Are we adapting instead of innovating?

When my grandmother was born, in the last decade of the Nineteenth Century, the first patents for radio were being registered, still, at this stage, just the transmission of electrical signals using morse code. She was a young girl when the Wright Brothers made the first powered flight, which lasted less than a minute. When Louis Bleriot flew across the Channel, my grandmother was a teenager at work in a textile mill, having left school at thirteen. By the time John Logie Baird demonstrated his first television broadcast, she was married with a new baby. (My aunt, who is still with us and in rude health.)

Yet, in her mid-seventies, she sat in her usual chair in our house and watched men walking on the moon. I can still see her, sitting with us all, glued to the TV, the curtains closed against the July sunlight.

From a glider powered with a car engine and bicycle chains to a rocket visiting another planet. From broadcasting electrical dots and dashes for a few yards to beaming moving pictures across the vastness of space. All in one person’s lifetime; a mere seventy years or so.

Flight and broadcasting developed at incredible speed during the early Twentieth Century but progress hasn’t continued at the same rate. Forty years ago, we could send people and things into outer space and could fly at twice the speed of sound. Since then, we’ve just done the same only more often and cheaper.

Is this a sign that innovation is slowing down? Is it a symptom of the creativity crisis? (See previous post.)

Graeme Pietersz reckons it is and he links to some well-argued evidence.

Compare the last 40 years, with the previous 40. The earlier period saw the invention of jet engines, transistors and integrated circuits (“silicon chips”), helicopters, nuclear reactors, the contraceptive pill, electronic computers (and mice), lasers and masers, the internet (yes, really), nylon, photocopiers, ball-point pens, tape recorders, mobile phones and CDs.

Most of what has happened in the last 40 years has been the refinement of those inventions, and making them cheap enough for the mass market. The illusion of continuing rapid progress has been sustained by rapid progress in just one area: the continuing ever-greater miniaturisation of integrated circuits. That again has advanced through improvements to the same process (lithography), and we may be approaching its limits.

Alan Patrick, from consultancy Broadsight, argues that innovation in 1909, 1949 and 1969 was greater than 2009. He looked at innovation in a number of areas. The detail is in this post with a graphic summarising his findings:

The traffic lights tell us that we are stuck at red or amber in most areas.

His conclusion:

Although we think of ourselves as the most innovative generation, Evah!, the truth is that we are not as far ahead as we would like to think, and in fact, given the comms advances we have today, it is arguable we should be a lot better at it – in fact, one could argue that some things are going backwards, and to an extent we are actually resting on the laurels of work done in the last 100 years.

He goes on to refer to Tyler Cowan’s book, The Great Stagnation. This, from the Economist:

There are two kinds of economic growth possible in this world. One can take good ideas already in use elsewhere, adopt them, and make use of underused stocks of people and capital. That’s what China and India are currently doing, and we shouldn’t mistake their rapid growth for something it’s not. Or one can come up with new ideas and apply them in ways that allow the economy to grow.

The rich world has been stuck doing the latter for most of the last century, and lately they haven’t been doing it as well.

But the big setback for society, according to Mr Cowen, is the end of the exploitation of the major innovations of the last two centuries. The 1700s and 1800s yielded revolutionary innovations in industry, chemistry, and electricity. Rich countries spent the 1800s and 1900s figuring out how to exploit those innovations to their fullest, and as recently as the 1950s and 1960s, these experiments were producing products that utterly changed the way people lived. During the lifetime of those born in the 1930s and 1940s, household technology changed fantastically: refrigerators, laundry machines, dishwashers, radios, televisions, electric light, air conditioning, cheap automobiles, and so on. But with a few exceptions (among them computers, on which more later) today’s households don’t look that much different from their 1970s counterparts. Products have improved, but the development of revolutionary new technologies has slowed substantially. The progress of technology has plateaued.

Michael Kirton’s model of creativity provides a useful framework for understanding all this.

Creativity, says Kirton, comes in two forms, innovative creativity and adaptive creativity. Innovative creativity is doing new or different things, adaptive creativity is doing existing things better.

If Pietersz, Patrick and Cowan are right, using Kirton’s terms, we have moved from an innovative to an adaptive period. We have spent the past 40 years or so adapting existing stuff; making aeroplanes faster and cheaper, making smaller and more powerful computers and phones, blasting thousands of communication satellites into orbit so that we can all send pictures through space. No innovation, just the adaptation of what was already there.

But isn’t this a time of great innovation? Isn’t the internet revolutionising our lives?

Not really:

A striking amount of online activity is free and internet businesses create few new jobs (and displace lots of others). The result is growth in utility without much of a contribution to GDP, which would be fine except that countries and people have bills to pay, on things like health care, pensions, and government debt.

Ha Joon Chang agrees. The washing machine, he says, has had a greater impact on the world than the internet:

The internet may have significantly changed the working patterns of people like you and me, but we are in a tiny minority. For most people, its effect is more about keeping in touch with friends and looking up things here and there. Economists have found very little evidence that since the internet revolution productivity has grown.

Before the invention of the telegraph in the late 19th century, it took two to three weeks to carry a message across the Atlantic. The telegraph reduced it to 20 or 30 minutes – an increase of 2,000-3,000 times. The internet has reduced the time of sending, say, three or four pages of text from the 30 seconds you needed with a fax machine down to maybe two seconds – a reduction by a factor of 15. Unless I’m trading commodity futures, I can’t think of anything where it’s really so important that we send it in two seconds rather than a few minutes.

And in any case, says John Naughton, the internet has run out of ideas already:

We’re now at the stage where we should be getting the next wave of disruptive surprises. But – guess what? – they’re nowhere to be seen. Instead, we’re getting an endless stream of incremental changes and me-tooism. If I see one more proposal for a photo-sharing or location-based web service, anything with “app” in it, or anything that invites me to “rate” something, I’ll scream.

We’re stuck. We’re clean out of ideas. And if you want evidence of that, just look at the nauseating epidemic of patent wars that now disfigures the entire world of information technology. The first thing a start-up has to do now is to hire a patent attorney.

All of this seems to back Chris Dillow’s view that we are experiencing a Creativity Crisis.

I’m still not entirely convinced, though. The great thing about innovation or, at least, the sort of innovation we are talking about here, is that you don’t know about it until years later. Bio-technology and genetics are still relatively unexploited and who knows what will happen when we start using technology to mess with our own brains.

There is, then, strong evidence to suggest that, after an innovative period, the last forty years have been more adaptive, as we have refined and exploited existing technology. But I’m less convinced that this means human innovation has run out of steam. Hopefully, it’s just having a bit of a rest before the next big leap.

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14 Responses to Are we adapting instead of innovating?

  1. Pingback: Are we adapting instead of innovating? - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. interesting thoughts, and although I’m with Chang et al in that small, under-the-radar stuff has a more transformational effect on peoples’ lives, I too am unconvinced about there being an actual crisis of innovation. I’m sure a longer history of innovation would show cycles (albeit of unpredictable length and amplitude) of innovation and adaptation – in fact, maybe a period of consolidation is required after a particularly creative era like the past 40 years, to allow the innovations thrown up to become embedded and for the next fires to be lit.

    take biomedicine – it is Ben Goldacre’s assertion, and one that I’m happy to endorse, that the major biochemical targets for drug discovery and development for common diseases have been done. this means progress will de facto be incremental, and will come from better application of the knowledge we currently have and in better meta-analysis of real-world impacts of existing drugs. this sounds like an anti-innovation message – “stop looking for new stuff, there isn’t any” – but it’s just realistic!

    nonetheless, I’m still waiting for my jet-pack that Tomorrow’s World promised me in about 1987 :-)

    • Rick says:

      Tomorrow’s World has a lot to answer for. It set expectations way too high. The future imagined in the 2010s by 70s and 80s science programmes tuned out to be a lot more futuristic than the reality.

  3. Gareth Jones says:

    Interesting post there sir. Couple of things that occur to me. Firstly, I’m not sure the circumstances exist for continuous, ground breaking innovation. Innovation comes from exploring the unknown, charting unchartered waters if you like. Understanding a landscape properly and then exploiting it with new ideas. Over the last few hundred years we have understood a lot about our ‘landscape’ – chemical elements, weather, gravity etc the list goes on – so its not a surprise that on the back of that discovery journey we went through a period of invention. As it stands at the moment, we understand nearly all of those things, and there potential for exploitation is reaching saturation. It is inevitable really. We once had a massive house with many unexplored rooms. Now, we’ve been in all the room! Or at least the ones we know about!

    Which brings me to my other point. We have spent history defining and innovating inside what we have discovered, on a macro scale. Pietersz talks about our focus on minimising stuff we already have, but to say that so glibly misses the point – there has been much innovation on a micro scale, in nano technology. It’s just that we dont sit in front of the TV with grandma and marvel at it. We are too busy watching Eastenders!

    I do think there is something in what Patrick says however. Now that we have the income, the standard of living, the gadgets etc, there is little compelling reason to innovate and push the boundaries. Why would we?

    And that’s the key flaw in the human race if you ask me. This isn’t a cyclical thing, and we cant go on ‘innovating’ (however you define it) indefinitely, especially on the big stuff – this is a journey, one so long that we find it hard to map because its one that encompasses centuries, not decades. We have actually forgotten more than we ever knew. And I think that our saviour is not in invention, but remembering some of the fundamentals we have already largely forgotten – like the understanding of the human anatomy and body that the Chinese had for example, long before traditional western medicine.

    Though provoking post, thanks!

    • Rick says:

      And a thought provoking comment. Something else struck me as I was reading your comment – innovative creativity comes up with the new stuff but maybe it is adaptive creativity that changes people’s lives because it adapts the innovations so that lots of people can use them. So we marvel at the big stuff on telly but it’s the small stuff that makes our day-to-day lives so different.

  4. I read recently that 95 percent of the information we hold historically speaking was created in the last two years. Maybe what’s holding us back as far as innovation is concerned is that we are indeed trying frantically, and ineffectively, to get a useful overview of all the data that’s spilling out. If we’ve stopped innovating as much as we used to, it’s not for lack of opportunities but lack of understanding where the opportunities lie. The vast array of choices which stress out consumers in a supermarket are now stressing out our thinkers.

  5. Graeme says:

    My short answer to those who think that this is part of a cycle or pattern is that I suggest they see how far back they need to go to find and equally non-inventive period of 40 years.

    My long answer will take more time than I have right now, but I will do either a lengthy comment here or a post on my own blog soon.

  6. charliemcmenamin says:

    Did someone mention Kondratiev long waves? Not that I actually believe in them you understand (call me an agnostic on the subject: the data is just not there to support an otherwise beguiling narrative in my view) but it’s worth pointing out that it has previously occurred to others than technological innovatives might come in certain surges at given points in history, and then take some time to spread through an entire economy before largely grinding to a halt. A fresh wave of technological innovations then breaks upon the scene.

    Now some people believe we’re currently hovering on the edge of a new cycle of innovation based around a cluster of emerging technologies (esp around green industries and biotech) and thus the creative capitalist destruction of previous technologies. The people I know who hld such views are mainly on the Left (e.g. Mike Davis) but I don’t think there is any necessary linkage between holding this view per se and any given political orientation – though one’s general political view may well influence the forces one sees as either accelerating or delaying this change allegedly waiting in the wings.

  7. Dave Timoney says:

    There is no compelling evidence that innovation, or technological development generally, is slowing down. The first point to note is that we cannot be sure either way because the lag time between breakthrough and widespread application remains long, so the jury is always out. It took over a century for the steam engine of Newcomen to evolve into the steam locomotive of Stephenson. Those who point to the apparent antiquity of the Internet or mobile telephony as evidence of a dearth of current innovation are guilty of assuming that this cycle no longer applies, when all the evidence is that it does. We won’t see widespread use of Graphene for decades, if at all.

    Every age tends to be pessimistic about innovation, just as it does about moral standards and culture. Over and above innate conservatism, this appears to stem from three tricks of perspective:

    1) Because of the breakthrough-to-application lag, we tend to be oblivious to many recent and current innovations. The golden age of invention is usually considered to be about 50 years ago.
    2) Our ability to predict which innovations will have the greatest impact is notoriously poor. History is full of sexy inventions that proved to be damp squibs, such as hovercraft. Equally, there are many non-sexy inventions that eventually find unexpected applications, such as microwaves. Jet-packs are off the menu because they’d be more dangerous than mobility scooters.
    3) Most innovation is what Rick referred to in the comment above as “adaptive creativity”. This is more formally distinguished as macro-inventions and micro-inventions. There are always very few of the former, and lots of the latter. There is also an argument that the former tend to be “bursty”, with social or economic circumstances (or war) resulting in acceleration, followed by longer periods dominated by micro-invention and thorough exploitation.

    Another major consideration is the increasing intellectual challenge that inventions pose. The inventions of the early industrial revolution could be understood by most people, which in part explains why inventors often lacked formal education. A well-educated person could probably comprehend most inventions up to the beginning of the 20th century, but only someone with specialist training could cope thereafter. Fully understanding modern inventions requires specialisation within disciplines. The consequence of this is that it is difficult for most modern inventions to be discussed “as theories” by the general public. We have to wait for the applications before we can go “ah, that’s what it does”. This again leads to the assumption that not much is going on, even though the quantum of primary R&D is vastly greater than at any time in the past.

    A final consideration is the utility value of inventions, and how this is influenced by economics. To quote from the article:

    “Flight and broadcasting developed at incredible speed during the early Twentieth Century but progress hasn’t continued at the same rate. Forty years ago, we could send people and things into outer space and could fly at twice the speed of sound. Since then, we’ve just done the same only more often and cheaper.”

    We no longer have a compelling reason to develop very fast planes: a) because long-distance business travel (where the money is) has gone into decline due to video-conferencing and other remote presence technology; and b) because cutting 20 minutes off a short-haul flight is irrelevant if most of your journey time is spent in the airport or a taxi transfer. This is why Concorde was not replaced. Aviation now is about increased passenger numbers and longer range / fewer stopovers, hence the development of the Boeing 787 and the Airbus A380.

    Broadcasting did not develop at incredible speed in the early 20th century. Alexandra Palace in 1936 to Telstar in 1962 was not that much of a leap in terms of TV technology (it was still grainy black and white), though it was a leap in terms of satellite communications. If you compare your modern widescreen, high definition colour TV, the numbers of channels, and the number of media you can access it through (Web, phone etc), then the last 50 years have been more revolutionary.

    As for space travel, even at near light speed there really isn’t anywhere worth going in commercial terms (despite daydreams about mining the Moon), which is why the funding has dried up. This isn’t a lack of innovation, or even curiosity, just a dawning appreciation that manned space travel is an uber-expensive dead-end.

  8. Pingback: The innovation slowdown IS a serious crisis

  9. rogerh says:

    Perhaps a case of having picked the low-hanging fruit. We need to shake the tree a bit more or look around the ‘forest of trees of knowledge’ a bit more. A colleague said in 1970 ‘I reckon the electron is about played out’ – how wrong can you be. But with millions of well educated and more or less well equipped lookers the key is to ‘Do a Klondike’ – sell picks and shovels – not go looking for gold.

  10. Indy Neogy says:

    One reason for optimism is that when I was in university in the late 90s the big things were: nano tech, biotech and electronic-human interfacing. None of these has made a huge impact yet, partially because the opening up of the world economy brought in so much cheap labour that all the smart money went into exploiting new workforces. But I think those technologies remain a rich seam to be mined for new improvements in life.

    However, I’d argue, as noted above, that due to labour market effects we are in a local period of low innovation – and it’s not going to change until there is some incentive to do something other than look for lower costs…

  11. O.h. Tore says:

    Brilliant comment by Dave Timoney. Lucid articulation of my jumbled up thoughts. If anyone had asked what the Internet was 50 years ago, no one would have known, let alone congratulated their era on a great invention.

  12. Pingback: Employee engagement scores show HR could do better | HR strategy round-up | Human Resource Vetting

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