In Defense of Ideas
…when impact is their enemy.
by Tim Leberecht
At the recent DLD conference, a leading gathering for the digital elite taking place in Munich every year on the eve of the World Economic Forum in Davos, the curator, Steffi Czerny, was assertive in her opening remarks: ideas are no longer good enough. What we need in times like these, she said, is action. We need real, measurable impact, not just words, conversation, and (more) ideas. For ideas are lame and a waste of our most precious asset, time, when we are running out of time facing existential crises: when garbage threatens our planet, software eats the world, and our societies degrade into polarized tribes.
DLD is not alone as conference platforms, the modern fora for the idea economy, are now outcompeting each other when it comes to actionability and accountability. Festivals that have “ideas” in their mission statement or even their name like the Aspen Ideas Festival or Renaissance Weekend suddenly appear to be worried about their legitimacy. Even TED, which still proudly touts its mission as promoting “ideas worth spreading,” has recently put more emphasis on impact. Doubling down on its former TED Prize, it launched The Audacious Project to give a stage to and raise funds for social impact changemakers. In December last year, it then announced the Countdown campaign, which brings together a coalition with the goal of reducing net greenhouse gas emissions to zero in order to mitigate the worst effects of climate change.
No idea goes unmeasured
With these initiatives, TED is responding to the zeitgeist, to a growing view that when there’s so much at stake, it might be decadent, almost obscene, to indulge in ideas. Victor Hugo’s line, “There’s nothing more powerful than an idea whose time has come” is now being rebuked with “There’s nothing more useless than an idea whose time may never arrive.”
At some point, TED even considered establishing an ideas impact index designed to quantify the impact of the ideas its TED Talks were promoting. Indices are all the rage these days, especially for more elusive qualities, from happiness and wellbeing to empathy, so an ideas impact index made sense. You can only manage what you measure, after all, according to management guru Peter Drucker. And now, it seems, the only ideas worth spreading — or having in the first place — are those that lead to measurable action.
Saving the world from “thought leaders”
This new accountability for ideas corresponds with the pushback against “thought leaders” which insists they must demonstrate that the ideas they present are more than just cheap, self-important talk.
Sure, some self-proclaimed thought leaders merely please an ideas-hungry audience of corporate “innovators” by neatly packaging some obvious trends with some compelling photos and impressive charts. And of course, it remains an elite privilege to have a platform for sharing ideas in the first place.
Yet, the general resentment towards thought leaders is disconcerting. Behind the impetus to dismiss them and their ideas lies an economic reflex: the pervasion of cultural terrain through the mechanics of business. It is a transactional mindset that refuses to ascribe value to anything that cannot be measured, that is not actionable. It is the banging of the fist on the table of the “entrepreneur,” the brute force of the “hustle” culture glorified by “doers” like Gary Vaynerchuk. Do something or shut up.
It is important to recognize that “thought leader” is just a modern term for “ideas person.” You don’t have to love the fact that some of them have found ways to make a living on the conference circuit (I, too, receive fees for speaking engagements), but attacking thought leaders in general means also attacking a broad swath of artists, writers, philosophers, and scientists who live off ideas that never get realized because they either lack the entrepreneurial drive (or are not interested in developing it), or simply don’t have the opportunity to promote and promulgate them. The very moment ideas are discriminated against because they are ideas, we also discriminate against all those professions whose work is done for the sake of the work itself, not the financial or social outcomes.
Ideas are not just an entrepreneurial asset. They are brittle. Even if they never see the light of day, they deserve to be heard and honored (which is why, at the annual gathering of the House of Beautiful Business, we once orchestrated a symbolic funeral march for ideas that participants had to let go of).
With all the conferences racing to prove their impact, now more than ever we need forums for sharing ideas that are “just” ideas — including, and especially, those ideas that don’t go anywhere.
Which problem are you solving? None.
In his book, Hunters. Shepherds. Critics., the German philosopher Richard David Precht describes an innovation contest taking place in a small German city where the host declared that the organizers wanted to reward those young entrepreneurs presenting ideas that actually provided a solution to an existing problem. But “do you think Beethoven wanted to solve a problem?” Precht asks rhetorically, “do you think Picasso did?” For artists, having ideas is not a task but rather an existential condition from which they can’t escape.
And even within the confines of business, the question “which problem are we solving?” is often too narrow and misleading, and only of value for those who believe the world can be boiled down to a range of problems for which we must come up with solutions. It’s a wold view that has plagued us from Homo Faber to the kind of “solutionism” that has become Silicon Valley’s favorite ideology: a hammer for every nail.
Such culture, loyal to the regime of efficiency, inevitably leads to the depreciation and denigration of anything that is elusive and mysterious. Ironically, holding ideas accountable as “solutions” has economic consequences, too: it is the death of innovation, and many innovation managers will attest that metrics are its hangmen.
We deprive ideas of their essence if we insist that they create results. We fall in love with an idea not because of evidence, but because we like its promise: the future it projects. A big idea is like a big dream. You don’t know whether it will ever come true, in fact, you don’t even know whether it is actually true. Ideas are powerful even, or perhaps especially, if they’re not true.
Ideas are the future
In defense of the future means to be in defense of ideas. Ideas describe the future without the need of ever becoming it. They can help make a case without ever being the case.
This is not to be confused with “winning the future”, a popular term in business circles. The future isn’t some kind of trophy. If we’re lucky, we can have a future, and if we’re both smart and humble, perhaps we can even shape it to some degree.
Real change happens only through ideas, even if they themselves never materialize. Only a new idea will replace an old idea. Only a new idea will crack and dismantle the guard of the old, conventional truth.
But perhaps that line of argumentation means falling into the impact trap again. I don’t want to defend ideas by highlighting their tangible outcomes. I want to defend them by insisting on their inherent uselessness.
To defend ideas means to celebrate that they’re essentially indefensible.
This article first appeared in the Journal of Beautiful Business.