connections, of rules that exist to protect a minimum standard of rights, dignity and safety—to justify their continued pursuit of profit. After all, that’s what–left unchecked–they’ve pretty much always done.

Uber’s business model, for example, involves a precarious, low-paid, unprotected workforce; a cheeky disregard (read: utter lack of respect) for jurisdictional laws or regulations; and an almost unlimited desire for self-promotion through money and personal or political connections.

It’s positively Dickensian. All that’s missing from this picture is a stovepipe hat, cobblestone streets and spats.

Now, throw in a few choice phrases (just-in-time, on-demand, customized) and an app….

Boom.

Innovation.

But why is it that when a publicly-owned enterprise (or its workers) starts talking about “shaking up” an older business model, rather than being lauded for their innovative thinking, they are accused of overreaching or abandoning their mandate or of delaying the inevitable march towards the future (read: privatization)?

That’s exactly what happened when, earlier this month, the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW), in conjunction with the Leap Manifesto, released a comprehensive proposal for a green postal service, that re-envisions post offices as community hubs that encourage economic development.

The wide-ranging proposal would rework existing infrastructure to facilitate and promote sustainable activities for both the postal service and the communities it serves: postal banking (vital for communities traditionally underserved by conventional banks), enhancement of door-to-door service, charging stations for electric vehicles, and helping deliver services to an aging population.

Ambitious? Absolutely. But also, in many cases, tried and tested. A number of countries already have postal banking, Norway’s postal workers drive electric vehicles, Japan’s offer elder assistance, those in France and Australia deliver food, and Switzerland’s postal services include public transportation in rural areas.

“We [that’s us: the public] own the biggest retail network in the country. What will we do with it?” asks CUPW. Compare that to Uber’s unspoken motto (and, okay, I’m paraphrasing): “there’s an increasingly desperate workforce and a just-in-time mentality out there; how can we profit from it with virtual impunity?

In other words, when a union demonstrates some creative thinking and a revamped business model for an existing, publicly-owned infrastructure, it’s criticized for being unrealistic or acting only in its own self-interest (so that workers can keep their “sweet jobs”).

But when a private company “bravely” disregards basic health and safety regulations—including paying workers a minimum wage (after all, Uber vehemently denies it even has employees or assets)— or even a commitment to basic human rights, it’s gifted with a series of fawning articles in various mainstream publications touting a swashbuckling innovative spirit.

Yippee-ki-yay, right?

To recap: CUPW thinks big, and is told to remember its place (ironically after being repeatedly told that many of the services its members provide are all but obsolete). Uber embodies nostalgia for a leaner, meaner, Dickensian economy, throws in an app and…voilà! The future!

Uber isn’t groundbreaking. We may fetishize its techno/private sector swagger, but in reality it is just another example of unchecked capitalism—with better accessories. Call it app-italism.

Meanwhile, initiatives that are predicated on building a sustainable workforce, enhancing communities, and improving our quality of life, are derided as pie-in-the-sky or self-serving.

Apparently, when it comes to innovation, irony isn’t dead. It’s just been taken for a ride.

Erika Shaker is Director of Education and Outreach at the CCPA. Follow Erika on Twitter @ErikaShaker.

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