The Speed of Innovation

"Speedometer" by Dan Melanson (2010) CC BY NC SA 2.0
Speedometer” by Dan Melanson (2010) CC BY NC SA 2.0

A tip of the hat to my colleague Anna for sending this article along:

The New Yorker recently ran a piece by Atul Gawande, surgeon and author of three bestsellers, including The Checklist Manifestoexamining why some innovations catch on and spread like wildfire, while others take decades to witness widespread adoption. His opening comparisons are between anesthesia in medical procedures (rapid adoption) and antiseptics (a much slower process).

Gawande writes,

In our era of electronic communications, we’ve come to expect that important innovations will spread quickly. Plenty do: think of in-vitro fertilization, genomics, and communications technologies themselves. But there’s an equally long list of vital innovations that have failed to catch on. The puzzle is why…So what were the key differences?

Unsurprisingly, some of the divergence lay in the nature of the problems that the innovations addressed:

One [anesthesia] combatted a visible and immediate problem (pain); the other [antiseptics] combatted an invisible problem (germs) whose effects wouldn’t be manifest until well after the operation. Second, although both made life better for patients, only one made life better for doctors…This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible.

Second is the nature of the solution or innovation itself:

In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we’ve become enamored of ideas that spread as effortlessly as ether. We want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world—hunger, disease, poverty. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. People and institutions can feel messy and anachronistic. They introduce, as the engineers put it, uncontrolled variability.

We have an affinity for quick, simple fixes – that affinity has only increased and tacked on the word “scalable” in the last decade. Yet many of the primary challenges we face as a society – Gawande mentions climate change, and national debt among his list – defy simplistic solutions that are the fodder of quick innovation.

I highly recommend sitting down with Gawande’s superb writing style and fascinating insights; you can read the full article here.

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