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The enemies of innovation August 26th, 2018 by

Sometimes even rational people fight innovation, as we learn in this recent book by the late Calestous Juma, a Kenyan scholar who taught at Harvard and who enjoyed the rare distinction of being elected as a fellow of the Royal Society of London and a foreign associate of the US National Academy of Science.

To condense Prof. Juma’s nuanced and complex thesis, there are two good reasons to oppose innovation, and one surprising outcome.

First, early versions of an innovation are often expensive, unwieldy and simply not very good at getting the job done. Thomas Edison’s first electrical wiring relied on noisy generators, was a fire hazard, and accidentally electrocuted 17 New Yorkers to death in two years between 1887 and 1889. These problems were eventually ironed out, but some of the failings of an innovation are never fully addressed. When tractors began to replace horses in the USA in the 1920s, three decades after they were invented by John Froelich in 1892, critics complained that the tractors (and automobiles) were wasteful and that buying, fueling and repairing them would place a financial burden on farmers,

Second, an innovation is opposed by the social network that uses and supports the incumbent technology. Electric lights were competing with a well-entrenched and profitable natural gas industry. Farriers, veterinarians and harness makers relied on horses for steady business and income. Older workers with the skills and experience to use an existing technology may resist an alternative. The Luddites were not a bunch of maniacs who liked to break things; they were skilled weavers in the 19th century who correctly realized that mechanized looms would replace experienced workers with unskilled ones.

Fortunately, the dynamic tension between the old and the new can be as creative as the original invention, refining the timeworn technology or promoting innovative social structures.

For example, margarine was invented in France in 1869 and was being manufactured in the USA by the 1880s. At the time American dairy farmers were poorly organized, but led by the butter factories, they eventually formed the National Dairy Council. This powerful lobby group harassed margarine makers, leading to legislation in five US states which required margarine to be dyed an unappetizing pink. They also spread disinformation, reporting bogus studies that claimed that margarine stunted children’s growth, for example. But nineteenth century butter was not the choice food that we know today; it was often rancid and adulterated with chemicals. Competition with margarine forced butter manufacturers to make a better product. And in the ultimate compromise, some spreads now blend butter and margarine.

In the end margarine’s saving grace was not technical, but social. In the 1940s US margarine makers switched from imported coconut oil to American soybean and cottonseed oil, acquiring farmer allies that allowed them to fend off the big dairy interests and find a permanent place at the table.

In the end, the innovation may never completely defeat the incumbent technology, which may settle into a competitive niche of its own. The gas industry fought electricity with all the imagination it had, creating gas-powered versions of every electrical appliance invented. There was even a gas radio in the 1930s (it had the added advantage of giving off a little extra heat). Electricity never completely replaced natural gas, which still provides heat and energy, but the rivalry lives on in the competition between gas ovens and electric models.

There are some clear lessons here for agricultural scientists, who are often dismayed when farmers do not immediately adopt ideas derived from research. As we learn from the optimistic Prof. Juma: your invention may have potential in the long run, but in the short term it may still have bugs that need to be fixed. Innovations often seek to replace existing technologies that have proven advantages, and are familiar to users; the struggle between old and new can lead to creative solutions.  Specifically, researchers can use farmer field schools (FFS) or other experiences to learn about the farmers’ point of view and work together to adapt innovations to meet their needs and circumstances.

Further reading

Juma, Calestous 2016 Innovation and Its Enemies: Why People Resist New Technologies. Oxford University Press. 416 pp.

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