On Innovation and the Hero’s Engine
It seems reasonable to suggest that the principle of innovation drove Ancient Greek engineers to develop the first steam engine known to history. The fundamental ideas that would inspire the early stages of the Industrial Revolution almost two thousand years later – giving us steam trains and piston-powered factories – were to be found in the Aeolipile: named for Aelous, the Greek god of air and wind.
Also known as a Hero’s engine, the device used steam to rotate a central sphere on its axis just as later engines built by James Watt and Thomas Newcomen would – with one crucial difference. Whilst the engineers of Georgian Britain were preoccupied with industrial concerns such as power, speed and efficiency, their Ancient Greek equivalents had different priorities. Namely, how to make stage doors open and shut as if by magic.
Historical sources offer very little detail on how the Aeolipile was used practically, but many academics believe that it was considered something of a novelty. An amusing distraction that might be wheeled out at parties, rather like a lava lamp or a player piano. At best, it may have had an almost sacred function, used to create small mysteries of automatic motion in temples (such as opening and closing doors) that could inspire a sense of divine wonder among those paying their respects to the gods.
From the perspective of the twenty-first century, of course, this may seem faintly ridiculous. Ancient Greek engineers held in their hands the keys to a new phase of efficiency and scientific discovery. Using a steam engine as a sort of elevated magic trick might strike contemporary minds as rather like buying a brand new laptop and using it as a doorstop. Yet this contradiction demonstrates something crucial about the nature of innovation and where it leads. Impressive technologies sometimes arise at times when the outlook necessary to make full use of them hasn’t yet been developed. The history of business and trade suggests this happens more often than we would expect.
In the 1990s, for instance, when the internet was still a fledgling system of dial-up modems and access to computers was relatively limited, most dot-com companies were preoccupied with attracting investment to spend on improving their website and technology. The huge amount of information collected when early internet users visited their site was known colloquially as “digital exhaust” and treated as an insignificant by-product of how computers connected to the World Wide Web.
Today this ‘exhaust’ is often described as “the new oil”. It is central to the business offerings of most big tech companies and has sparked numerous debates about online privacy, yet it took close to two decades for most people to cotton on to its value and importance.
This phenomenon – where the pieces to a new puzzle lie before us, but the overall pattern that makes sense of this puzzle has been missed – was brilliantly described by the physicist and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn in his book The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962). Kuhn coined the term “paradigm shift” to describe how, over time, the scientific theories that people use to make sense of the world gradually move out-of-joint with the latest evidence. This process is gradual. It often moves in generational cycles, propelled by a new batch of inquisitive minds with different values and perspectives.
The world of business, naturally, is not quite that of Einstein and Curie. The fundamentals of trade and exchange are unlikely to undergo a paradigm shift so extreme as the discovery of radiation and subatomic particles. Yet, as we’ve seen, in everything from the recent growth of online retail, to the importance of apps and automated processes, such innovations occur with predictable regularity. Any business leader is likely to respond with a simple question – how can I anticipate such changes or detect a shift that’s already underway?
Entire industries are dedicated to solving this problem of ‘future-proofing’ an established company. At The School of Life, our workshops and classes encourage habits of thinking around innovation and entrepreneurialism that emphasise the emotional core of such imaginative leaps. We might ask – where do people’s frustrations currently lie? What shift could take place in this industry that would transform negative feelings into positive? Or make people feel excited, once again, about something they had taken for granted? We can also look inwards, exploring feelings of jealousy as an indicator of what other people are doing that feels exciting, fresh and full of possibility.
But the simplest answer to this question may be that innovation is ultimately a gradual process, one that evolves in response to surrounding changes. The philosopher Otto Neurath used a wonderful metaphor to describe how this gradual, almost imperceptible shift can take place in the living domain of language:
“We are like sailors who on the open sea must reconstruct their ship but are never able to start afresh from the bottom. Where a beam is taken away a new one must at once be put there, and for this the rest of the ship is used as support. In this way, by using the old beams and driftwood the ship can be shaped entirely anew, but only by gradual reconstruction.”
A truly ‘future-proof’ business is one that gradually reconfigures itself, according to the prevailing winds, so that it never finds itself benighted on the rocks of a future that arrived all at once.
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