Transformative Innovations, An Important Part of the Puzzle

I value grand intellectual sweeps — if you are a tenured professor it seems wrong not to try and give the world your grand vision. Tellis and Rosenzweig do so in examining the role of transformative innovations in world history. The book moves from Rome through the Mongols, 15th century China, some key innovations (gunpowder, patenting), various European states’ rise and fall, and ending with the modern US economy. The authors make a lot of good points. At its core I believe the essence of what they say. (I would also add politically it is an important time to say what they say which probably wasn’t accidental). To them being a society that 1) is open to new ideas and people, 2) empowers your citizens, and 3) allows competition, are the building blocks that allow for innovation. This in turn brings development and success. Of course, these three factors aren’t everything and aren’t always easy to deliver, but as aspirations, openness, empowerment and fair competition are a good starting place.

I might quibble that the authors are a bit too certain of what they are saying. (I appreciate the dilemma — books aimed at a mass audience have to avoid the sort of hedging, “this has potential to have been a factor that may have influenced”, that we academics like). They provide relatively clear stories about what are stunningly complex interactions. Even the decline of nations can be explained by their thesis. (Again I believe their point that societies that turn on the “other” usually don’t do great). With a concept like innovation the challenge is that one can pick what exactly one talks about. Innovations are many and various and happen at all sorts of levels. Weapons technology could be an innovation, but so could the mass production that produces the weapons, and so can the organization of the forces using the weapons.

They risk overplaying their hands at times, for example, when comparing their work to Jared Diamond’s discussion of why Eurasia became so powerful. To be fair they note that arguments about the relative power of continental land masses are at a different level to innovations driving the success of nation states. As such both can be true. Indeed geography and innovation surely work together, Venetian naval technology was powerful precisely because of the city-states’ position on the map. The same vessels that were perfect for the Mediterranean wouldn’t have been much use to sailors in other regions seeking to cope with oceans. That said I do appreciate, and think it is necessary, for them to dismiss Western Culture/Christianity as an explanation. They note accurately that such silly theories miss lots out. For example, “Theories of Western supremacy in innovation ignore almost a millennium of innovations in Asia” (Tellis and Rosenzweig, 2018, page 26).

I enjoyed the book, it had lots of interesting details. I now know more about the development of patenting than I ever thought I would. I always admire attempts to raise the sort of theories we talk about in strategy discussions to a higher level.

Read: Gerald  J. Tellis and Stav Rosenzweig (2018) How Transformative Innovations Shaped the Rise of Nations, Anthem Press