Disruption for innovation

I usually post snippets or blurbs around on this blog but there are certain long form write ups which merit their own inclusion. One of them, a delightful read by Tim Hartford. (I weave in my point of view following his write up)

Given how much we keep being told about the disruptive pace of innovation and the boundless creativity of Silicon Valley, the reality is both surprising and disappointing. After several years pondering the history of inventions and inventors, I wondered whether these two problems might shed light on each other — what can we learn from the pandemic about technology, and what does the history of technology teach us about the pandemic?

I have been thinking about the “history of innovation” and how it translates into “economic growth” (measured as returns on investment). DARPA, in the US, has followed that to the hilt and while a large number of programs fail, they use them as an input process to create something different; leading to breakthrough innovations. I agree that it has a militaristic focus; however, some of them have a dual use too. GPS, for example, is no ubiquitous, through commercial (and personal) mapping software.

Nowadays such prizes are out of fashion. Governments tend to favour a combination of direct support for researchers and the award of an intellectual monopoly, in the form of a patent, to those who develop original ideas. But just like the innovations the RSA rewarded, rapid vaccines can be unprofitable but socially valuable. So a group of the world’s leading economists believes that if we are to maximise the chances of producing that vital coronavirus vaccine at the speed and scale that is required, we need to bring innovation prizes back in a big way.

It is true that research priorities of the universities are NOT always aligned with what needs to be scaled up. With all due respect to the large particle collider and the abstract mathematical pronouncements or the “exploration of space” by shooting up rockets- I don’t think it represents the “progress”. Progress, when measured in real terms, is the removal of inequalities and ensuring equitable access to healthcare. However, the societal systems and their measures of rewards/retributions and aligned interests have become increasingly complex beyond “simplification”.

Can a “innovation” prize fund give any measure of success? It is hard to define. Assuming you have a problem with multiple solutions giving the desired output- how do you choose the “best” one? Likewise, in case of vaccine research- how does anyone know if it would work? Who bears the brunt of failures?

The following is a delightful example of “ingenuity”

At the US embassy in Moscow, they presented a large, hand-carved ceremonial seal of the United States of America to Averell Harriman, the US ambassador. It was later to become known simply as “the Thing”. Harriman’s office checked the heavy wooden ornament for signs of a bug, but concluded that, with neither wires nor batteries, it could do no harm. Harriman mounted the Thing proudly on the wall of his study. From there, it betrayed his private conversations for the next seven years….Inside it was little more than an antenna attached to a cavity with a silver diaphragm over it, serving as a microphone. There were no batteries or any other source of power. The Thing didn’t need them. It was activated by radio waves beamed at the US embassy by the Soviets, at which point it would broadcast back, using the energy of the incoming signal. Switch off that signal, and it would go silent.

Sheer brilliance is becoming obvious to “simple” things. This is again my contention about the “global healthcare challenges” and “cancer cure”- preventive/palliative aspects of healthcare are ignored in favour of unproven “remedies” like the CAR-TCells- much like the talisman of the times. Immunotherapy is the new flavour of the season because it represents the “cutting edge” perpetuated by even more statistical mumbo-jumbo. If you truly wish to control the outgo for healthcare costs- raise the taxes on tobacco to astronomical levels. Simple. How do you align the interests of a lobby group in contrast to the vast majority of populace?

But a fascinating part of David’s argument is that all this was catalysed by a crisis. After 1914, workers became more expensive thanks to a series of new laws that limited immigration into the US from a war-torn Europe. Manufacturing wages soared and hiring workers became more about quality, and less about quantity. It was worth investing in training — and better trained workers were better placed to use the autonomy that electricity gave them. The recruitment problem sparked by the immigration restrictions helped to spark new thinking about the design of the American factory floor.

Some of the modern parallels are obvious. We have had email, internet and affordable computers for years — and more recently, video-conferencing. Yet until the crisis hit, we had been slow to explore online education, virtual meetings or telemedicine. 3D printing and other agile manufacturing techniques have moved from being curiosities to life-saving ways to meet the new demand for medical equipment. We are quickly learning new ways to work from a distance because suddenly we have had no choice

These two paras highlight the important takeaways from the entire article. We don’t need disruptive innovation but understand why the current processes lead to suboptimal outcomes. I’d reiterate that status quo persists because of misaligned interests of minority to that of the majority. Modern problems require an exercise in common sense. The author sums it best:

Disruptions — even calamitous ones — have a way of bulldozing vested interests and tearing up cosy assumptions, jolting people and organisations out of the status quo.