The Economist is one of the best-written journals published. And while it skews toward a conservative bent, it doesn’t shy away from taking on BIG questions. The cover story from the January 12 issue is a good example. “Innovation pessimism: Has the ideas machine broken down?” is an extensive analysis of whether innovation today is leading toward mega-growth or, instead, just tweaking the big changes that have already occurred in society.
The journal does a good job of presenting both sides of the argument. It quotes thinkers such as Tyler Cowan who argues that we have reached an era of “Great Stagnation”. What is this point of view? To quote The Economist in this regard: “The various motors of 20th-century growth — some technological, some not — had played themselves out, and new technologies were not going to have the same invigorating effect on the economies of the future. For all its flat-screen dazzle and high-bandwidth pizzazz, it seemed the world had run out of ideas.”
There are other thinkers and compelling charts to support the thesis that the grand inventions of the past (such as the steam engine) that spurred enormous growth in world economies are now great memories not to be repeated anytime soon. Someone who holds to this argument, The Economist calls an “innovation pessimist”.
Subsequently, the article discusses “The other side of the sky”, here, too, with reputable experts quoted extensively. This view asserts that society-shaking innovations are not passé: “Across the board, innovations fuelled by cheap processing power are taking off. Computers are beginning to understand natural language. People are controlling video games through body movement alone — a technology that may soon find application in much of the business world. Three-dimensional printing is capable of churning out an increasingly complex array of objects, and may soon move on to human tissues and other organic material.”
This is the side of the argument that The Economist itself takes. It believes that techno-progress could, in fact, be so strong that workers could actually be replaced by technology to a level that makes today’s reductions in force seem puny. The Economist closes its thoughtful essay with a reference to Japan where, in order to manage better an ageing population, the development of robotics “is proceeding by leaps and bounds”. This, says the journal, could lead to strong gains in social welfare. But, it also notes, “the adjustment period could be difficult”.
The closing sentence of the essay should be food for at least a week’s worth of thought for all of us: “In the end, the main risk to advanced economies may not be that the pace of innovation is too slow, but that institutions have become too rigid to accommodate truly revolutionary changes — which could be a lot more likely than flying cars.”
What, then, is this article really about? To me, it is a fascinating study between the speed of new thinking and the speed of organisations. I, too, share the concern that too many firms are still trying to catch up with the great inventions of yesterday. I’m thinking of those companies that still ask customers to register any complaints via the old ways (snailmail or telecons). And then there are the organisations that continue to fly people around the globe to attend half-day meetings that could be done via the Internet. And let’s not forget the large health care centres that have patients fill out paperwork to provide information that the patient has already provided, perhaps several times over, with one or more doctors or with someone else.
There is perhaps no greater argument for nextsensing than this. People who can only think backwards (mastering what worked well in the past) are forever trapped by their own self-imposed limitations. The goal of nextsensing is to provide better ways to think about the future of society and its organisations. Anyone who can nextsense will be far less likely to be crushed by the speed of new ideas, if for no other reason than they will be the ones coming up with them.