The Toilet Test

Picture from Wikimedia/Green Lane (Creative Commons)
Picture from Wikimedia/Green Lane (Creative Commons)

The picture above is a Japanese shinkansen, ‘bullet train’, exhibited at the National Railway Museum in York.  This model in fact is obsolete.  Arrangements to exhibit it there were originally made by Rod Smith, now Chief Science Advisor to the Department of Transport and Professor of Railway Engineering at Imperial College.  What’s perhaps not well known is that he did it to make a point: Japan has had this technology for half a century – it’s now history.  The 500km Tokyo – Osaka line was completed in 5 years, between 1959 and 1964.  China is building an astonishing 18,000km high-speed rail network over just four years.

The UK, the country that voted Isambard Kingdom Brunel the second greatest Briton of all time, is valiantly forging ahead with its plans to build 200km by 2026.

A recent Economist (pictured) discussed ‘the great innovation debate’.  Characteristically, the journal frames the debate in its own terms: through the lens of productivity and GDP growth.  All the same, the spread of views is striking, from the deep pessimism characterised by Robert Gordon’s observation that no-one has come upEconomist 20130112_cna400 with anything a fraction as useful as the toilet, to the Economist’s own lead –  “With the pace of technological change making heads spin, we tend to think of our age as the most innovative ever”.

In fact the polarity in viewpoints is a mite suspicious.  Writer Neil Stephenson has talked about innovation starvation, while at the same time MediaLab’s peripatetic director, Joi Ito, repeatedly points out that that super-agile development has made order of magnitude improvements to the speed and cost of getting a ‘minimum viable product’ to market.

The rub of course being that they’re basically talking about two different things.  Ito is usually talking about the special case of web-based business models.  The point here is that such innovations are, basically, easy.  The hard work has already been done.  ‘Game changers’ like Airbnb, Facebook and Instagram are really just incremental developments which happened to scale quickly.  They are no more innovative than the hula hoop.

From a strategic perspective, business models like this tend to look awfully thin, relying on little more than network effects for their competitive positioning.  Having a wizzy web-site to sell cruise holidays just isn’t the same as building and operating cruise ships.  The latter is ‘big stuff’.  And it’s harder (and slower, and costlier) to do.

It’s harder because of the sheer engineering effort AND the physical logistics required.  This is also true of most great infrastructure projects.  So we have information technology on ‘the second half of the board‘, while our roads, rail and air travel are no better (and in many cases actually slower) than fifty years ago.  It’s also no longer socially or politically acceptable to trample big stuff through against local objections (when you have an election coming up) – hence Professor Smith’s frustration.

The more general distinction though is between ‘incremental’ and ‘radical’ innovation.  Ito is invariably talking about the former, and it’s common sense that incremental innovations, along existing ‘technological trajectories’ (notably the internet and world wide web) will be both more numerous and less jaw-dropping than truly radical innovations.

And because radical innovation does what it says on the tin, it is neither open to prediction nor, usefully, to more general, statistical analysis.  A breakthrough in successful exploitation of nuclear fusion in the next fifty years could transform our energy future forever.  Would it be fruitful to complain that there had only been one ‘toilet test’ innovation during that time?

Fretting about a ‘slowing rate’ of radical innovation is pointless.  The human race is boundlessly curious and inventive if left to its own devices.  In a hundred years we may have limitless clean electricity and a functioning warp drive.  Or we may be condemned to a Malthusian apocalypse.  We have no way of predicting the outcome from where we sit today.

But, whether our leaders help or hinder us, we’ll be striving all the way.

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