Age of Invention: Upstream, Downstream

You’re reading my newsletter, Age of Invention, on the causes of the British Industrial Revolution and the history of innovation. It currently goes out to over 5,400 people. You can subscribe here:

I’ve been on well over a dozen podcasts over the past year or so. With a book to promote, and another in the pipeline, I love to talk about my research. But I’m invariably asked a question to which I have a pretty poor answer: how can my research on the causes of innovation — and the unprecedented and dramatic acceleration of innovation in Britain in sixteenth to nineteenth centuries in particular — be applied to today? What are the policy implications, exactly?

My lack of a concrete answer is a little embarrassing, because I first got interested in the subject because of that very question. Originally, I had intended the British Industrial Revolution to be just one of many case studies for me to look at, when comparing the causes of economic growth in different countries. The topic was so massive, however, that it soon became all-encompassing. And even then, looking at the individual inventors of the period was supposed to just be a single chapter of my PhD. It became the whole thing, and then some. I’ve now been researching a super-detailed mega-sample of about 1,500 inventors for about a decade. What started as an investigation into the superficial details of their lives — their background, training, education, religions, politics, connections, funding, sources of inspiration, and so on — has turned into an endless quest to really get inside their heads, and to understand the world they lived in. I now spend most of my time reading as much as I can of what they wrote, what others wrote about them, and about the wider context of their inventions.

The problem with coming up with specific innovation policies for today, however, is that context is always specific. And so translating an insight from one time to another requires more detailed, specific research of its own. (I actually do some of this on the side: I’ve been a little quiet this month because I just published a paper on how to reform the UK’s copyright system, so that it doesn’t end up accidentally stifling innovation in the decades ahead. You can read it here.) But while I otherwise lack specific answers to the policy question, my research on the Industrial Revolution has yielded a general model of how to think about it.

Core to the model is the observation that innovation spreads from person to person. It is a mentality, that we pick up from others. Of my sample of inventors, active c.1550-1850, the vast majority of them had had some kind of contact with an inventor before inventing anything themselves. So far, I’ve found evidence of that contact for about 83% of them, and for the remainder we frankly know next to nothing about them anyway. On the balance of probability, I suspect that all inventors had and continue to have such prior contact, even if the evidence has been lost to the mists of time.

Supposing I’m right about this — and there’s also more recent evidence from the largest and most detailed ever study of modern American inventors to support it — then such exposure to an inventor is the ultimate cause of innovation. Everything else we worry about when promoting innovation, from funding to intellectual property rights, or from education to social acceptance, is in a sense downstream of it.

Absent any exposure to inventors, people simply don’t become inventors. Knowing about invention as an activity is a necessary precondition to becoming an inventor yourself. The vast majority of people never innovate, for the very simple reason that it never occurs to them to do so. People are faced with problems all the time, but they generally have all sorts of pre-existing responses to them. Famine? The millennia-old response was to tighten belts or starve. Not to try to innovate with agricultural techniques. Trade route collapse? The millennia-old response was to take the hit, or try to shift to other familiar markets. Not to try to send ships into the icy unknown. As I’ve noticed time and time and time again, necessity is not the mother of invention. It only appears that way in retrospect — it’s when faced with a crisis that pre-existing inventors step forth to solve problems in ways they had already been investigating. Without them, there would be no such innovative response. Crises have an effect on the direction of invention — that is, on what problems people identify and then try to solve — but not on its underlying supply.

But this is not to say that exposure to an inventor is sufficient. Supposing you do meet an inventor. Your contact might be too fleeting to have an impact, or you might not be predisposed to be inspired by them. You might lack curiosity, or be distracted by some other preoccupation. Or perhaps the inventor you met might not be an especially inspiring person. Some people are simply more interesting than others. So from an initial spring of people who come into contact with inventors, we can immediately narrow the flow of new inventors down to those for whom such exposure actually had an impact.

But we then have to narrow it down further. Of the people who have met an inventor and been inspired by them, some might be distracted by other activities, or be dissuaded by social barriers, or lack the resources to tinker around with things, whether it be money or time.

And then we narrow it down yet again. Supposing you are inspired by an inventor and have the wherewithal to start inventing, you might then find that you lack the information or skill to realise your ideas, or might not take the inventions especially far. Your ideas might stay on the drawing board. Perhaps they even might get so far as a prototype, but not be applied at any scale. You might duplicate someone else’s work and only discover your lack of originality too late (or not at all). You might have become an inventor, but your inventions may never quite see the light of day. And of those inventions that are viable, only a few of them have an impact, bringing about tangible progress. You might lack the business acumen to market your inventions, might not get the funding to scale things up, might lack the cheerleaders and supporters or partners to help make a success of it, or face resistance, or simply be unlucky. By the time we narrow things down to the inventors who successfully drive us forward, there aren’t that many left.

Here’s a crude illustration of what I mean, using the limited design skills at my disposal (I feel a great disturbance as a thousand consultants — the true Powerpoint artists — suddenly cry out):

Why is this model of innovation useful? Well, most innovation policy focuses right at the end, once the number of potential inventors has already narrowed to just a trickle. You have to already have a workable invention for intellectual property to matter to you — most inventors starting out will have hardly any experience of the system at all, and in some cases are unaware of its very existence. Or take various schemes to support for entrepreneurs. They help only those innovators who are already trying to realise their improvements. You have to already be an inventor for access to particular sources of funding to be a worry.

This is not to say that such policies are unimportant, but that they only affect invention quite far downstream. A little further upstream among the fashionable policy suggestions are things like improving technical skills. If you’re an inventor who wants to improve flight, for example, it’s probably useful to have some training as an aerospace engineer, or at least to have access to the kind of experts who can help you out. Even though a significant minority of the inventors I’ve studied lacked any formal training in the areas they improved, they still self-educated or sought out experts to solve particular design problems. In this sense, the internet has probably done more than any individual policy to widen the supply of new inventors. People can now self-educate at a rate never seen before, with video platforms like YouTube perhaps even breaking the age-old barriers to tacit knowledge — the kind of knowledge where one has to see and to do in order to learn, which in centuries past required some kind of apprenticeship. People can also now reach out to world experts for advice in an instant, to even meet online face to face.

Yet to truly increase innovation, I think we need policies focused on what goes on even further upstream, before much of the supply of new inventors is inevitably siphoned off into distractions, dead ends, and failure. Most policies inevitably have a marginal effect, but a slight expansion of the incoming swell of potential inventors can have a much greater impact than fiddling with the incentives of the few hundred who’ve already somewhat made it to the final trickle. Increase the strength of the flow upstream, and everything downstream flows the faster too.

I’m told that the model is very similar to a “funnel” used to in marketing, to illustrate how a customer makes their journey from mere awareness of a product through to interest, an actual purchase, and potentially becoming a fan who recommends it to others. By analogy, the product here is the improving mentality. It’s all very well creating a great customer experience for people who’ve found you, but what if nobody has heard of you? Simple awareness and interest are absolutely crucial initial steps.

But such upstream policies are easier talked about than done. How, exactly, can we increase the number of people who are exposed to the improving mentality? Perhaps we need to encourage more face-to-face interactions, putting inventors on lecture tours or persuading them to open their workshops to us. Perhaps we need invention to be more visible in our culture, to be presented as a viable career path, or to be made more inspiring as an activity. Or perhaps we need to concentrate on the more engaging inventors and give them a platform. Just a little further downstream, perhaps something can be done to make people a little more receptive to the improving mentality, or ensure they have access to information, resources, and expertise.

“Improve skills” and “spread innovation”, however, are especially difficult policies to design, implement, or even describe. Just in writing this, at the back of my mind is the worry that my vagueness here masks vacuity. Upstream policies can sound fuzzy or indistinct, always right on the edge of dissolving into platitudinous mush. And this perception isn’t helped by the fact that such policies are also so difficult to evaluate. Inspiration is personal, subjective, and in many ways quite mysterious. When it happens to you, you may not even realise it. The effects can be subtle and unpredictable. It’s hard enough to decide on a metric by which to indirectly observe inspiration, let alone be confident that the observations actually mean anything.

Yet the difficulty of measurement or potential waffle doesn’t make such policies any less important. Indeed, increasing the supply of people on their way to becoming inventors is possibly one of the most significant, world-changing things that anyone can do. A core part of my thesis about the causes of the British Industrial Revolution is that inventors found ways to make the improving mentality all the more viral: by raising the status of invention, organising themselves into societies, publishing about their work, creating exhibitions and museums, pioneering new sources of funding, and lobbying for various policies and laws. Some of these activities had downstream effects, but many of them were, at least originally, focused upstream. It’s why innovation was able to accelerate even in the absence of many things we now take for granted, like limited liability or mass shareholding. Even patents, which are generally now tinkered around with to affect the incentives or funding of people who are already inventing, were also originally used to entice inventors to the country — swelling the incoming flow of inventors is very much an upstream policy.

If we’re to design upstream innovation policies for today, perhaps we need to investigate how to resurrect the spirit of nineteenth-century World Fairs, or how to raise something so intangible as inventors’ social status. I recently asked on Twitter for people’s recommendations of the best shows or movies about invention, compiling a list from them. It was striking to me how few there are (with some of them a bit tenuous, frankly). Still fewer actually show how invention really works, in a way that I’d consider capable of transmitting the improving mentality. Portraying invention as the product of lone genius, for example, or of random lightbulb moments, perhaps with a bit of persistence or grit thrown in, helps nobody. It might even be harmful: genius is unattainable, and lightbulb moments are uncontrollable. Such portrayals might actually dissuade people from considering invention as something they could actually do too.

Yet there are some exceptional films on the list, and I’ll start to share my thoughts on how they all depict invention once I’ve had a chance to watch even more. You might even want to watch along (so far from the list I’ve seen Pad Man, Big Hero 6, Guru, Joy, The Wind Rises, and The Prestige). And please do suggest more. It’s a bit of fun, but potentially very useful. For our upstream policies are in short supply, and poorly understood. If we can learn what works and what does not, we can improve how we show improvement, and so spread the improving mentality too.

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And perhaps check out my book, Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a NationPlease do read, review, and rave about it!