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Innovation Is Never A Single Event

2015 August 2
by Greg Satell

In the early 20th Century, Albert Einstein and Niels Bohr engaged in a series of debates that would determine the future of physics.  Yet virtually nobody outside the physics community took much notice.  The true impact of what they were discussing wouldn’t be clear till a half century later.

Eventually, engineers began to understand enough of what Einstein and Bohr were talking about to create some basic components, such as the transistor and the microchip; and those innovations led to the information age that unleashed a boom in productivity during the 1990’s.

The story encapsulates just how convoluted the path to productivity often is.  Discoveries of mysterious phenomena must be engineered into innovative solutions, a process that can take decades.  Then those solutions must be adopted by industry, which can take decades more. Clearly, we need to better connect the realms of discovery, innovation and transformation.

The Discovery Of Useless Things

Science is a process of discovery and so is often more romantic than practical.  As Marie Curie put it, “A scientist in his laboratory is not a mere technician: he is also a child confronting natural phenomena that impress him as though they were fairy tales.”  Great scientists are essentially great dreamers.

That’s why until fairly recently scientists were generally men of means.  Historically, it was only those who had resources and leisure time that could pursue their passion for discovery. Most scientists, even today, don’t seek or expect practical consequences of their work. Rather they strive to expand horizons.

The typical work product of science is a series of papers and lectures that most people will never read or hear.  The physics of Einstein and Bohr, Darwin’s theory of natural selection, Maxwell’s equations, the genetic code of Watson and Crick and the work of countless others provided no practical benefit at the time they were uncovered.

So discoveries, even truly great ones, often go largely unnoticed because they have no practical impact on our daily lives.   Yet today we live in a world of the visceral abstract, in which unlikely ideas lead to important breakthroughs and seemingly useless things can become very useful indeed.

Engineering Innovation

As W. Brian Arthur explains in The Nature of Technology, while researchers expand horizons by discovering new phenomena, engineers harness those phenomena to create novel solutions to important problems.  It is at that point when we recognize scientific discoveries as potentially being useful.

Yet the relationship is never direct or one-to-one, because new technologies are, in fact, combinations.  For example, today’s computers owe a great debt to Einstein and Bohr, but also to Gödel’s theorems, Alan Turing’s work on a universal computer and the information theory of Claude Shannon, just to name a few.

Often the string of events is long and tenuous.  Darwin’s theory was incomplete without Mendel’s genetics, which was developed at the same time but not recognized until a half century later.  It took another 50 years for Watson and Crick to discover the genetic code and another 50 to decode the human genome.  We have only just begun to come up with viable genetic therapies.

And still, even when an innovative solution is developed, the job is not complete.  For an idea to truly have an impact, it needs to become widely adopted, which means that it needs to replace an existing model already in use.  That process of transformation is every bit as challenging and important as the discovery and innovation that precede it.

Transforming The Enterprise

The basic principles of electricity were discovered by Faraday and Maxwell in the mid 1800’s and engineered into practical solutions by Edison and Tesla in the late part of that century. By the beginning of the 20th century, the technology came into wide use in factories, but strangely, it provided little tangible benefit at first.

The problem, as it turned out, wasn’t with electricity, but the factories themselves.  In a steam driven plant, machines had to be organized around the power source and the first factories powered by electricity were designed the same way.  Work processes changed little and productivity barely budged.

It took about thirty years for a new generation of managers, who had little memory of steam plants, to realize that factories could become much more efficient if they were designed around workflow.  Once that happened, productivity soared and industry, along with quality of life, was transformed.

In much the same way, although computers and the Internet have been around for decades, we are just beginning to transform our enterprises to make full use information technologies.  To a great extent, we are still very much like those turn of the century managers who were designing factories around a steam turbine that no longer existed.

Making Good On The Connected Age

Economists have long been baffled by productivity growth, which rises and falls without any discernable rhyme or reason.  Yet when you look at the long and convoluted path productivity gains have to take—often spanning many different people over a number of decades— you can see why.

Discoveries lie in obscure journals for years—or even decades—before they are engineered into practical solutions.  It can then take decades more for those solutions adopted widely. People cling to old models not only out of habit and convenience, but also because they need to work with others who employ those same models.  Systemwide change doesn’t come easy.

Yet we can do better.  Some organizations, like IBM, integrate all three components—discovery, innovation and transformation—within one organization.  Lynda Chin at the UT Hospital System and MD Anderson is trying to use technology to connect stakeholders in order to improve medical care.  President Obama has created an advanced manufacturing initiative that connects industry and academia.

Still, these are fairly isolated efforts.  While we like to say that we live in a connected age, for the most part the efforts of researchers, engineers and practitioners are far removed from each other.  We need to work harder to connect discovery, innovation and transformation. Productivity never comes easy, but it can come a lot faster.

– Greg

7 Responses leave one →
  1. Johnny Anderson permalink
    July 28, 2018

    Thanks for this interesting article. How can we fit digital age into the discovery of useless thing, innovation and transformation?

  2. July 29, 2018

    Good question. Digital technology is in the very late stages of transformation. We’re at the end.

    – Greg

  3. Johnny Anderson permalink
    July 29, 2018

    So what are the discovery of useless thing and engineering innovation? Is transistor that useless thing?

  4. July 30, 2018

    Generally, when it gets to engineering it’s not useless, but a solution to a specific problem. Nevertheless, the transistor makes for a good example.

    Quantum mechanical principles were mostly considered useless when they were developed in the 1920s, but Bardeen, Brittain and Shockley were able to use them to come up with the semiconductor in 1947. Because the transistor was a solution to very well known problems in electrical engineering, adoption was pretty rapid.

    – Greg

  5. Johnny Anderson permalink
    July 30, 2018

    Many thanks Greg! Now I have a much more clear picture of the digital age. May I ask what are those “well known problems in electrical engineering”?

  6. July 30, 2018

    Basically what vacuum tubes did, like amplification, signal switching, etc.

    – Greg

  7. November 1, 2018

    When productivity takes such paths, not innovation but magic happens.

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