Sunday, February 02, 2014

Is war a mother of invention?

Over the last decade, I've done quite a bit of work on refining the impacts of evolution on business. Figure 1 provides the typical pattern for how things evolve from their genesis to more commodity provision with this pattern being driven by demand and supply side competition.

Figure 1 - Evolution.

As things which were once novel and highly uncertain (i.e. uncharted) become more of a commodity (i.e. industrialised) then not only do they become more efficient but due to componentisation effects they enable rapid development of higher order systems which turn out to be new sources of wealth - see figure 2.

Figure 2 - Evolution begets genesis begets evolution.

It's through understanding this process of evolution, the impacts of inertia and the cycles of economic change that this interplay creates that I've found many modern mantras of management wanting. For example:-

1) The answer to the question 'Should I be first mover or fast follower to any change' is not one or the other but both. You should be a first mover to industrialise an act and a fast follower to genesis (i.e. the novel and new).

2) The answer to the question 'Should I use agile or six sigma' is not one or the other but both. Agile development is best suited for the uncharted whilst methods like six sigma are suited for the industrialised.

3) The answer to the truism 'Culture eats strategy for breakfast' turns out to be far more nuanced. Whilst both strategy and culture are important there are parts of the economic cycle where culture is more important and others where strategy is more important.

There turns out to be quite a long list of gross oversimplifications in ideas about innovation, change and management and it's one of these that has just recently piqued my interest whilst I've been going through many of the data points that I used to plot the evolution curve. My issue is with the idea that 'war is a mother of invention' and that 'war can drive technological innovation'. By war, I mean 'real wars' not the type of competition between industries that gets described as war.

To explain why I have a problem with this idea, I need to look at the history of Radio. In figure 3, I've shown the history of Radio in the UK between 1905 and 1962 plotted against Ubiquity vs Certainty.

For reference :
a) Ubiquity is a power function of (adoption / mature market adoption). It's a measure of how widespread something is.

b) Certainty is a function of (volume of phase II and III publications / mature volume of phase II and III). It's a measure of how complete and well understood something is.

Figure 3 - Radio, 1905 to 1962, UK.

 (correction made to the image above)

What's noticeable is that the development of radio shifted off the normal pattern between 1939 to 1944 and was less widespread during 1945 to 1954 than would be expected. This is not a surprise I hear you say because there was a world war and subsequent consequences of this.

However, had radio continued on its path then it is likely to have become a commodity much faster and consequently the benefits to high order systems (i.e. those novel things which are created with radio as a components) would have been achieved much earlier. This aberration of the general pattern of evolution occurs with other activities that were evolving during the same time period.

Which then leads me to my question. Whilst there seems to be this vague notion that 'wars are good for innovation', the above suggests (and admittedly weakly so) the opposite happens and that wars are not only bad for innovation but have longer term impacts after the war.  Had the war not occurred, then radio is likely to have continued on its path (as with other activities) evolving much faster that it did and hence our overall technological progress would have been faster.

I'll also note that this 2013 paper suggests it has 'found statistically significant negative associations between past war participation and residential as well as nonresidential patent grants'. I tend to agree, looking through my data leads me to the view that war has a somewhat negative effect overall.

Of course, I'll need to test this with other countries, participations in wars, impact on acts evolving etc. However, I'm curious does anyone know the rough source of the 'war is good for innovation' idea because it feels like one of those assumptions that is highly questionable.

For comparison to the image above - I've provided figure 4 which covers TV (1934 - 1978), Telephone (1912-2007), Radio (1905-1962, marked in blue), Home Video (1976-2003) measured on the same axis of ubiquity vs certainty. As should be noted there is always some variation and hence the examples I've found of a negative impact may well just be statistical noise.

Figure 4 - TV (1934-1978),  Telephone(1912-2007),  Radio(1905-1962),  Home Video (1976-2003)