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Innovation - it's in our genes, and nurtured by networks

Phil Wainewright Profile picture for user pwainewright August 15, 2018
Archaeology suggests our genes evolved to drive us towards innovation, fostered by networks and tempered by conservatism - we lose that balance at our peril

Iconic image from 2001 A Space Odyssey - bone on sky before match cut to spaceship
Iconic image from 2001 A Space Odyssey

This is a bit of a speculative piece from me, and perhaps a little too political in its conclusions for some, but hey, we are in the midst of the summertime lull, so why not? A few days ago my interest was piqued by a report of a study by a team of archaeologists that suggested Laziness made human ancestors go extinct. I felt it connected several strands of thought around the tension between disruptive innovation as opposed to conservatism, in particular the current rise in populist nationalism around the world. Bear with me while I explain what I'm getting at.

The archaeologists from the Australian National University (ANU) looked at the remains of a community of Homo erectus, an extinct predecessor of modern Homo sapiens. They found that their stone tools were always made from rocks lying around their camp, rather than using higher quality stone a short distance further away. Dr Ceri Shipton, who led the research, says:

At the site we looked at there was a big rocky outcrop of quality stone just a short distance away up a small hill. But rather than walk up the hill they would just use whatever bits had rolled down and were lying at the bottom.

The study also finds that these "lazy" hominids were highly conservative in how they used their tools, speculating that this failure to adapt was what led to their ultimate extinction as climate conditions changed. Dr Shipton concludes:

They really don't seem to have been pushing themselves. I don't get the sense they were explorers looking over the horizon. They didn't have that same sense of wonder that we have.

Misfits who dare to dream

This finding is the killer quote for me. That urge to peek over the horizon and discover new opportunities — the distinctive trait that allowed Homo sapiens to prosper while earlier hominids went extinct — is constantly on display in the tech industry. These are people who dare to dream the seemingly impossible — touchscreen smartphones, conversational robots, flying cars, settlements on Mars — and then put plans in place to make it happen. As a result, the pace of change in the way we live and work is accelerating.

But such folk are a minority and the result of all this change is massive disruption for the rest of humanity. As Steve Jobs' Apple summed up in the TV commercial that launched its Think Different campaign in 1997:

Here's to the crazy ones — the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes — the ones who see things differently. They're not fond of rules, and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them. About the only thing you can't do is ignore them, because they change things. They push the human race forward ...

Each of us have a different make-up and this creates a tension in society as a whole, between the "crazy ones" who seek out those new horizons and others who are more conservative. That tension can be healthy when it's directed to a common cause. Simon Wardley, among others, talks about the notion of needing to balance the different skills of Pioneers, Settlers, and Town Planners to be able to move from innovation to industrialization. Pioneers "create 'crazy' ideas," he writes. "In the past, we often burnt them at the stake." The others make their ideas practical and ultimately mainstream.

Innovation nurtured by networks

The trouble comes when this tension breaks down into hostility — when innovators plow ahead too fast, and conservatives start digging their heels in — or, conversely, when a conservative establishment suppresses independent thought as a threat to its hegemony. History gives us plenty of examples of the latter, which brings me on to a second serendipitous discovery that came across my twitter feed this morning.

Swipe co-founder and CEO Patrick Collison tweeted a recently published take on the genesis of the industrial revolution by historian Anton Howes:

Howes argues that innovation took hold because of the transmission of "a frame of mind: innovators saw room for improvement where others saw none." That's recognizable as the same mindset we've already been discussing, but what Howes highlights is the transmission mechanism. These innovators created institutions and encouraged behaviors that fostered the transmission of this innovative mindset, and that was the catalyst for accelerating change in society.

What this suggests is that, while our genetic make-up pushes many of us to explore new horizons, those individual efforts can only have a significant impact on society as a whole if there are network mechanisms in place that connect and amplify them.

Of course today's connected digital technology provides unprecedented networking, accelerating the pace of innovation to a level never before seen in human history. The result is an increasing tension between the forces of innovation and conservatism, and the risk that hostility breaks out between the two. The innovative spirit is never going to be completely wiped out if it's buried in our genes, but if the network mechanisms that allow it to flourish are disrupted, it can be put on pause.

My (politically contentious) take

So here's my politically contentious conclusion. I submit that a healthy tension between innovation and conservatism is at the heart of human progress. Those who push forward change must bring the rest of us along with them, ameliorating the disruptive impact of innovation and ensuring that the benefits are adequately shared.

The alternative is a breakdown in the relationship, with conservative forces disrupting the networks that foster innovation. We're already seeing resentment building against globalization and increasing distrust of digital giants such as Facebook, Google and Amazon, as people react to adverse shifts in employment patterns and income distribution. Populist nationalism taps into that resentment and claims it as a mandate for further suppressing diversity, obstructing free exchange and controlling innovation. This paves the way to a dystopian future that few of us I suspect would welcome.

As the pace of innovation accelerates, therefore, new actions are required to sustain a healthy, progressive balance in society. My own belief is that this means redirecting more resources into retraining and sustaining those most disrupted by innovation, whether by introducing some form of universal basic income, and/or imposing a levy on corporate profits to fund reskilling and regional investment (and perhaps other changes too). Yes, this means tinkering with the way capitalism works at the moment. But it seems better to tune the engine of innovation while it's still running than allow it to break down completely and hope that a later generation will get the chance to start over.

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