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Contracts as sources of innovation

October 2, 2019

“Trade is the spark that lit the fire of human imagination, as it made possible not only the exchange of goods, but also the exchange of ideas. Trade also encouraged specialisation since it rewarded individuals and communities who focus on areas of comparative advantage. Such specialists had the time and the incentive to develop better methods and technologies to do their tasks.”

That quote comes from an edition of The Economist, almost 10 years ago, reviewing a book by Matt Ridley that addressed the importance of human optimism (a major theme for IACCM this year, with further research to be unveiled at the IACCM Americas conference in November).

Contracts and trade

Contracts sit at the heart of trade. They are the ‘boundary objects’ that define roles and responsibilities, reward and consequence. In addition, as other recent research by IACCM confirms, they influence whether or not innovation and continuous improvement occur (report available on the IACCM website).

It is this culture of striving for continuous improvement that drives and provides incentive for innovation, enabling human aspiration to become a reality. However, such aspiration is rapidly undermined in an environment that is seen as punishing or risk averse – the characteristics of many of today’s contracts. Assumptions of failure or disaster are frequently self-fulfilling. The IACCM research confirmed that those who place their primary focus on protecting against risk thereby discourage cooperation and limit the exchange of ideas.

A heavy responsibility

If indeed it is trade that sits at the center of our future success and, more broadly, our ability to prevent disaster (including, for example, from climate change), then the contracts community has a large and heavy responsibility to ensure it is not only removing barriers to innovation, but that it is also itself innovating in the methods through which trade occurs. We have a duty to ourselves and others to ensure that we contribute to the cultural and economic forces behind human progress.

“Thanks to the liberalising forces of globalisation, innovation is no longer the preserve of technocratic elites in ivory towers. It is increasingly an open, networked and democratic endeavour”, says Ridley. Contracts can – and must – create environments where openness, transparency and networked communication are encouraged and rewarded and where cultures of blame, risk allocation and punishment are avoided.

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