Pessimism over innovation just won’t fly

Posted on July 15, 2016

American aviators Wright brothers, Orvil...American aviators Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, makes the first flight successfuly in a heavier-than-air-machine, 17 December 1903 at Kitty Hawk, in a flight of 70 metres.) (Photo credit should read STAFF/AFP/Getty Images)©AFP

Gloom always sounds imp­ressive. One never wants to be the chirruping idiot at the water cooler when so many wise heads are slumped, stricken and rending their garments at Brexit, Donald Trump, et al. But I was stirred by a report this week that major diseases are in decline.

Rates of dementia, colon cancer and heart disease are falling in rich countries, according to a New York Times report. Hip fractures have been dropping by 15-20 per cent a decade for 30 years. People are still suffering from all of them but later in life. Better medicine and education have helped. But the speed of these changes was unexpected, and mystified doctors are wondering if something is changing at the cellular level, leading to longer, healthier lives.

    Perhaps it is. But knowing how medics tend to think of treatment and wellness, there is a strong chance they are looking in the wrong places. A few years ago I went to interview a leading oncologist in Paris. He was a doctor from central casting, with thick white hair, spectacles and a perfectly ironed white coat. I asked what he thought of all the alternatives to conventional cancer treatments. He said he could not talk about yoga or berries but in his experience the hardest time for any patient was when treatment ended. There were those who went home and threw themselves back into their lives, supported by friends and family. And there were those who sat on the couch in despair. The first group had much better survival rates.

    The problem is that you cannot write “throw yourself back into life” on a prescription pad or run a double-blind study to establish its medical validity. So doctors shy away from offering such advice and patients are denied what could be highly useful information.

    If those doctors baffled by the decline in major diseases really want answers, they should spend a week in Miami and visit a few of its gargantuan assisted living centres. Assuming they are not run over by an armada of golf carts heading for early morning aquarobics, they will observe older people who are socially, physically and intellectually engaged — far more so than they would have been a few decades ago. Rubber mats in the showers and improved de-icing salt may explain the drop in hip fractures as much as better osteoporosis drugs.

    Economists are shackled in a similar way by their appetite for models and trends. They often miss all the peripheral activity that might actually answer their questions. Professor Robert Gordon, the American economist, has been arguing recently that the US is in an innovation lull. The great years of the late 19th and early 20th centuries — which gave us the lightbulb, jet travel, refrigeration, flush lavatories and the IT revolution of the 1980s and 1990s — have been succeeded by an age of innovative trivia such as Facebook and Pokémon Go. Add the headwinds of poor demographics, a fouled-up education system, debt and inequality, and America is headed for an era of low growth.

    Contrast that with “Innovation that Matters”, a report by 1776, a global incubator and seed fund based in Washington. It asserts: “We are at the dawn of an extraordinary technological revolution and it is transforming every part of the US economy.” According to 1776, innovation and “civic entrepreneurship” are soon to transform everything from energy grids and schools to local governments and healthcare systems. They could all use it. Should we trust in Prof Gordon’s glum prognosis or what some might call the “facile optimism” of 1776?

    An end to facile optimism about the future

    James Ferguson Illustration

    Measured growth is lagging because invention and innovation has slowed

    Prof Gordon likes to ask where we will find the Wright brothers of today. If you read David McCullough’s wonderful biography of the American flight pioneers, you can only conclude their contemporary heirs are probably not where any economists are looking. It is ast­ounding how informally the Wrights were prepared for what they achieved. Their father did not worry about school but filled the house with books that the boys read eagerly. Wilbur and Orville were self-motivated and hard-working but were never put under exam pressure or burdened with university debt.

    Their interest in flying was not triggered until they were in their 20s. In 1896, when Orville was recovering from typhoid, Wilbur read him accounts of the misadventures of Otto Lilienthal, a madcap German flight enthusiast, who would strap on a helmet, padded kneecaps and wings made of willow and muslin and go charging off German hillsides. Inevitably, he killed himself. Lilienthal’s example was important, the brothers later said, in transforming “idle curiosity into the active zeal of workers”.

    McCullough opens his book with a quote from Wilbur Wright: “If I were giving a young man advice as to how he might succeed in life, I would say to him, pick out a good father and mother, and begin life in Ohio.” There are lots more places today where you can begin life and expect to be successful. Technology is linking them up.

    So to Prof Gordon and his doomsayers I say: if you had been there in 1896 would you have predicted an era of innovation-fuelled growth? And can you really say we are less well-positioned today? The answer, I hope, will give them that rare, tingling sensation called optimism.

    The writer is author of ‘What They Teach You at Harvard Business School’

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