Many of you have seen the inspiring viral video about the 15-year-old self-taught engineer, Kelvin Doe, who lives in Sierra Leone and builds electronics from parts scavenged from the garbage.
This inspiring video made me think of where innovation comes from. Here is a case of someone developing electronics from trash, showing innovation happening without investment. On other hand, if electronics had not become so cheap, partly due to large investments in the past, that working parts are discarded even in low-cost regions, Kelvin wouldn’t have had parts to work with. If the government hadn’t invested in the Internet decades before it was commercialized, it would have been harder for him to share his work with people around the world.
The extent to which innovation rests on prior large investments is something Chris Gammell pondered earlier this year in his articles on what he calls Trickle-Down Technomics.
By chance I happened to learn about Kelvin at the same time I was finishing Unintended Consequences, a book by Edward Conard, friend and business associate of Mitt Romney. The book is about how the economy should be regulated following the financial crisis. Conard explains how technological innovation is key to prosperity. Innovation, he says, does not spring up spontaneously in the course of doing other things; it requires investment. He steps into bizarre territory, though, when he says we might do more good for the poor by giving money to the rich, since they’re more likely (according to him) to invest in R&D. They will spend some of that money on wasteful status items, he says, but that spending will motivate other rich people to invest and innovate.
The latter claims about the rich investing more in innovation and ability to buy luxuries being a primary motivation seem patently false. Many high-tech entrepreneurs with little personal wealth put everything they have into developing or commercializing technology. As they build a little wealth, much of it goes to growth mutual funds that invest in technology companies. They certainly want to spend some of the money they earn, but the desire to solve a puzzle is every bit as important the desire for money. I suspect Kelvin will take this path, having much of his time and money invested in technology all his life. To persevere and put in the long hours of productive focus needed to create something new, it takes both motivations: money and an interesting puzzle.
This leaves unanswered the question of whether innovation rests on large investments in research into technology that doesn’t have an immediate commercial application (e.g. solid state transistor or the first packet-switching computer network).
Are we running on fuel from investments made decades ago by Bell Labs and NASA? Or has innovation just become decentralized and carried out by a horde of smaller innovators building on one another’s baby steps?