History of Innovation • Dr. Anton Howes

Summary

We are surrounded by the fruits of human creativity and innovation. This capacity to improve our world has done immeasurable good. But where does innovation come from and how do we get more of it?

Looking back to one of the most potent periods of world history, my guest this week—Dr. Anton Howes—guides us through the lessons we can learn from the British Industrial Revolution and how those lessons reveal the nature of innovation today. His concept of an “improving mentality” cuts across all of our everyday experiences, and shows us how we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

About Our Guest

Dr. Anton Howes is head of innovation research at The Entrepreneurs Network, a UK-based think tank focused on encouraging innovation and entrepreneurship. He is also historian-in-residence at the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce, having written its latest history. Previously, he was also lecturer in Economic History at King’s College London, and before that a post-doctoral research associate at Brown University’s Political Theory Project. He received my PhD in Political Economy from King’s College London in 2016.

Dr. Howes’ first book—Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation—is out now from Princeton University Press. It tells the story of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce – essentially, Britain’s national improvement agency, in any and every way imaginable.

Useful Links

Dr. Howe’s website: https://antonhowes.com

His book: Arts and Minds: How the Royal Society of Arts Changed a Nation

His Newsletter: https://antonhowes.substack.com

The Royal Society of Arts: https://www.thersa.org

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To learn more about how to develop ethical skills in your organization, visit http://meritleadership.com

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Transcript
Anton:

Yeah.

Anton:

I don't know why I'm into history.

Anton:

I think that kind of happened while I was in my early teens.

Anton:

Probably even earlier actually.

Anton:

I mean, I've always read fantasy fiction, which is usually like

Anton:

a medieval sort of setting.

Anton:

I don't know.

Anton:

It's a really good question.

Anton:

I don't know where the interest in history comes from.

Anton:

There's just so much to mine, if you think of it ,as a vein.

Anton:

A rich seam.

Anton:

That's just an unending source of facts and stories and ways to see the

Anton:

world from just prior human experience.

Aaron:

Hi, I'm Aaron Miller and this is How to Help, a podcast about having a life

Aaron:

and career of meaning, virtue, and impact.

Aaron:

This is season one, episode 11, The History of Innovation.

Aaron:

How to Help is sponsored by Merit Leadership, home of The

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Business Ethics Field Guide.

Aaron:

Here at the start of this episode, I want you to do something simple,

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just breathe, but as you do, I want you to focus on how breathing works.

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So this is what happens with each breath, your diaphragm and the muscles around

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your ribs, coordinate with each other to expand your chest and your lungs.

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This creates a vacuum.

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It draws the air into your lungs.

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And as you exhale, those muscles all relax again.

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And your chest returns to its original shape, pushing the air back out.

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It's an elegant bio mechanism and it operates about 12 to 18 times per minute.

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For your entire life.

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And even though human beings have been breathing for millennia, it

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wasn't until just about 400 years ago that we really started to

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capture the power of moving air.

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The science of vacuums and forced air made essentially a whole new world possible.

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A ventilator, for example, was invented by an Anglican clergyman.

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It could move fresh air into enclosed spaces like ship holes and prison cells.

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This invention directly saved countless lives by reducing the

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spread of disease, the steam engine, as another example of machines that

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move air is the 10th most important invention in all of human history.

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According to a panel of experts pulled by the Atlantic magazine.

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That same time period in history, by the way, was especially prolific

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with all kinds of innovation.

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It was around this time that we first started inoculating people against

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smallpox, eventually eradicating one of the deadliest diseases ever.

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Watchmaking became accurate enough back then for watches to include second hands.

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And this was also the time when someone discovered how to make

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magnets artificially rather than relying on the ones made by nature.

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All of this innovation highlights one of the most inventive periods

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in human history, which is the British industrial revolution.

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And when we truly appreciate how important this time period was and advancing

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humankind, The question we ought to ask is why, why was that this time

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so full of creativity and innovation?

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What made this place and time a hotbed of invention?

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My guest today is Dr.

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Anton Howes, a historian who specializes in the British Industrial Revolution.

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He's also the author of Arts and Minds, which is a history of

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the Royal society of the arts.

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One of the most innovative institutions ever.

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Dr.

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Howes understands perhaps better than anyone.

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What was happening that led to such rapid improvements in science industry

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and overall social well-being.

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And what's especially fun about talking with Dr.

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Howes', the way that he makes the lessons of history practical for today.

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So listen closely in this episode for all kinds of ways to put his insights to work.

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So, that you can appreciate Dr.

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Howe's research.

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Let's start with this description of how he came to understand

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this period of invention.

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So well, it meant doing a lot of cataloging inventors and their inventions.

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In fact, he did this at a scale that no one has done before.

Anton:

Well, there's all these inventors that keep getting mentioned, and there

Anton:

are a few pretty small databases.

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That's try to select a few of these inventors and look at things

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that they had in common and so on.

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But as far as I could tell, no one had systematically gone through as many

Anton:

as possible and tried to work out.

Anton:

Okay.

Anton:

We know inventors are important.

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We know that they're the source of all this astonishing growth that's taking

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place somewhat uniquely in Britain.

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In the 17th, 18th, or the 19th centuries, but no, one's actually gone and

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looked systematically at all of them.

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And so that's what a lot of my work originally was, was almost sort of

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filling up a massive, massive Excel spreadsheet, full of information, and

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then going over it all at the end of my PhD and noticing a few patterns,

Anton:

which then kind of led me to a few other insights into how innovation works.

Aaron:

Several times throughout this episode, Dr.

Aaron:

Howes and I are going to talk about what I think is a failing of modern culture.

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It's the way that we idolize well-known innovators like

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Thomas Edison or Steve Jobs.

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One of the problems in that is how their stories become the path.

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We're all meant to follow.

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If we want to be innovators, remember Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos

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from episode four of this podcast.

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She's so idolized Steve Jobs that she started wearing black turtlenecks every

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day, but there are a thousand more stories about innovation that we don't tell.

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And so we miss out on all the different paths to being innovators.

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What I love about Dr.

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Howes' approach to all of this is how thorough it is.

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What are the real patterns and how innovation works by the way,

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because of his research, Dr.

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Howes also has a more complete understanding of innovation and invention,

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generally, including how to think about these terms in more useful ways.

Anton:

There's this idea that invention innovation are very different things.

Anton:

That invention is just the tinkering with a bit of machinery and then innovation

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encompasses, you know, bringing that product to market and so on and so forth.

Anton:

I don't really find this particularly useful as a distinction because

Anton:

it very much stresses that innovation has to be kind of market

Anton:

oriented that it's producing a product for sale that you then.

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That's then tested through the market.

Anton:

Right?

Anton:

So whether or not something actually is an innovation, according to this

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view is really depends on whether or not it succeeds in the market.

Anton:

And I didn't think that's terribly useful when we.

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In everyday terms, use invention and innovation.

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We actually tend to use them pretty interchangeably.

Anton:

And I, I much prefer that usage partly because you know, so many

Anton:

innovators, aren't innovators that are really market facing.

Anton:

You've got people who are improving, you know, the way that

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a government bureaucracy works, you know, postal services and so on.

Anton:

That's the problem with innovation as it's, as it's more racially

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defined the problem with invention.

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As it's often used is that it's quite narrow.

Anton:

When I say an inventor, you usually think of some sort of mechanic, but

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unfortunately that doesn't really encompass all the people who are doing

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things like changes to design, changes to decoration, you know, product innovation

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who are doing service innovation as well, improving the efficiency of services.

Anton:

So I like, I like to kind of use the two interchangeably innovation,

Anton:

I guess, is the catch-all.

Anton:

For all forms of improvement, along lots of different metrics, you know,

Anton:

it could be making something faster, stronger, more durable, more beautiful,

Anton:

more efficient and so on and so forth.

Anton:

What they all really have in common, I guess, is improvement.

Aaron:

The term improvement here is key Dr.

Aaron:

Howes.

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Thanks to his research has identified an essential social phenomenon, something

Aaron:

he calls the improving mentality.

Aaron:

It's a mindset that we have the power to make our circumstances better.

Aaron:

This is something at the root of innovation and something

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that we always need more of.

Anton:

I think improvement is more common than ever before in human history.

Anton:

Partly because there's just more people, but also because I think.

Anton:

This mentality of improving things is spread a lot more.

Anton:

And that's one of the kind of basic bits of my theory about how innovation

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works is that it's a practice that you pick up from other people.

Anton:

It spreads from person to person, but this mentality is more

Anton:

widespread than ever before.

Anton:

But even then, I mean, we don't improve things all the time.

Anton:

Right.

Anton:

There are lots of examples of people effectively satisficing

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saying, yeah, this is good enough.

Anton:

I'm just going to continue as it is not going to invest a bit of

Anton:

energy and trying to work out.

Anton:

I don't know, an easier commute to work or a better way of cooking my food or,

Anton:

you know, adding a bit of spice here and there even basic things like that,

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we actually tend not to improve things.

Anton:

So when you do get people who have this improving mentality now, very

Anton:

often, it's not just applied to a single domain a single field.

Anton:

They'll apply it to lots of different things.

Aaron:

So even though it could be more common, the improving mentality today

Aaron:

is more widespread than ever in history.

Aaron:

There's something democratic about the spread of improving mentality.

Aaron:

It's available to everyone.

Aaron:

Dr.

Aaron:

Howes' research reveals how anyone can think this way.

Anton:

You want to also write though that it is very democratic

Anton:

and that anyone can be an improver.

Anton:

That's something I found with a lot of the inventors in my database.

Anton:

Is that in fact, a very significant minority of them, at least a third

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were improving areas where they had no prior experience or training.

Anton:

Sometimes some really famous inventors as well.

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Henry Bessemer, who's famous for his process of mass producing steel.

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For example, admits in his autobiography that he actually didn't really know

Anton:

much about metallurgy when he started.

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In fact, he says that it was probably even a benefit.

Anton:

That he knew very little about it because he didn't know, he didn't, as he puts it,

Anton:

have things to unlearn, set ways in which things were done with often pretty good

Anton:

reasons behind them that he just didn't even have to consider because he wasn't

Anton:

even aware of what the done thing was.

Aaron:

Do you think you could jump into metallurgy or any field that's

Aaron:

unknown to you and invent something new?

Aaron:

Henry Bessemer did.

Aaron:

Maybe it helps to remember that people don't just create new inventions

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out of nothing, Bessemer and other inventors they all added to the

Aaron:

improvements of generations of inventors before them invention is

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really a process of incrementalism.

Aaron:

We don't have to invent something entirely new.

Anton:

And that's the other thing there is that when we think of invention, not

Anton:

as this kind of, and I think false idea of an almost kind of Eureka moment of

Anton:

inspiration, like you've solved a puzzle.

Anton:

We look at how it really works, which is that people look at a thing as it is.

Anton:

And they say, how could it be that tiny bit better?

Anton:

That's a much smaller, much more incremental process, but it can

Anton:

add up to much larger changes.

Anton:

Right.

Anton:

So they're the invention of the steam engine is actually a very long process

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with lots and lots and lots and lots and lots of tiny incremental stages.

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Sometimes there's incremental stages that undertaken very

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rapidly by just a single person.

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Sometimes it's by lots of people in a chain kind of picking up a product and

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tinkering with it further and further.

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Sometimes some people just make one small improvement.

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Others make lots, but ultimately they still engage in the same activity.

Aaron:

So let's put this thinking to work.

Aaron:

If you're like me, you don't really consider yourself an inventor, but

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some of the biggest improvements have come from non-experts.

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So pause here and reflect on what you could improve.

Aaron:

Even if just in a small way, the research tells us that's how the big changes

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really happen through incrementalism.

Aaron:

This reflects how we all have a role to play in innovation and its

Aaron:

history that tells us that's true.

Anton:

Yeah.

Anton:

I mean, there's lots of stages to improvement as well.

Anton:

Some people, you know, they might be doing a lot of the kind of design stage things,

Anton:

drawing things, making models, testing.

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They're doing this sort of proof of concept work.

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Other people are doing the kind of more mechanical work of actually

Anton:

making sure that those concepts work.

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Sometimes it's the same person.

Anton:

Of course other people need to actually work out if they can produce

Anton:

this thing at any sort of scale.

Anton:

And that's a whole has all of its own challenges as well.

Anton:

Right.

Anton:

You know, Fleming is famous for penicillin, but just as famous should

Anton:

be the people who are doing the actual mass production of, antibiotics.

Aaron:

Right.

Anton:

Who are trying to scale up that process, taking it beyond

Anton:

certain insights and actually meant doing something useful with it.

Aaron:

We lionize inventors of things like penicillin or COVID vaccines.

Aaron:

And these people deserve praise, but none of them are doing it alone.

Aaron:

Many, many people contributed to these inventions.

Aaron:

Is this a problem that we hold them up as special in some distinctive way?

Anton:

I think in a sense it's good to lionize inventors.

Anton:

I wonder if it's sort of a useful myth that you have great instances in

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that it encourages people to emulate them because obviously we want more

Anton:

than to be more, more people to be improving things still further.

Anton:

So that kind of continue to have this upward trajectory of betterment.

Anton:

But yeah, I think there's something useful about this idea of there being people

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who are especially prolific inventors.

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I think the bit that's less useful is this idea that there is some

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sort of innate genius to them.

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That kind of unattainability to them.

Anton:

You don't want people to think that you have to be a Newton or an

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Einstein to be able to invent things.

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What you do want is for people to think, oh, I can be more like, I think

Anton:

Wallace and Gromit, I don't know if that's a cartoon you're aware of.

Aaron:

Oh, of course.

Anton:

Like you want it.

Anton:

You want people to think of it more as being like Wallace, someone who can tinker

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down the garden shed and produce all sorts of fantastic contrivances but actually

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do a lot of good with them as well.

Aaron:

What would you do differently if you thought of

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yourself more as an inventor?

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How can you adopt more of an improving mentality and the way

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you see the world around you?

Aaron:

This improving mentality has changed the world more than anything else in history.

Aaron:

So where did it come from and how do we get more of it?

Anton:

Yeah, that's good question.

Anton:

I think it's probably emerged independently in lots of places.

Anton:

But then never quite reached a critical mass.

Anton:If you wind back to the:Anton:

a scientific or technological backwater.

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It's not very industrialized.

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It's not very urban.

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There's not much in the way of manufacturers.

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It's diplomatically isolated.

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It's got all sorts of other problems going on as well.

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There's, there's nothing that really makes it stand out from the pack

Anton:

of potential places where you might expect this dramatic change to occur.

Anton:

I think what happens there is that it seems to come from Europe.

Anton:

So a lot of, I think the critical mass is reached in England and

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then Britain probably as a result of a lot of it being brought from

Anton:

abroad, from Italy, from Germany.

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Probably helped along by a lot of religious refugees from the Netherlands

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as well, England sort of becomes a kind of safe Haven for Protestants

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and also other religious dissenters.

Anton:

And I think they bring with them a lot of the, not just the skills,

Anton:

but especially the, the mentality that comes with it as well.

Aaron:

So the recipe for invention seems to be a diversity of perspectives,

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coupled with an improvement mentality.

Aaron:

And a lot of current research points to this being true studies have found,

Aaron:

for example, that both corporations and nonprofits perform better when they

Aaron:

have more diverse boards of directors.

Aaron:

A lot of the inventors that we venerate today have backgrounds

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that were socially undesirable.

Aaron:

What happens with more diverse perspectives is a spread

Aaron:

of improvement mentality.

Aaron:

It moves through a culture, almost like the spreading of a desirable infection.

Aaron:

So, this is interesting because you talk about how improvement mentality

Aaron:

almost spreads like a disease, which is an interesting metaphor,

Aaron:

especially these days, right?

Aaron:

Because diseases so prominent in everybody's minds, what is it that

Aaron:

infects somebody with an improvement mentality that makes them then

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apply it and then become a carrier?

Aaron:

So it spreads to others.

Anton:

I think there's some sorts of contact, essentially.

Anton:

What happened was I was looking through my huge database.

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I noticed that again and again, and again again, the one thing

Anton:

they all seem to have in common.

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And I eventually went back over the database and looked okay, exactly.

Anton:

How many of them can I find this evidence for last time I checked, it

Anton:

was 81% of them seemed to have had a prior contact before innovating

Anton:

for the first time themselves, or at least their first known inventions

Anton:

had had contact with another inventor.

Anton:

And by that, I mean often prolonged contact.

Anton:

You know, they had a neighbor for a long time.

Anton:

They met regularly with a certain person.

Anton:

They become close friends with a particular person.

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It was a relative and employer.

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A master for an apprenticeship, those sorts of much more substantial contacts

Anton:

seem to figure very, very prominently.

Aaron:

So if you want to be more innovative, you should associate

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with innovators, find people who are creative and make opportunities

Aaron:

to learn about their work.

Aaron:

It expands how you see the world.

Aaron:

The other thing about improving mentality is that people want to

Aaron:

spread it, even evangelize it.

Aaron:

They want other people to be infected with this same way of thinking.

Anton:

Yeah.

Anton:

I'm not entirely certain why the evangelizing that goes with it, but I do.

Anton:

I do think that what makes Britain especially special when it comes to why

Anton:

in Europe, despite the fact that you've got all of these little potentials for

Anton:

critical masses of innovators to emerge.

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It becomes the place where they really, really take off.

Anton:

I think that's because they, aren't just a bit better, either evangelizing or

Anton:

they're evangelizing is more successful.

Anton:

And I think there's a variety of reasons for that.

Anton:

They're definitely better organized, Brits are often the ones coming up with new

Anton:

institutional forms that are then copied abroad, especially by the 18th century.

Anton:

Or when they are copying other countries in terms of the institutions that

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they are creating, they are often doing it a bit better, or they're

Anton:

coming up with workarounds to it.

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Aaron:

So in the case of innovation, institutions matter to and Britain,

Aaron:

by the way, has a historically notable one, The Royal Society

Aaron:

of Arts today known as the RSA.

Aaron:

This is the subject of Dr.

Aaron:

Howes' book, Arts and Minds.

Aaron:

This is a fascinating entity for 267 years.

Aaron:

It has assembled groups of people who wanted basically

Aaron:

to make society better off.

Aaron:

Imagine in your city, a group of people without any focused expertise, but with

Aaron:

lots of energy and resources who went around picking social problems, this

Aaron:

group, recruits experts, inventors, funders, and others, and they stick

Aaron:

with it until the problem is solved.

Aaron:history of the RSA is how in:Aaron:

they started a campaign to get landowners, to plant more trees.

Aaron:

This was to restore Britain's Woodlands and back then they even

Aaron:

awarded metals to those who did the best job at planting trees.

Aaron:

This campaign lasted for nearly a century and the RSA estimates that more

Aaron:

than 60 million trees were planted.

Aaron:

I mean, it was a remarkable effort to solve a huge problem.

Aaron:

And today the RSA is still at it.

Aaron:

They have projects looking for innovations that are going to benefit, not just the

Aaron:

United Kingdom, but the entire world.

Aaron:

I encourage you to go to their website, the rsa.org, where you

Aaron:

can learn more about what they do.

Aaron:

I have to admit, as I was learning about the RSA from Dr.

Aaron:

Howes's book, I found myself jealous and wishing that there was this

Aaron:

sort of thing in my community.

Aaron:

There's just, aren't many groups like this today.

Aaron:

Let alone groups that have lasted for hundreds of years.

Aaron:

I asked Dr.

Aaron:

Howes to explain how they've done it.

Anton:

When it started off.

Anton:

The Society of Arts was a subscriber.

Anton:

Membership-based.

Anton:

I mean, it still has a subscription membership, but it was entirely based

Anton:

around what the subscribers wanted.

Anton:

So one person, one vote, male or female, even since the very beginning of the

Anton:

1750s, which was a very unusual time.

Anton:

And there's actually very few institutions,that were similar to that.

Anton:

So one person, one vote, and as long as you turned up to vote, You

Anton:

could essentially decide absolutely anything that the society did.

Anton:

Be it, what kind of prizes they would offer for new inventions

Anton:

over time, almost immediately.

Anton:

There's this rule that they have to be non patented inventions or open new trades,

Anton:

or for planting trees to support the British Navy or for whatever you choose.

Anton:

But essentially one person, one vote, and as a member as well, you could

Anton:

discuss, you could stand up in front of the assembly of members and try to

Anton:

persuade them of what you think the society should be trying to improve.

Anton:

And that's pretty chaotic, right?

Anton:

That's a very messy way to trust the membership to organize these things.

Aaron:

This sounds like an organization that could just easily fall to pieces.

Aaron:

Why didn't that happen?

Anton:

I think part of it is over time, it develops different ways of

Anton:

either reducing factions, or taking the sting out of certain factions,

Anton:

or trying to make sure that there's at least some kind of consensus

Anton:

before moving forward with things.

Anton:

So, what you do get is occasionally certain groups, let's say

Anton:

artists, painters and sculptors and architects and so on.

Anton:

They kind of try to take over in society and bend it to their own ends.

Anton:

But unsuccessfully, because there were enough other members with other

Anton:

interests who would kind of stop them from just getting away with anything.

Anton:

And so you have things like.

Anton:

Every vote needs to be reconfirmed the following week as well, by a second vote.

Anton:

If the votes are particularly close than the, than the person presiding, we'll

Anton:

often postpone it to another meeting.

Anton:

So if you do have this entrust faction, they can't just turn up to one meeting,

Anton:

take it over and Bish, bash ,bosh done.

Anton:

They actually.

Anton:

need to continuously keep turning up in order to have their way.

Anton:

And that's very, very difficult to sustain.

Anton:

So the rules and regulations of how you do things can make an

Anton:

absolute, huge difference to the success of that kind of society.

Aaron:

I love to imagine something like this today, reading his book, I found

Aaron:

myself daydreaming about societies like this cropping up all over the world.

Aaron:

Could such a community survive and do good today.

Aaron:

I like to think that it could.

Anton:

Yeah, well, I hope I hope people experiment with

Anton:

it actually, and try to do it.

Anton:

Interestingly, you're not the first person to said that you've been daydreaming

Anton:

about what it would look like today.

Aaron:

A problem for an improvement society succeeding today is

Aaron:

that the easy innovations have all been discovered already.

Aaron:

We've run out of low hanging fruit.

Aaron:

The economist, Tyler Cowen makes this argument in his

Aaron:

book, the great stagnation.

Aaron:

He says that we're in a lull of productivity because the problems left

Aaron:

to solve are much harder to solve.

Aaron:

I asked Dr.

Aaron:

Howes what he thought of this argument.

Anton:

Yeah.

Anton:

I don't have much evidence for this view other than I guess a

Anton:

series of hunches or an intuition.

Anton:

My intuitive sense of it.

Anton:

Is it actually low-hanging fruit is absolutely everywhere.

Anton:

Not necessarily in pushing forward an entire industry and doing something

Anton:

completely new, but certainly you've got so many laggards in various industries

Anton:

that they could be doing things even just in terms of spreading the current best

Anton:

practice to the rest of the industry.

Anton:

I think there's many, many cases of that.

Anton:

I'm trying to think of things that most people would be familiar with.

Anton:

You know, lots of restaurants are pretty rubbish.

Anton:

Very few of them are very, very good.

Anton:

That's not necessarily even just to do with the skill of the chef.

Anton:

It's just that certain restaurants don't try to improve

Anton:

things as much as others do.

Anton:

So there's definitely low hanging fruit.

Anton:

In fact, I see it all the time in those sorts of cases.

Anton:

And actually the more I've spoken to people who are involved in various

Anton:

industries, there's almost always something that's relatively simple

Anton:

that people just haven't done.

Anton:

Either because of a bit of kind of inertia or because of, you know, this

Anton:

idea that, if it was so clear that people would have done it before, anyway,

Anton:

which I can kind of stifle innovation,

Aaron:

Boy, isn't this true.

Aaron:

There are so many industries or businesses or nonprofits or

Aaron:

government programs that have had no interest in improving themselves.

Aaron:

It's frustrating when you really think about how much

Aaron:

better things could easily be.

Aaron:

But there are other reasons to see exciting room for growth it's in the

Aaron:

internet and places like YouTube.

Anton:

I guess my other sense of it is that it's easier than ever to innovate.

Anton:

I can't see how it would be getting harder, given the just dramatic,

Anton:

radical lowering of barriers to information that we've had even in just

Anton:

the past few years from the internet.

Anton:

And it's not just the fact that you can access this stuff so easily, you can pick

Anton:

up tacit knowledge through watching a YouTube video of someone doing woodwork or

Anton:

something, in a way that you just couldn't have done without, you know, going and

Anton:

visiting a carpenter and seeing them, they work and spending all the time with them.

Anton:

And so our ability to learn new skills, our ability to have that kind of

Anton:

communication has radically lowered.

Aaron:

It might be true that I can learn woodworking on YouTube, but

Aaron:

I can't use it to learn something as complex as semiconductor design.

Aaron:

It feels like what I'm missing is an access to tacit knowledge.

Aaron:

But the time and effort it takes to understand huge and

Aaron:

complex fields of science.

Aaron:

Is there room for non-technical experts?

Anton:

Yeah.

Anton:

The source of worry to me that there's at least this idea that

Anton:

only an expert can improve things.

Anton:

I just don't think that's true.

Anton:

It certainly wasn't true in the 17th or 18th from the 19th centuries.

Anton:

You know, even, I mean, it's, it's, it's not like things are harder

Anton:

now than they were back then.

Anton:

Right.

Anton:

If you were to become a carpenter in the 18th century, there's a hell

Anton:

of a lot of stuff for you to learn.

Aaron:

Right.

Anton:

Right.

Anton:

There's a lot of expertise involved and actually even less accessible

Anton:

expertise than it is today.

Anton:

Or for you to reach the pinnacle of any particular branch of science in the 16th

Anton:

and 17th century still takes an awful lot of learning, an awful lot of work.

Anton:

I don't think there's anything particular.

Anton:

About how science is done in a particular subfield to tell you

Anton:

that's any different to that.

Anton:

You know, we can have very young experts sort of time, right?

Anton:

People often just want a few years in college and they've already reached

Anton:

a certain level of expertise that we can say is actually pretty good.

Aaron:

So it's a mistake to think of science as the only domain for innovation.

Aaron:

It's not just about technology.

Aaron:

When most people think of innovation, they tend to think of technology.

Aaron:

You know, whether it's related to computers, machinery, whatever, but

Aaron:

there's quite a bit of innovation in other demands like politics or social

Aaron:

policy, more generally art, other fields.

Aaron:

How do we help people to see innovation and improvement mindset in all domains?

Aaron:

Not just sort of the technology that they encounter from day to day.

Anton:

So, this is sort of goes back to what I was saying about there being

Anton:

different ends that you're trying to meet.

Anton:

You know, what does improvement look like in art?

Anton:

I mean, what's amazing now, right?

Anton:

There's three things like say Instagram, you know, the proliferation

Anton:

of beautiful images is just insane.

Anton:

You could open your phone right now and see literally the best art in

Anton:

the world within a matter of seconds, what makes it better than others?

Anton:

I mean, that's the kind of an interesting question.

Aaron:

Are Instagram influencers, innovators, as uncomfortable

Aaron:

as that thought is to me, there may be something to it.

Aaron:

Luckily, young people today don't seem to be exclusively

Aaron:

interested in something so shallow.

Aaron:

The truth is that we have a rising generation that is demanding more

Aaron:

meaningful opportunities to improve the world 9 in 10 want work with meaning

Aaron:

more than they want to large income.

Aaron:

What advice does Dr.

Aaron:

Howes have for them?

Aaron:

I've been teaching millennials for awhile, and now I'm teaching the

Aaron:

gen Z and more and more people are demanding work experiences that are

Aaron:

driven, not purely by economics, right.

Aaron:

They're driven by all kinds of subjective desires.

Aaron:

One of the most prominent of which is a desire to have work that improves

Aaron:

the world in some important way.

Aaron:

Something beyond just, you know, making more money out of a resource.

Aaron:

Does it feel the social innovation, this idea of applying innovative

Aaron:

mindset and improvement mindset more directly to social problems?

Aaron:

Not necessarily just economic ones.

Aaron:

What lessons do you think social innovation as a field can learn

Aaron:

from the history of innovation?

Anton:

I think similarly to looking at innovation in the technical

Anton:

world, We should not try to think of it as there a certain political

Anton:

geniuses who can just get a lot done.

Anton:

There's no point in us doing things.

Anton:

Incrementalism matters, making small improvements here and

Anton:

there can have a huge difference.

Anton:

And ultimately I would rather have a world in which a thousand people

Anton:

made a thousand tiny improvements.

Anton:

Then a world in which one person made one massive improvement because those

Anton:

thousand incremental improvements are more likely to affect living standards.

Anton:

Be that through, I don't know how much better your health care is or how

Anton:

much faster your waste gets picked up.

Anton:

I think, you know, when we think of politics or kind of social change, how we

Anton:

organize people relative to one another, that incrementalism matters just as much.

Anton:

And this is what kind of makes people an innovator and improver in that sense.

Aaron:

Something else I wanted to ask about is the current global pandemic and

Aaron:

the economic crisis that came with it.

Aaron:

Is there a way that this time period can bear especially important?

Aaron:

So innovation often seems to be driven by crisis much like what we're seeing

Aaron:

now with the, the global pandemic.

Aaron:

How do we make the most of opportunities that come from crisis?

Anton:

So, interestingly, this is something I was sort of looking at

Anton:

when I've been looking at in the late fifties, forties, early fifties, fifties

Anton:

is that actually it's a country with lots and lots of crises simultaneously.

Anton:

Plagues.

Anton:

You've got famine, you've gotten to chromatic isolation,

Anton:

you've got expensive wars.

Anton:

You've had debasement of currency.

Anton:

You've got a collapse in trade.

Anton:

You've got all sorts of agricultural problems.

Anton:

You've got massive riots and rebellion.

Anton:

You've got religious changes and so on and so forth.

Anton:

I mean, it really it's quite apocalyptic.

Aaron:

So things aren't so bad nowadays.

Aaron:

That's good to have that perspective.

Anton:

And in some ways, although, I mean, you know, from our vantage point

Anton:

of superior medical technology, it's a good thing that we, we make more of

Anton:

smaller things than our ancestors do.

Anton:

It's a sign of our wealth and our fortune, I think, much later.

Anton:

So what happens there is these crises seem to have spurred or

Anton:

caused certain innovative changes the search, for example, for

Anton:

new colonies exploration routes.

Anton:

The implementation of new navigational techniques and

Anton:

shipbuilding techniques from abroad.

Anton:

And so on in actual fact, though, I think what's really going on is

Anton:

much more akin to what you can kind of see in real time right now, which

Anton:

is that there's a lot of people with their pre-existing projects or already

Anton:

innovators in some fields who suddenly have an opportunity to leverage the

Anton:

crisis to, to meet their preexisting aims

Aaron:

this is exactly what happened in the dramatic push for

Aaron:

a COVID vaccine to the public.

Aaron:

It looks like the vaccines going out are a miracle of science that happened in

Aaron:

just a few months, but really they're the result of decades of research into new

Aaron:

technologies like mRNA based vaccines.

Aaron:

We're being saved by the hard and undervalued work from

Aaron:

many years prior to today.

Anton:imilar to what you see in the:Anton:

who are pushing the voyages of exploration in England, they've been doing this since.

Anton:

Pretty much since Columbus really, but often not getting that much

Anton:

backing, not getting that much funding, not getting that much support, but

Anton:

when you've got the kind of lack of alternatives, they can present

Anton:

themselves as being this kind of other alternative that's worth considering.

Aaron:

So the crises that we face may be just the opportunity for a great idea.

Aaron:

To finally shine.

Aaron:

I love thinking about how many more ideas might be waiting in the

Aaron:

wings for their moment of impact.

Aaron:

It's been a fascinating conversation, but it's time to wrap up with a final

Aaron:

question, maybe the most important one for each of us, what advice do

Aaron:

you have for the person who wants to be more innovative in their work?

Anton:

I think it's an attitudinal thing which is see room for improvement.

Anton:

Don't be satisfied with the way things are, and try to work out, okay.

Anton:

You know, this boring part of my job, how can I automate that?

Anton:

How could it be done in a faster way?

Anton:

Even as little as, you know, this meeting is really going on, what could I do?

Anton:

Could I have a standing meeting to make things go faster?

Anton:

Could there be certain things that we say to, to get more out of it?

Anton:

You have to look at the world and all of your activities through that lens of.

Anton:

Seeing potential room for incremental improvement.

Anton:

I think that's the main lesson and then doing something about it, which is, don't

Anton:

just kind of don't turn into someone who's going to whinge about things all

Anton:

the time, but someone who first winches, but then actually does something about it.

Aaron:

All of this episode, culminates with this big, yet simple idea.

Aaron:

Improving our world means changing it for the better.

Aaron:

And there's no point in waiting around for someone else to do it.

Aaron:

In history we've progressed the most when more people get involved in solving

Aaron:

our problems, it's a simple equation.

Aaron:

Improvement is a function of the number of people with an improving

Aaron:

mindset, the more, the better.

Aaron:

So we should all stop whinging and join in.

Aaron:

I'm so grateful to Dr.

Aaron:

Howes for his time and expertise.

Aaron:

I left our conversation energized about the many improvements

Aaron:

that are sure to come.

Aaron:

And I love the way he sees today through the lens of history.

Aaron:

It really is one of my favorite areas of scholarship.

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Please be sure to subscribe to Dr.

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Howe's email newsletter, age of invention, and be sure to

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read his book arts and minds.

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Both of those will be linked in the show notes.

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If you enjoy How to Help, please take a moment to give us a positive

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review in your podcast app.

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It helps us to reach more listeners.

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Also be sure to subscribe so you can get all of these episodes automatically.

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Next time.

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For our last episode of season one, we're going to talk

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about the science of humility.

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My friend, professor Brad Owens is a leading expert on the

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topic and will be my guest.

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We'll be talking about the ingredients of humility.

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Why and where leaders should show humility and how it improves teams and

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organizations in a wide range of ways.

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To stay up to date with How to Help subscribe to our weekly email newsletter,

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each edition recommends high impact organizations and shares ideas for

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how to have more meaning in your work.

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You can find it at how-to-help.com.

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We're grateful as always to Merit Leadership who sponsors this podcast

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and to our production team, which included Cyndi Hall, Travis Stevenson,

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yours truly, and Eric Robertson, who did the editing and the music.

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Our music comes from the Pleasant Pictures Music Club.

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And if you want to use their music in your projects, you can find a link

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and a discount code in our show notes.

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Finally, as always, thank you so much for listening.

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I'm Aaron Miller and this has been How to Help.

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