Our world is in debt. We need near-term growth to pay yesterday’s deferred costs, and sustainable growth to support tomorrow’s aspirations. Without a renewable growth medium, sustainable growth is an oxymoron. What are the sources of future growth?

Technological innovations enable growth. Of equal importance, particularly for sustainable growth, are the social innovations that technology innovations presage. Intellectual property (IP) concepts are examples of social innovations in the field of technology that enabled growth, and the story of their conception and broad implementation is instructive in identifying new growth sources.

Existing IP rules can also be extended and supplemented with new and different forms of social innovation as a growth medium. This will help to cultivate breakthrough social innovation to foster more sustainable growth.

New social innovations can first arise in many different creative contexts, including the traditional arts and also many other areas where information, knowledge and wisdom are generated, such as the sciences. Once they arise, laws and rules are typically established to document, support and normalize these innovations.

The new rules that can foster social innovations in our hyper-connected, digital age will be discussed this week in Dalian. While thinking about the “IP in the Digital Age” panel and “State of Innovation” discussions, I became aware of reasons for optimism. People create and adopt social innovations to solve shared problems. For example, traditional IP rules were created and then modified to solve various scaling challenges as new markets emerged.

Specifically, IP rules create incentives for the creation of innovative (“intellectual”) attributes in economies based on tangible goods. IP rules foster innovation by enabling a distributed incentive model (based on familiar “property” concepts) for the creators of those new attributes.

“Intellectual Property” concepts are social innovations that organize our relationships regarding imagined forms of “property” to create additional value and reduce risk solely as a result of that organization. That is the essence of social innovation.

Looking ahead, social innovations will once again create entirely new value and reduce otherwise intransigent risks in an increasingly connected, and complex, digital world. IP rules can help.

Current IP laws are artefacts from the social innovations of the past; each centuries old. This should be recognized as a starting point for structuring the legal rules for tomorrow’s social innovations. Within and among our cultures and nations, we develop collective mythologies regarding social structures reflected in our laws, including IP laws. We adopt these narratives to lend coherence to our new social structures and cognitive models.

Artists are social innovators because they identify and expose newly emerging social narratives. Evocative art provides new explanations of what we are experiencing socially and cognitively. The arts are an “early warning system” for emerging social innovations. Consider, for example, the fractured dimensionality of perception introduced by Cubism, and contemporary depictions of quantum theory (a foundation of digital technologies).

The cultivation of the arts is integral to fostering social innovation and enjoying its fruits. New forms of digital art explore group expression in ways never before attempted, or possible. What if artistic group expression presaged group expression in other areas, including governance?

For example, what if the digital technologies of big data and enhanced online group expression, perception and insight enabled social innovation in the form of more empathetic governance systems? Such “birds of a feather” governance could be driven by commonality of interest discovered and cultivated over digital systems.

Once creative social innovators have constructed new narratives, lawyers breathe life into them by creating innovative legal frameworks. Law is the formal narrative where the shared story is enforced, and rendered more certain, reliable and real. The law is applied social science. It reinforces the feedback loop of the narrative in the social/behavioural echo chamber.

Today’s narratives in art and law include “insecurity about change” and “the challenges of complexity”. These narratives drive technological and social innovation. Today’s social innovations responding to change and complexity will power future growth.

Scott L David is Executive Director, Law, Technology and Arts Group, at the University of Washington. He is moderating the session, Intellectual Property in a Digital World, at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian, China.

Image: A student looks at a painting by 20th century U.S. artist Jackson Pollock at Tehran’s Museum of Contemporary Art. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl