Friction, it's a topic I remember well from basic physics, where the inclined plane, mechanical advantage, and static and dynamic friction were aily academic exercises of differential and integral calculus. (There were far more interesting than those interminable train problems, the ones we all remember of the following form: "One train leaves Chicago at 2pm, traveling east at 30 MPH. Another train leaves Cleveland at 3:30pm, traveling west at 40 MPH. Where must at least one train shift to another track to avoid a collision?") Personally, my interests always ran much more to electromagnetism, fields and waves. I suppose that is why I am in computer science rather than civil engineering.
However, this is not a treatise on lubricants, magnetic fields and the right hand rule, but rather a few thoughts on how the coefficient of friction affects innovation. What enables some groups, companies and regions and even countries to be innovative over long periods, whereas others struggle to adapt to changing technologies, economic circumstances and social expectations?
Success and Cultural Hysteresis
Paradoxically, success often limits innovation. If one is successful with a particular approach, product or process, whether it be making widgets or telling stories, that very success reinforces the value of the current approach. After all, one is successful, and conventional wisdom would suggest that "if it ain't broke, don't fix it." Yet that very resistance to change inhibits rapid response to changing circumstances. (You knew I would slip an E&M concept in there somewhere.) It is the classic innovator's dilemma.
What I find most interesting is that outsiders tend to opine in retrospect that the group should have seen change coming, much like one of those colliding trains, and responded with alacrity. Of course, the reality is that there usually were people in the organization who saw discontinuity ahead and pushed for change. After all, the computing industry is filled with former employees of Digital Equipment Corporation, the original Silicon Graphics, SUN Microsystems and other highflying technology companies who were advocates of change, prophets unheeded in their own company.
Countries, Like Companies
Technology change, despite its many challenges, is relatively easy. Culture change is far more difficult, for people and organizations cling to the familiar as if it were a life raft adrift in an endless sea. The lesson is, as Andy Grove famously opined, to be always paranoid, questioning one's assumptions and practices, and watching alternative technologies and business models very carefully. Even with diligence and relentless execution, exigencies can still disrupt.
Although I am neither an economist nor a cultural historian, I suspect similar rules apply to countries and other large economic blocks. There was a time in the 15th and 16th centuries, the Age of Discovery, when Portugal and Spain were world powers. There was also a period in the 19th century when the sun never set on the British Empire. More recently, the political, cultural and economic hegemony of the United States defined the American Century.
In no way am I suggesting that the sun is now setting on American innovation, far from it. However, continued success is not a birthright; it is a consequence of environment, opportunity and concerted and sustained action. In these difficult economic times, it is incumbent upon all of us realize that continued success accrues to those who are prepared and willing to seize opportunities and adapt to changing circumstances, even when – especially when – change is difficult.
Innovation is the lubricant that reduces economic friction and illuminates the future with coherent light.