25 April 2023

How do we inspire innovation? The answer is anything but innovative…

By Dr Lawrence Newport

The modern world is a miracle that all odds were stacked against. The future is likely to be filled with yet more abundant, cheap food; longer lives; smarter people; less hatred; more opportunities than we can imagine; and more successes than all of the past combined. 

But this process isn’t automatic. In fact, there is barely a ‘process’ at all. At its most simplistic the success of the modern world depended on individuals innovating upon the past. This may have been inventing new technologies, reconfiguring old legal systems, shortening transport links, streamlining communication or anything of a near infinite number of tiny or monumental changes that have added to the complex whole. At its core, the future relies on what’s worked for us in the past: innovation.

Perhaps this seems obvious, but if it is, we rarely act like it. Art tells us what we instinctively feel: the future is unknown, frightening, uncertain. What we want from the future is what we like of the past: certainty.

Innovation is the opposite of certainty. It upends institutions, irrevocably alters civilisations and renders careers irrelevant at the drop of a hat. It does all of this while its promises are vague and unknown. It is no surprise then that innovators and innovation are so often feared or mocked. Feared for the results of their creations, mocked for dreaming of ‘not yet possible’ things, or changes to ancient precedents. This is not a modern phenomenon.

History is replete with examples of inventors exiled for improvements, condemned as heretics or ridiculed as naïve dreamers. In art, Dr Faustus seeks out knowledge, a forbidden dream that requires a pact with the devil; Shakespeare’s Prospero breaks his staff and condemns his books as a signal of his character growth away from inherently suspicious knowledge. In reality, novel interpretations of sacred texts, established philosophy or government institutions were criminal heresies; while early scientific history is littered with suppressed discoveries and hushed truths. 

If not heretical or criminal, innovators were dismissed as naïve dreamers. Nineteenth-century cartoons mocked the innovators who believed mechanical powered horses would transport people across the globe, that agriculture could be industrialised or that human flight was within our grasp. On flight, Lord Kelvin, president of the Royal Society, proclaimed it an impossibility less than a decade before the Wright Brothers proved him wrong. Thomas Edison declared aeroplanes to clearly be the incorrect method of flight, and multiple celebrated engineers believed heavier-than-air human flight utterly unviable. Considering the names and positions of those professing it an impossibility, those attempting it were ridiculed as delusional.

Given this, why do we attempt to invent at all? The short answer is: very few people ever do. In fact, most of human history sailed by with little change to living standards. This is not a question of technology – it is not just ‘standing on the shoulders of giants’ that matters for progress. For example, there is little technological reason that it took until the late-nineteenth century to create a bicycle, or why it took modern humans about 32,000 years to invent rope, or around 4,000 years from domesticating horses until the invention of stirrups (which then took a further several centuries to be used in Europe). There is good reason to suspect mediaeval civilisation had the technology to produce hot air balloons, and I am very uncertain as to why it took until the 1970s for someone to add wheels to the bottom of suitcases.

What matters appears to be what Anton Howes calls an ‘improving mentality’. For most people, innovation just never occurs to them. For those few to whom it does, we’ve been sure to add in a fair amount of disincentives. If their invention works, they may become unbelievably rich – in some circumstances – but most of the time the risk is of looking a fool, or facing the wrath of vested interests, guilds and regulators.

We need to address this imbalance. Were nearly all of those that attempted human flight delusional? Almost certainly yes. But we’re lucky that they were. As George Bernard Shaw wrote: ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world…therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man’. Innovation is a pyramid of success, and there is a lot of madness at its base. We must fight our impulses, embrace the chaos and encourage more of it. 

Succeeding in sport is a pyramid too. There are a great number of amateurs – a very small percentage of which have genuine talent. From that pool of talent, only a handful of athletes can manage the pressure and skill required for national competition, and only a very few become truly astoundingly great.

We don’t simply pay those that win, however, we revere them. Those who triumph in sport or war are given parades and national holidays. Peter Thiel was derided for suggesting we should have ticker-tape parades for individuals, but we would be seen as absurdly stingy, uncaring and unromantic if we didn’t throw events to celebrate a national team for a World Cup victory.

Recently, a pandemic was stopped in its tracks through new vaccine technology, developed in 48 hours, produced and then deployed in record speed – and yet far from the scientists behind it being celebrated nationally, this stunning achievement was quickly underplayed in news cycles or even simply viewed with outright suspicion. A year later, political pressure grew on the British government to declare a public holiday on the back of a potential England victory in the Euros.

Innovation is so easy to miss because miracles have become mundane. The Great Exhibition of 1851 made the vast reality of technological achievement manifest before a truly enthused population. An unmitigated success, visited by an equivalent of a third of the entire British population. Statues litter the sacred spaces of governments, made of political figures that broke all expectations or redefined a nation. Civilisations instinctively memorialise those they respect for the same reason we say thank you to those that are kind – we want more of it in those we meet, see and hear of.

How should we encourage innovation? The answer is to look to the things we do for those we consider heroes – the people we want more of, and do the same. Parades, statues and exhibitions. This idea is simple, reflects cross-cultural human practices over thousands of years and is instinctively obvious as a response to a wide variety of human achievements.

Ironically, the innovation here is anything but innovative – rather, it is simply applying our tried and tested practices to the things we otherwise easily miss, the mad discoverers of soon-to-be mundane miracles we want more of. Those we want to encourage to embrace the chaos, and try – even with the high likelihood of total failure.

Parades, statues, honours and exhibitions: the idea is easily dismissed, and very certainly capable of ridicule – what brilliant company it keeps.

This article originally appeared in Operation Innovation, an essay collection from The Entrepreneurs Network about how to build a more innovative economy. You can find more of Dr Lawrence Newport’s work on his YouTube channel In Pursuit of Progress.

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Dr Lawrence Newport is the founder of the YouTube channel In Pursuit of Progress.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.