What Holds Back Innovation? | Hacker Noon

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Roxana Murariu Hacker Noon profile picture

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Roxana Murariu

Web developer writing essays about mindset, productivity, tech and others.

The world is full of obvious things which nobody by any chance ever observes. – Sherlock Holmes

For at least five millennia, we used wheels for transportation, from carts to cars, trains, pushchairs, bicycles, etc. Across ages, we also had heavy trunks to carry luggage. To help with the workload of carrying bags, we used carts with wheels to transport them because wheeling bags was much easier than lugging them.

But still, for all the creative minds and visionaries that humankind had across centuries, it was only in the last decades (the late 70s/80s) that the true innovation of transporting luggage arrived through the invention of wheeling suitcases. In hindsight, like it is the case with almost all innovations, wheeling suitcases appear obvious, yet we invented the atomic bomb and put people on Moon before we attached wheels to luggage.  

The breakthrough of wheeling suitcases came in 1987 when US pilot Robert Plath invented the rolling bags that are so familiar nowadays, featuring two wheels and a telescopic handle. Initially, Plath sold these suitcases only to airline cabin crews.

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Let’s imagine for a moment we are travelers in an airport, seeing airline cabin crews striding briskly in their chic uniforms and their sleek rolling suitcases. We would want a wheeling bag too. And so, the rolling suitcases became commonplace. Or, at least. that’s what the story says.

So, if we knew about wheels for millennia and tackled the physical hardships of transporting luggage, why did wheeling baggage appear so late?   

Economist Robert Shiller has suggested in his Narrative Economics book that an invention may take time to be adopted because a society must recognize the invention’s practicality.   

In his book Antifragile, mathematical statistician Nassim Tabel writes about wheeling suitcases as a cautionary story about discovery versus implementation. It’s not only discovery that requires a healthy dose of randomness, but also implementation depends on luck, on being the right person at the right time in the right place to recognize a technology’s promises.  

Still, these theories don’t explain why previous prototypes of wheeling luggage that started appearing with mass travel in the late nineteenth century didn’t get largely accepted. We all experimented with rolling a heavy suitcase versus carrying it and we know which option we would prefer. Why Plath’s invention was massively embraced and other variants of rolling luggage weren’t? 

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According to writer Katrine Marçal and her astonishing book, Mother of Invention, it was gender stereotyping that held back the adoption of rolling suitcases.  

From prototypes of wheeling baggage, the story of Bernard Sadow stands out. Sadow applied for a patent in the 70s for four-wheeled suitcases, pulled using a loose strap. In an interview, Sadow said, “People do not accept change well”. He was told that men would not accept wheeling suitcases: “It was a very macho thing”, as men used to carry luggage for their wives. So, we have Sadow’s statement that no man would roll a bag because it was an unmanly thing back then.

Then, we assumed little about women’s mobility. In those times, women didn’t travel alone, and they would have a man carry their bags for them. But times started to change, more people began to fly, airports became bigger, making it more inconvenient to carry luggage, and most importantly, women began traveling alone.

As Marçal concludes, when all layers of society started to recognize the practicality of rolling suitcases, Plath’s invention became a wide success.

Unfortunately, biased thinking will always hold back innovation. The case of the rolling suitcase is not singular. 

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In order to survive, cultures must eliminate most of the new ideas their members produce. Cultures are conservative, and for good reason. No culture could assimilate all the novelty people produce without dissolving into chaos.  

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention  

In my previous article, I mentioned the story of physician Ignaz Semmelweis, a pioneer of antiseptic measures. To recap, Semmelweis worked in an obstetrical clinic in the 1840s. He was deeply troubled by the high death rates from puerperal fever in his patients. Semmelweis accidentally discovered that a regime of cleaning hands with chlorinated lime between doctors’ autopsies and medical visits to patients significantly reduced the mortality rate.  

I left out intentionally in that article what happened to Semmelweis after he tried to make his findings public. 

Semmelweis didn’t choose the chlorine solution because of its disinfectant properties. At that time, germ theory wasn’t yet confirmed. Doctors believed in the “miasma theory”, that odours were responsible for infectious diseases. Semmelweis hypothesized that chlorine’s own smell would get rid of any smell left behind by corpse contamination. It was a happy coincidence that chlorine is also one of the best disinfectants, killing the deadly germs from handling cadavers.  

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He couldn’t explain properly why his hygiene protocol worked. Also, doctors were not willing to accept that they gave puerperal fever to their patients, thus killing them.   

As the philosophy of science professor Dana Tulodziecki declared in an interview:  

Nobody was pleased to think that doctors were responsible for killing all these women. Nobody liked that. Especially because the ward with the midwives had a lower mortality rate, but of course the doctors were supposed to know much more than them. 

Semmelweis found himself ostracized and ridiculed by the medical community. In response, he became enraged with the indifference of other obstetricians, calling them irresponsible murderers. After years of battling nervous breakdowns, he was committed to a mental asylum where the guards probably beat him. He died after two weeks in the asylum from a gangrenous wound on his right hand that the beating may have caused.  

Later, Louis Pasteur demonstrated the germ theory thus explaining Semmelweis’ procedure, bringing somewhat of a closure. Unfortunately, even today, medical practitioners’ protocol of washing hands before and after visiting patients is still not entirely followed

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The Semmelweis case tells us that discoveries need to be recognized and validated by peers.  

Scientist Gregor Mendel bred more than 29,000 pea plants at the end of the nineteenth century as a monk in Brno, a city in today’s Czech Republic. He experimented with plant height, seed shape, flower colour, petal wrinkles and other characteristics. To explain the passing of traits from one generation of pea plants to another, he coined the terms “recessive” and “dominant” regarding certain traits, thus creating the foundation for the genetics field.  

But Mendel’s story is not yet complete. Although he published the results of his pea plants experiments in a scientific paper, the scientific community ignored his work. Genetics might have started as a research field much earlier if Charles Darwin had been aware of Mendel’s research. Nevertheless, although Mendel must have doubted his work, he reportedly said to a friend, “my time will come”

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Mendel’s time did come, only it happened decades after his death. In the early 20th century, different scientists started replicating Mendel’s discoveries independently, and his work was re-discovered, understood, and accepted by the scientific community.

And although Mendel’s story is an ill-fated example of discovery versus recognition and acceptance, it is still a fortunate story because it only took a few decades until Mendel’s work was universally acclaimed for its implications about evolution. I can’t just ask myself how many thousands of discoveries are forgotten in the land of obscurity, perhaps never to be found again.  

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These stories bring us to Planck’s principlescience progresses one funeral at a time. As physicist Max Planck himself explained: 

An important scientific innovation rarely makes its way by gradually winning over and converting its opponents: it rarely happens that Saul becomes Paul. What does happen is that its opponents gradually die out and that the growing generation is familiarized with the ideas from the beginning: another instance of the fact that the future lies with the youth.

Why would opponents of innovative discoveries have a hard time adjusting to new mental models?  

Perhaps, as leading researcher Katalin Karikó for Phizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine remarked, the scientists’ ego gets in the way of innovation. Like other innovators described in this article, Karikó would also know what it means to live through decades of scepticism regarding her work. Her applications for grants were rejected, she was demoted and finally, she moved from academic science to the private sector.

Karikó said in an interview

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If so many people who are in a certain field would come together in a room and forget their names, their egos, their titles, and just think, they would come up with so many solutions for so many things, but all these titles and whatever get in the way.  

People love to hate big pharma, but these people are so smart. When I went from academia to a company, they don’t care how many committees you are on, how many papers you have. What counts is that you have a product that has an effect. The ego is wiped out. It is so much better. 

As one article written by a former colleague of Kariko states, “academic science failed Karikó”. At least we recognize Kariko’s tremendous work while she is still alive.  

Maybe resistance to novel concepts is because of the Einstellung effect, a predisposition to solve problems choosing conventional techniques despite having better methods available. 

Philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn discovered that either young people or people who initially trained in a different discipline bring most paradigm shifts in science. These people are not biased towards the Einstellung effect. Novices, either young people or mature people who switched disciplines, haven’t been yet trained or conditioned to think and act like everybody else in that specific field.  

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The Einstellung effect bodies well with the concept of “range” proposed by writer Dan Epstein in his homonym book, Range. Intuitively, we could think that finding a domain and specializing early would give us a competitive edge. Not so, claims Epstein.

In his book, Epstein argues that there are two categories of people: generalists and specialists. Specialists have one substantial heavy-duty skill and focus their work on that specific topic. In contrast, generalists possess a unique “range” by having dipped their toes in many subjects. Epstein’s theory is that generalists will usually have the edge over specialists because generalists can combine breadth and depth from different fields.  

A generalist versus specialist example would be Tiger Woods versus Roger Federer. Woods is an example of early expertise, as his father, Earl Woods, introduced him to golf before the age of two. Roger Federer underwent a sampling period by playing various sports as a child, from badminton to basketball or cricket. Federer credits these sports for his eye-hand coordination.  

Range could explain why outsiders from a domain have more opportunities for discoveries due to their exposures in other areas. As prolific inventor Andrew Ouderkirk declared to Epstein: 

If you’re working on well-defined and well-understood problems, specialists work very, very well. As ambiguity and uncertainty increases, which is the norm with system problems, breadth becomes increasingly important. 

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Geneticist Oliver Smithies, a winner of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, echoed a similar concept in Epstein’s book: 

Don’t end up a clone of your thesis adviser, he [Oliver Smithies] told me. Take your skills to a place that’s not doing the same sort of thing. Take your skills and apply them to a new problem, or take your problem and try completely new skills. 

Karim Lakhani, director of Harvard’s innovation lab declared in an interview:  

 When we’re faced with an innovation problem, the owner of the problem has a basic instinct, that the solution resides within the technical domain of the problem itself. This is often true, but when it comes to the really tough innovative puzzles that have impeded progress, our research shows that a domain-based solution is often inferior. Big innovation most often happens when an outsider who may be far away from the surface of the problem reframes the problem in a way that unlocks the solution. 

The road to discovery is not a straight line from A to B to Z, as it might take detours, cul-de-sacs, crashes and resets. Both specialization and range are necessary to innovate, but as our society will tackle more and more survival issues, having a range mentality can bring a breakthrough where hyper-specialization is clueless.

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There is a long path, possibly infinite, from discovering a valuable idea until it is successfully developed, implemented and acknowledged by society. Many innovations need time to catch on because of our resistance and scepticism to a novel way to accomplish things. Societal expectations, peers’ influences, cultural conditioning, unconscious biases, inflamed ego, all these factors shape if a discovery will be recognized and validated.

But one fundamental aspect of discoveries will always be the same. As Emmanuelle Charpentier, the 2020 winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, alongside Jennifer Doudna, for their groundbreaking work on CRISPR gene-editing technology, declared to writer Walter Isaacson for his Doudna’s biography book:  

At the end of the day, the discoveries are what endure, Charpentier says. We are just passing on this planet for a short time. We do our job, and then we leave, and others pick up the work.

We are fortunate to live in a time where ubiquitous connectivity removed apparently immovable barriers such as time zones, geographic locations, languages. There is a cultural paradigm shift of unprecedented proportions where we can find out about cutting edge technology in less than a few minutes.

Of course, we don’t need to check cutting edge technology to innovate. After all, Plath transformed the entire travel industry by using millennia years old invention.

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