Amita Shukla

blog by Amita Shukla

Reinvent the wheel?

December 19, 2015 3 minutes read


We all seem overwhelmed by the technology that has cloistered us. It is easy to get dazzled by large screen TVs, drones, cameras, watches, and our handy smartphones too. With new technologies releasing almost every day, a thought that flashes in my mind if this is what we can call the pinnacle of technology, and the second moment it is followed by disagreement to it. There is a lot yet to happen, and ‘true innovation’ is yet to come. So what is this ‘true innovation’ that I am talking about? Are we not innovating? Well, obviously, we are, as we trace updates to technology every now and then.

Well, this is not innovation in true sense. Let me talk about one of the golden eras of innovation to make you appreciate the difference. The era was the period of the Industrial Revolution – which led to unanticipated advances in the areas of manufacturing and transportation. It marked a shift to powered, special purpose machinery, factories and mass production. The iron and textile industries, development of Steam engine by James Watt, improved systems in communication and banking. It was what that that steered us to an urbanized living, entirely changing the way we had been living. All these were innovation that quickly blended with our lifestyles.

While the pace of technological change is making our heads spin, we tend to think of our age as the most innovative ever. We have smartphones and super computers, big data and nano technologies, gene therapy and stem cell transplants. Yet nobody recently has come up with an innovation half as useful as that took place half a century before.

Take kitchens. Going by the data of American households, in 1900 kitchens in even the poshest of households had primitive things. Most households lacked electric lighting and running water. Fast forward to 1970 and middle class kitchens in America and Europe featured gas and electric hobs and ovens, fridges, food processors, microwaves and dishwashers. Move forward to another 40 years, things have scarcely changed. We are still relying on the same obsolete devices and techniques.

Or take speed. In the 19th century horses and sailboats were replaced by railways and steamships. Internal-combustion engines and jet turbines made it possible to move more and more things faster and faster. By this time, considering the same growth rate, we must be commuting to the moon! But since the 1970s humanity has been coasting. Highway travel is little faster than it was decades ago; indeed, endemic congestion has many cities now reverting back their investment in bicycles. Supersonic passenger travel has been abandoned.

Medicine offers another example. Life expectancy at birth in India soared from 32 years to 65 years since independence. Enormous technical advances have occurred since that time. Despite crores spent on research, people continue to fall to cancer, heart disease, stroke and organ failure. Molecular medicine has come nowhere close to matching the effects of improved sanitation.

What we are witnessing is a series of improvements to an existing product, that usually helps to maintain or improve its competitive position overtime, termed as ‘incremental innovation’. android has come up with alpha, beta, cupcake, doughnut,… marshmallow. Apple has come up with iphone 1gen, 3G, 3GS, 4, 4S, 5, 5S, 6 and 6 Plus… Recently smart wearables have cropped up. These products only add to the aspirational value to their previous variant. But why is this that we are lacking innovation? May be because it is the safest bet for manufacturers. It saves them from investing hugely in R&D, which have unpredictable outcomes.

Innovation, in its present form, is just an illusion, something that has been exaggerated to fit into our fantasies. So, I guess, the ‘real thing’ is yet to come, something, that revolutionizes our lifestyle, our culture, our world. Hopefully, the innovation engine will once again set itself to energize growth once more, in not too distant future.