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The great myth of innovation

by The Wrinkle | September 26, 2010

Several weeks ago there was a “left field” seminar on lateral singing in Tasmania. Alan Kohler was there as a participant and summarised the views of one Jonathan West, a former Harvard associate professor who now lives in Tasmania. Mr. West has done various work on innovation type projects for Access Economics and the NSW government (maybe best not to go there) among others. However as the Wrinkle is always interested in the unusual, or less obvious I thought it was worth sharing the four most important innovations of the 20th century as outlined by Mr. West.

Let’s start with the Haber-Bosch method for fixing nitrogen, apparently this is the process of converting atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia. The ammonia can then in turn be oxidized to create nitrates (read fertiliser). Which in turn means 2% of the population can feed the other 98% rather than the 20% odd required on the land at the beginning of the century. Given science is not my strong suit, this is the first time the Wrinkle had ever heard of Haber-Bosch, but the argument certainly holds merit.

Another of the four is the atomic bomb due to its power as a war deterrent. There could be a bit more debate around this one, the Wrinkle is still not entirely convinced that it wasn’t more good luck than good management at play in preventing another nuclear episode during the Cold War.

The next is containerisation and the ability to move goods quickly and efficiently around the world. China would certainly seem to prove this point, and I suppose on balance you could say it was a bigger impact than global air travel.

Those were the top three, and when quizzed on a possible fourth it was the birth control pill.

In the introduction prior to the list, the opening was “the great myth of innovation is that it arises from individual creativity, when it comes from systems...”

In each of the above cases, “the science was well known already and did not need to be invented, what mattered were the systems needed to make the invention operate on a large scale.

...99% of innovation, if not more, makes things worse and is a complete waste of time.

The trick with innovation is to make sure you have a system that recognises and recovers from the errors.

The last point would certainly be more appropriate in the case of nuclear power rather than nuclear bombs!

I have to say the Wrinkle isn’t quite convinced. Having watched the final of the Inventors on ABC last night there were quite a few interesting new products including a solar power paint, a mental illness test using the human ear, a new gearbox, etc. that potentially have some very serious human, and commercial benefits.

Part of the question undoubtedly is how do you even measure innovation, and what value do you place on incremental improvements versus an “Eureka” moment. The Wrinkle certainly leans towards the power of individual creativity and innovation as a powerful driver; however the “process” view is certainly a different take on the issue and creates an interesting counter point for discussion.

Have a good week.

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