Ingenuism Big and Small
Ingenuism Weekly 48
“The future has a way of arriving unannounced.” –George Will
Why is Israel so innovative? - Silicon Valley Examined 36
In this episode of the Silicon Valley Examined podcast, Don Watkins and Yaron Brook discuss what makes Israel such an innovative culture.
Ingenuism Big and Small
Robert Hendershott and Don Watkins
If you’re trying to understand innovation, it’s tempting to overgeneralize from breakthrough innovations. For example, we often talk about how Google arose from a project funded by the NSF’s Digital Library Initiative.
The lesson seems clear enough: insights and innovations naturally emerge when people are working on challenging problems and doing interesting things. Start working on a replacement for the Dewey Decimal System and finish by connecting seven billion people to the world’s information.
But most innovations aren’t breakthrough innovations. They don’t involve big leaps but thousands of small steps. Is the process the same? Or do we face some sort of tradeoff between a process that yields rare but major breakthroughs—and one that yields more common incremental improvements?
There may be differences at the margin: a startup aiming to build a transformational technology is probably more likely to achieve a major breakthrough than a company seeking to build the next Angry Birds app. But the foundation of innovation will look pretty much the same in either case.
Crocs Inc. was launched in 2002 by Lyndon Hanson, Scott Seamans, and George Boedecker who were interested in marketing innovative boating footwear. The result? A lightweight plastic foam clog (in case you were wondering why Crocs have all those holes, it’s to let the water run out) that proved to be unexpectedly popular.
Crocs bought their supplier, Foam Creations, in 2004 and built a $4 billion business. Note that Foam Creations owned the intellectual property that enabled Crocs, but it is Crocs that has sold 300 million pairs of shoes (and counting). You must be trying things (and willing to fail) to discover what the opportunities really are.
And each insight begets more insights. Rich Schmelzer, a software entrepreneur from Boulder, CO, started Jibbitz in August 2005 to sell “cufflinks” for Crocs—ornaments designed by his artist wife, Sheri, that fit in Crocs shoes’ famous holes (the originals were literally decorations glued to inexpensive cufflinks). Sheri initially made them with and for her children, and then for family and friends.
And Crocs wearers loved the idea—now those comfortable-but-clunky foam shoes could be stylish and personalized! Fourteen months later Jibbitz was generating $2 million monthly revenue, and the couple sold the company to Crocs in October 2006 (reportedly for $10 million plus an additional $10 million earn-out).
To put the principle in its most universal form: progress stems from ingenuity. You can spend more on basic research. You can optimize the tax system to support entrepreneurs. You can implement any of dozens of grand ideas of how to accelerate science and technology. And we support many of these proposals!
But it is important to not lose sight that at the core of maximum progress is seven billion people asking interesting questions and working on compelling projects, of all different sorts. Neither Crocs shoes nor Jibbitz decorations changed history. But the same process that led to them—people exploring and refining (and discarding) countless ideas—has. It’s what has given us the modern world.
A question I never thought to ask
If you want to understand innovation, you obviously want to study people who innovate. But you also want to study people who don’t innovate. For example, you can learn a lot about progress by contrasting North Korea with South Korea, or East Germany versus West Germany.
But it never occurred to me to ask: why don’t children innovate?
That’s the question raised by psychologist Bruce Rawlings’ recent paper, “After a decade of tool innovation, what comes next?” It turns out, kids are really good at imitating. But when it comes to innovating? They’re pretty much hopeless.
But why? Christopher Buckley has an interesting analysis. He takes an evolutionary perspective and argues that children have to learn a massive amount in order to survive, and innovating hampers learning.
If (for example) you are learning to use a bow and arrow (an essential tool in many pre-modern societies) you should attend to copying precisely the actions of your elders, who embody several thousand years of experience and innovation. You don’t deviate from their practice, and if (as a novice learner) you try to make changes, they will reprimand you. . . . Your job as a learner is to acquire all the knowledge you can from your elders, and to practice it until you are perfect, since your survival may depend on it.
Innovation, he goes on to note, is something that happens after people have “achieved complete mastery of a task or topic.”
This actually fits well with the account of innovation Steven Johnson gives in Where Good Ideas Come From. Johnson argues that innovation is concentrated in what he calls the adjacent possible. “We take ideas we’ve inherited or that we’ve stumbled across and we jigger them together into some new shape.”
In other words, innovation happens at the cutting edge of knowledge: new knowledge and technologies make possible new knowledge and technologies. Innovation doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but to people immersed in the cutting edge of a field.
In practical terms, the takeaway is that the best way to create the new is to master the known.
The light at the end of the tunnel
We’ve rightfully celebrated vaccines that help prevent COVID infections and treatments that fight COVID infections. But here’s some great news about a technology that has the potential to stop COVID before it ever has the chance to infect us.
And not just COVID, either.
A new type of ultraviolet light that is safe for people took less than five minutes to reduce the level of indoor airborne microbes by more than 98%, a joint study by scientists at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and in the U.K. has found. Even as microbes continued to be sprayed into the room, the level remained very low as long as the lights were on.
The study suggests that far-UVC light from lamps installed in the ceiling could be a highly effective passive technology for reducing person-to-person transmission of airborne-mediated diseases such as COVID and influenza indoors, and lowering the risk of the next pandemic.
“Far-UVC rapidly reduces the amount of active microbes in the indoor air to almost zero, making indoor air essentially as safe as outdoor air,” says David Brenner, PhD, director of the Center for Radiological Research at Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons and co-author of the study. “Using this technology in locations where people gather together indoors could prevent the next potential pandemic.”
If anything good has come out COVID, it may be that we’ll come out of it with the capability of preventing an even deadlier pandemic down the road.
(H/T: Alex Tabarrok)
Regulators not asleep at the wheel
One of the policy challenges facing autonomous vehicles is that driving regulations were crafted on the assumption that cars would, you know, have drivers. So the US National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) deserves credit for updating its rules to open the road (sorry) to autonomous vehicle technology.
Earlier this month, the agency updated the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards with the first-ever change dedicated to autonomous vehicles. The new rules should make it legal to build and deploy AVs without the traditional controls that are associated with a human driver.
Regulators are famously risk averse, so even though this decision is common sense, it’s still case for celebration in my book.
Don’t fear the fear
Pew just released a poll about American attitudes toward new technologies. The takeaway? We’re mostly ambivalent.
Facial-recognition technology used by police to locate potential suspects or monitor crowds was thought to be a good idea by 46% of respondents and a bad one by 27%. And 27% were unsure.
Using algorithms to locate false content on social platforms was viewed as good by 38%, bad by 31%, and 30% were unsure.
Fully driverless passenger vehicles were viewed as good by just 26% of respondents, bad by 44%, and 29% were unsure.
Robotic exoskeletons that would augment manual laborers’ strength were viewed as good by 33%, bad by 24%, and 42% were unsure.
Gene editing to reduce a baby’s risk of developing a serious disease was viewed as good by 30%, bad by 30%, and 39% were unsure.
Brain implants that would allow people to process information more quickly and accurately were viewed as good by just 13% of respondents, bad by 56%, and 31% were unsure.
As a general rule, people are really bad at predicting how they’ll feel about future technologies. Even disruptive technologies are adopted over time and as they establish a track record (and policies to protect against their risks), a lot of the scary scenarios people imagine are forgotten.
So it’s totally fine if people today worry about an evil Sigourney Weaver storming down the street in a robot exoskeleton. Just so long as that doesn’t translate into them advocating luddite policies that stop these innovations before they get started.
That said, it’s not a great sign that there’s not more enthusiasm around new technologies. The progress movement has a lot of work to do.
What does exploration look like?
A fractal. That’s what Neil Shankar argues.
In 2014, Julie Zhuo presented a framework for understanding design maturity. 8 years later, I think about this framework often. Here’s a diagram from her post, comparing the process of a junior designer (left) with a senior designer (right).
In the better design process, we have branches of exploration, forming a tree structure. The idea is, a mature designer has the discipline to know which branches to kill, and which to pursue further.
It’s a mistake to think about exploration as simply a winding path that maybe leads somewhere and maybe doesn’t. Exploration involves projecting different paths forward, failing quickly, backtracking when necessary, and moving forward again.
The real insight here has to do with the nature of backtracking.
Sometimes, the design process requires us to zoom out. Let’s say you present those 3 creative directions, A, B, and C, but nothing lands. Back to the drawing board. You might keep pushing forward with branches D, E, F. Nothing lands. You’re forced to zoom out and realize that you’re not even on the right parent branch.
This is where true innovation happens. You’re working on the world’s fastest horse, but the best solution is a car. You’re working on Blu-Ray DVDs, but the best solution is streaming.
Innovation will never be reducible to a recipe. But that doesn’t mean it lacks a structure.
Until next time,
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