Saturday, October 8, 2011

Response to David Brooks doom & gloom on innovation

[David Brooks comments on Steve Jobs & "decline of innovation". Thanks, granddad.]

This graph shows huge crop yield improvements since 1960:

The modern PC world is only 30 years old, and is hitting a completely new era with flash hard drives and optical/nano chips and cloud computing infrastructure in the next 3 years.
Computer-assisted drug tech is just hitting stride, such as a major breakthrough in finding the genetic origin of ALS. Genome mapping was only finalized in the last decade.

We're in the middle of a major shift from internal combustion to electric vehicles.

US manufacturing output is about the same as China's with 1/9th the workers:

There are major advances in alternate energy, as well as decreases in energy consumption.

There are major efforts on environmental cleanup. Maglev & other transportation technologies - gains in flight efficiency can be seen here:

Possibly the only good to come out of our wars is a major advance in medical technology, such as artificial limbs.

It's also useful to understand that compared to the 1800's, the 1900's discoveries were pretty name - nothing life-changing like electricity, refrigeration, automobiles & the internal combustion engine, air flight (ok, 1903, but pretty much there), vaccines and bacteriology, genetics & evolution (plus Lamarckism which we'll see more of a revival over the next decade), the Curies' work on radiation. Even Einstein's theory of Relativity was published in 1905.
What Brooks undoubtedly misses is that it's more of an age for cooperative work than individual heroes. Project Management is picking up as a way of guaranteeing results. Social media and internet collaboration from open source to teleconferencing to telecommuting tie into a connected way of working. Teamwork becomes more important than pure "leadership" - companies can't risk depending on a single hero.
The amount of information processed by kids today might be 100 times what they got in the 1960's in terms of vivid cultural information, access to language, display of scientific principles, access to on-line dictionaries & encyclopedias, even translation services.

What's also missed is what innovation is. It's hard to say that Steve Jobs invented anything. I had the same idea for iTunes as he did as early as 1994, and I certainly was no genius or unique. But iTunes succeeded through organization, not innovation - a successful business model, key agreements with industry professionals plus harnessing the right delivery mechanisms.

One of Steve Jobs' key advantages is Supply Chain Management, an aspect few people think about. Besides being a bastard about sourcing at extremely low prices, he was also a genius at keeping parts & total units delivered on time, as well as cornering the market on key components to give his competitors headaches.

The Mac came from Xerox, and while Apple probably had innovations, the main bit was design and a business case - Xerox was too stodgy to productize its research, but Jobs & Woz paid to get in the door and walked out with all the ideas they needed.
Pixar was a technial innovation by George Lucas - Jobs turned it into a business success, with key Disney deals.

If anything, Jobs was better at killing technology and dumbing down devices if he didn't see an immediate purpose. The iPad was released to ridicule at how much it was missing.

As interesting as "innovation" is, something like distribution is likely much more important. Nokia phones weren't so innovative - they were just great at getting solid phones everywhere in the world. Wal-Mart grew to a behemoth based on innovative distribution technology. Ikea's advantage is distribution and design for DIY construction. Amazon's distribution network is every bit as important as its on-line access, and that network has turned into a successful cloud computing business as well, with data centers the size of multiple football fields.

Even with agricultural productivity, the bigger issue is distribution - famines only occur due to wars and natural catastrophes like earthquakes now - even something like flowers can be sourced from South Africa and distributed around Europe. And I doubt someone like David Brooks has taste for anything as mundane as distribution.

A while ago a well known economist studied the question of how it was possible to walk out of his office in Manhattan and get a sandwich with fresh tomato and lettuce - what were all the processes that went into making this tiny miracle?
Forget all the innovation doomsdayers. It was just 22 years ago that we still had the Cold War with us, staring down Russia and the antagonistic China, concerned about imminent overpopulation.

Now we have a friendly China with no population growth that's rounded the bend in feeding its population, and handling the migration from rural to urban, and starting on the trip to managing the environment.

We have a defanged Russia, with no new military menace (other than ourselves).
We have major innovations in computing, dispersed communications, production and cooperation to drive new growth.

The main thing working against us is an idiotic, vampire banking system that's sucked much of the innovation out of the system. And that's something Brooks seems to support.

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