Relating to Innovations

By J. Manrakhan

For the dictionary, the term ‘innovate’ means to ‘introduce as something new’, to ‘introduce novelties’, to ‘make changes’.

The earliest innovations in the history of mankind are not precisely known but, in all likelihood, must have related to food, shelter, security – from fishing, hunting, tool-making and the like.

It is sobering to realise that, in spite of considerable research, scholarship and reflection, spanning much time and many countries, we are not, and perhaps never shall be, in a position to provide clear and definite answers to questions which appear obvious: such as what led to the invention of agriculture?, to its diffusion?, what were the causes of the Industrial Revolution?, what lies ahead of us in terms of technology, industry and society? On the other hand, perhaps those questions are unduly deceptive in their simplicity. They may be inappropriate to tackle extremely complex and dynamic social phenomena, whether we consider hunter-gatherer society (tool-making, cranial surgery, hunting technology, or in art forms) or the aftermath of the Industrial Revolution.

One piece of research warrants special attention. It addresses itself to the task of first studying and evolving a pattern in technological innovation over the period leading to, and during, the Industrial Revolution in the later 18th and early 19th centuries, centred around the commercial and industrial applications of the steam engine and a ‘swarming’ of connected inventions, particularly in the textile industry. The next phase of the study has been to superimpose the pattern of applications of recent technological developments (together with the relevant ‘swarmings’ of connected inventions), essentially based on microelectronics and information technology, over that of the Industrial Revolution. The tentative conclusion of such a study is that a major boom is on the way due to a set of interconnected new technologies embracing innovations in microeletronics, communications and remote sensing, biotechnology and genetic engineering, the laser, robots and new synthetic materials.

Georges Bassala in his fascinating ‘The Evolution of Technology’, 1988, has presented an evolutionary theory of technological change based upon recent studies in the history of technology and upon relevant material drawn from economic history and anthropology. It challenges the popular notion that technology advances by the efforts of a few heroic individuals who produce a series of revolutionary inventions owing little or nothing to the technological past.

Three themes appear, and reappear with variations, throughout Bassala’s text: The first is diversity: an acknowledgement of the vast numbers of different kinds of made things (artefacts) that have long been available to humanity. The second is necessity: the belief that humans are driven to invent new artefacts in order to meet basic biological requirements such as food, shelter and defense. And the third is technological evolution: an organic analogy that explains both the emergence of novel artefacts and their subsequent selection by society for incorporation into its material life without Darwinian “Natural Selection” lines). Bassala’s theoretical framework is supported by historical examples of the major achievements of Western technology: the waterwheel, the printing press, the steam engine, automobiles and trucks, and the transistor.

Carol Kennedy in her highly perceptive text ‘The Next Big Idea’ (Random House, 2001) has analysed and commented upon the evershortening life expectancy of Big-Business ideas – from ‘Taylorism’ to ‘Total Quality Management’; from ‘Knowledge Management’, to ‘Complexity Science’ and ‘Paradox Management’; from IQ (Intelligent Quotient) through EQ (Emotional Intelligence) to SQ (Spiritual Intelligence) – thereby ‘rewiring’ our neurons more coherently and making use of more penetrating brain waves and speedily empower a highly creative ‘New Ideas Industry’, global and local.

Two quotations in her book follow:

(a)  ‘Natural Selection is totally blind to the future.’ (Professor Richard Dawkins; Oxford);

(b)  ‘Evolution is cleverer than you are.’ (Nobel Laureate Francis Crick)

The relevance of ‘local’ (as opposed to ‘global’) has been aptly illustrated in various innovations worldwide. These vary for example from the considerable initiatives taken by local farmers during the Meiji revolution in 18th century Japan (so much so that University Professors went round the countryside to study practical innovations and build upon the latter in both theoretical and practical terms) to developments made by local entrepreneurs feeding the Industrial Revolution in Britain and Europe and subsequently to formation and Computer Technology and Biotechnology, among others, in the US and elsewhere. Very often ‘local’ initiatives have led to ‘global’ developments – in science and technology in transport industry business, in education, medicine and health and so on.

But how does ‘innovation’ come about? In the formal analysis, the answer probably lies to a large extent in, “a restless endeavour to make sense of things” – to use the famous phrase of philosopher Immanuel Kant.

* Published in print edition on 1 September 2011

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