should we criticise false claims of “innovation”?

Yesterday, twice in one day, I encountered major news articles in media I generally trust (the New York Times and the Atlantic) which described very old ideas as though they were innovations.

In the NYT (opinion section) Lisa Margonelli described basic small city bus network planning as though it were an innovative critique of big-city planning.  (It's not, it's just different tools for a different problem.)  She also seemed dazzled by the private minivans proliferating in New York — a public transit model that's almost universal in the developing world.   (Her piece was ignorant of several other important things too, and I hope I wasn't too harsh.)

Then, on the same day, a respected (by me) columnist at Atlantic Cities proclaimed the work of an academic who claimed to have just invented flexible-route or demand-responsive transit.  This is an old idea, widely used in lower-ridership places around the developed world.  Considerable academic work has been done on it for years, and I personally was desgining these services, and often ripping them out, almost 20 years ago.

(I'm not very sympathetic to Margonelli, because her rhetoric toward my profession is so hostile.  When someone writes an article that displays ignorance of the field while hurling invective at everyone who works in it, they deserve some pushback.  I feel guilty about calling out the Atlantic writer, though, because I'd probably have made the same mistake in his place, writing in an unfamiliar field and urged on by the claims of a published academic.)

So my question for discussion is:  Should we care?  Should it matter if someone claims to have invented an idea, if that helps a good idea spread?  Am I just being a curmudgeon or killjoy to point these things out?  Is there anything wrong with letting people have the idea that the great ideas were theirs? 



13 Responses to should we criticise false claims of “innovation”?

  1. Cap'n Transit November 20, 2011 at 10:06 pm #

    We absolutely should criticize people who are too quick to applaud “innovators.” It’s a whole goddamn genre of blog post/article/documentary where everything has to be “gee whiz” – this new innovation will save us. It fits into what Kunstler calls “techno-grandiosity.”
    There’s not much new under the sun. A lot of this stuff has been tried before. That doesn’t mean it can’t work, but we should learn from previous experience.

  2. Mikko November 20, 2011 at 11:01 pm #

    Yes, there is a problem here. If we allow people to claim they have a new idea, it makes it impossible to criticize the idea based on past record of such ideas.
    While I believe that ubiquity of mobile phones and the developments in auction technology may increase the likelihood of “bus on demand” type of service working, it still doesn’t change the idea so much that the old wisdom about such services would be moot. (Though sometimes technological change is a game changer – something that is good to remember)

  3. Danny November 21, 2011 at 1:57 am #

    I think it depends on the platform. Someone writing on a mostly unread blog does not deserve the same level of criticism as a NYT writer.

  4. Barry November 21, 2011 at 4:30 am #

    For me it falls into the same category as the writings of Transit Academics. Those university based individuals who spend their days researching that perhaps our city’s transit offerings aren’t perfect, and then getting themselves into the media espousing their findings.
    Not that they’ve ever actually worked in the field, or are able to propose an economically viable and financially affordable alternative. No, they just like to throw stones and hide behind the shield of academia as if it makes their limited viewpoint somehow more valid than anyone elses.

  5. Zoltán November 21, 2011 at 5:00 am #

    Good point. False claims of innovation prevent us from looking at what past experience can tell us.
    For example, we have innovators telling us that the sustainable communities of the future can be based upon, instead of everybody riding transit, everybody being able to have their own personal little pod that takes them directly between their origin and destination, that requires the building of a whole lot of new infrastructure on which it can operate.
    That’s never been done before, right?

  6. Tom November 21, 2011 at 5:02 am #

    Those who do not know history are doomed to make the same mistakes over and over. Of course we need to point out these errors, where one believes they have found the next great transit idea, before the idea is implemented and they discover it fails in the same manner it failed before. Technology might be a game changer, if it changes the dynamics that caused the previous failure.

  7. Dave November 21, 2011 at 6:28 am #

    My two cents: I think hearing about successful implementations of transit concepts in an area always has som value, particularly if the concept is uncommmon locally.
    One of the problems I’ve seen is when a concept has more than one name — that is, the terminology isn’t standardized, it can make it harder to research a topic (or rather, research it quick enough to write an article) and so something seems uncommon because there are relatively few references to it online (because they’re using a less common term for a concept or practice).

  8. Rob November 21, 2011 at 8:37 am #

    I agree with the comments so far – if assertions go unchallenged people assume they’re correct. Not only is learning not advanced, but misconceptions can flourish.
    But … On the other hand, to the extent I’ve accomplished anything in life it’s been because someone who can make it happen has convinced themselves it was their idea. I might prefer recognition when that happens, but overall I prefer most that something is done, and the state of knowledge isn’t the worse. Since few ideas are really new, I think it’s common that people believe something they’re excited about is new and innovative, and sometimes that provides a needed impetus to act.

  9. Rosscwilliams November 21, 2011 at 10:38 am #

    I don’t think the issue is really recognition. The problem, as others point out, is that appealing “ideas” that have been tested and failed get repeated over and over again.
    The other problem is that reporters are often being manipulated by a much better informed source with an agenda who is fully aware of past examples. So you end up with a story about “innovative” jitney services from someone whose an advocate for a jitney service.

  10. Niralisse November 21, 2011 at 12:14 pm #

    There’s a effect, the name of which escapes me, where you read a newspaper column about a story with which you are familiar and notice all the errors, then turn the page to a column about an unfamiliar topic and treat it as authoritative.
    Anything we can do to put more readers in the first position is good.

  11. Steve Lax November 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm #

    One problem with these “innovations” is that elected officials, business people, and others who have not studied the specific needs of the corridor or area for which an “innovation” is being proposed often latch onto them and believe they are the appropriate solutions to the transportation problems/complexities facing their jurisdictions. Thus, we go through the “we must have a monorail”, “we must have light rail”, “we must have BRT”, “we must have a streetcar” phases where, in many cases, the specific “innovation” is either a very poor choice or ends up being implemented poorly because of local political, economic, or physical/geographic constraints.
    So (and, yes, Jarrett, I know this is a key focus of this blog), those of us with transit experience must criticize false claims of innovation as part of our efforts to help the community at large make appropriate transit investment decisions.

  12. apple4 November 22, 2011 at 7:27 am #

    If the claim of innovation leads to false promises, then “Yes” such claims should be criticized. If, however, these are valid ideas being claimed as innovations, then we should quickly note the false claim but proceed to the validity of “innovations.”
    I have worked in the public sector for 40 years, and I often have seen politicians and others claim “new” ideas. (Ronald Reagan and Al Gore quickly come to mind.) However, if such claims lead to productive public discussion about an idea, then the ego of the “authentic” innovator should be subjugated to the greater good.

  13. Steven Dale November 23, 2011 at 2:58 am #

    At the end of the day innovation is about applying the invention of others in a way or form that is unfamiliar to a certain place, time or market. A sound innovator is one who can examine a specific time-place condition and apply different ideas and concepts to that specific time-place condition to effect a positive change.
    I agree that there is a whole sub-genre of misinformed innovators preaching the values of something they know next to nothing about.
    But at the same time, there is also a sub-genre of practitioner who are so hostile towards outsiders and innovators that they blind themselves to the potential many of these innovations (or non-innovations, if you will) hold.
    Perhaps the innovators and the practitioners need to stop arguing and actually listen to one another.