HomeInnovationViewpoint: Innovation begets innovation

    Viewpoint: Innovation begets innovation


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    By MA Johnson

    Sometime in 1968, a research project funded by the US Department of Defence (USDOD) was launched. The focus of the project wasn’t on a Cold War adversary, or any resource-rich banana nation. The project was to “augment human intellect” and the man to drive the project was neither a general nor an admiral, but an American engineer and inventor named Douglas Engelbart.

    It was widely publicized that on the day of presentation by Engelbart, some talented men were in attendance. Two of those in audience, Bob Taylor and Alan Kay would go on to develop Engelbart’s ideas into the Alto, the first truly personal computer in 1974.

    Later, Steve Jobs would take many elements of the Alto to create the Macintosh in 1984. So, the question one may ask is: Who deserves the credit? Engelbart for coming up with the idea? Taylor and Kay for providing engineering solutions around it? Or, Steve Jobs for turning all into a marketable product that created an impact on the world?

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    Strong arguments can be made for each of the names mentioned above in this article and those not mentioned. The truth is that there are many parts to innovation and perhaps, that is why it is regarded as a complex endeavor.

    Why is innovation a complex endeavor? It is because innovation is never a single event. Great innovation, almost never occurs within one field of expertise but it is invariably the product of synthesis across various professions, according to experts.

    There is a long tradition of states harnessing innovation to project power abroad, but what has changed is the self-perpetuating nature of scientific advances recently

    In fact, the process of generating technological innovations has been viewed by many scholars from different perspectives. An American nuclear physicist , RA Charpie, describes it as a miracle:

    “The process by which the idea, the men with energy and commitment and the source of high risk capital get together to produce consequential innovation has got to be one of the most haphazard and in a sense, miraculous things that happen in this economy of ours.”

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    Flowing from Charpie’s thesis, it is therefore not surprising to technology policy scholars that the success in the innovation endeavor is highly elusive. It is so elusive that it has been likened to the game of football by some scholars.

    These scholars believe that managers of football teams know what to do in order to win. But they equally argued that factors which the managers are striving to control are not easy to manipulate and so, they cannot guarantee success in any particular game.

    What can be more positively asserted, according to Green et al, is that a team which doesn’t know the rules of the game will fail. It is therefore imperative that in order to formulate realistic policies for enhancing the technological innovative capabilities of any nation, policy makers should strive to know what is knowable about the rather “stochastic processes” by which industrial technological innovation is generated. Otherwise, one would be analyzing science and technology policy questions as pure “economic” problems.

    The rather stochastic processes of generating successful innovation from science, the risk and cost of innovation, the uncertainty of its diffusion and the fact that investment in science and technology is a long- term activity, and without understanding the “stochastic process” points to a limitation of the analysis.

    The Global Innovation Index for 2022 was recently released. In the rankings, the top position was occupied by Switzerland, followed by the USA, Sweden, the U.K, and Netherlands. China was placed in the 11th position while India and Turkey were 40th in the ranking. Iran and Indonesia show promising potential, according to analysts who read the report.

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    Nigeria, Africa’s biggest economy was behind fourteen other African countries including Kenya, Ghana, Madagascar, and Côte d’Ivoire just to mention a few. Why are developed nations in the forefront of the innovation endeavor while most African countries are behind? The process of generating technological innovation and the factors that influence success and failure in the innovation endeavor need to be understood.

    These days, the power of innovation is reflected in the ability to invent, adopt, and adapt new technologies. It contributes to both hard and soft power of a nation. High – tech weapons systems increase military power and the standards that govern them provide economic leverage, and cutting – edge research and technologies to enhance global appeal.

    This article is to celebrate all engineers who are involved in the innovation endeavor for sustainable development globally. In 2019, the United Nations Education Social and Cultural Organization’s (UNESCO’s) General Conference proclaimed the 4th March of every year as the World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development. It is to raise awareness of the role of engineering in modern life.

    The theme of World Engineering Day for Sustainable Development 2023 is “Engineering innovation for a more resilient world.”

    The main reason innovation now lends such a massive advantage is that it begets more innovation. In part, it does so because of the path dependency that arises from clusters of scientists attracting, teaching, and training other great scientists at research universities and large technology firms. But it also does so because technology innovation builds on itself.

    Frankly, innovation relies on a loop of invention, adoption and adaptation – a feedback cycle that fuels yet more innovation. If any link in the chain breaks, it would negatively affect a country’s ability to innovate effectively. A lead in invention is typically built on years of prior research. Let’s consider the way the USA led the world into the 4G era of telecommunications globally.

    The rollout of the 4G networks across the USA, for instance, facilitated the early development of mobile applications such as Uber that required faster cellular data connections. With that lead, Uber was able to refine its products in the USA, so it could roll it out in developing countries. This led to increased customers and much more feedback to enable the firms adapt its products for new markets and new releases.

    But public intellectuals have observed that the “protection” around countries that enjoy structural advantages in technology is shrinking. This is as a result of accessibility to academic research and the rise of open-source software.

    Technologies, they argue, now diffuse more quickly around the world. The availability of new advances has helped competitors catch up at record speed, as China did in 4G. Although, experts alleged that some of China’s recent technological success stems from economic espionage, and a disregard for patents. Much of this traces back to innovative efforts to adapt and implement new technologies.

    The International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) defines Sustainable Development as “Development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. The ability to innovate faster and better – the foundation on which military, and economic power now rests will determine the outcome of the great – power competition between the USA and China.

    Ultimately, Chinese firms have enjoyed resounding success in adopting and commercializing foreign technological breakthroughs. In 2015, the Chinese Communist Party mapped out its “Made in China 2025” Strategy to achieve self-sufficiency in high-tech industries such as telecommunications and Artificial Intelligence (AI).

    There is a long tradition of states harnessing innovation to project power abroad, but what has changed is the self-perpetuating nature of scientific advances recently. Developments in AI in particular, not only unlock new areas of scientific discovery; they also speed up the process. AI supercharges the ability of scientists and engineers to discover more powerful technologies, fostering advances in AI itself as well as in other fields, thus, reshaping the world in the process.

    In previous eras, the technologies that shaped the world – from bronze to steam, steam power to nuclear fission – were largely singular. There was a clear threshold of technological mastery , and once a country reached it, the playing field was leveled. AI by contrast, is generative in nature. By presenting a platform for continuous scientific and technological innovation, it can lead to yet more innovation.

    That phenomenon makes the AI age fundamentally different from the Bronze Age or the Steel age. Rather than natural resource wealth or mastery of a given technology, the source of a country’s power now lies in its ability to continuously innovate. As part of its self-sufficiency strategy, China announced an economic plan of “dual circulation”, whereby China intends to boost domestic and foreign demand for its goods.

    Through public private partnerships, direct subsidies to private companies, and support for state-backed companies, China has poured billions of dollars into ensuring it comes out ahead in the race for technological supremacy. China has a lot more work to do in the race for technological supremacy as the USA is leading.

    We may ask what is the place of Africa in the innovation endeavor? Some Africans are innovating but they are challenged by the instability of most economies in the continent.

    In the final analysis, while we hope for the best in Africa, as our talented young men and women generate ideas that will penetrate local and global markets irrespective of imperfections in the markets, we admit that nobody wants to invest huge resources into a business and obtain major losses.

    Return on investment is key in any innovation endeavor. With political instability and economic challenges in most African countries, it is regrettable to say that most inventions may be hanging in the air as innovation is costly and risky coupled with high uncertainty. Thank you. (BusinessDay)

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