I value grand intellectual sweeps. if you are a tenured professor it seems wrong not to try and give the world your grand vision. So what can we say about transformative innovations?
Tellis and Rosenzweig take a grand sweep in examining the role of transformative innovations in world history. The book moves from Rome through the Mongols. It goes to 15th century China and some key innovations (gunpowder, patenting). It tours via various European states’ rise and fall, and ends 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 now, 2019, 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. What is more, they aren’t always easy to deliver. Still, as aspirations, openness, empowerment, and fair competition are a good starting place to progress.
Certainty Is Hard In History
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 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 central 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. They also happen at all sorts of levels. Weapons technology could be an innovation. So could the mass production that produces the weapons. So can the organization of the forces using the weapons.
Over-Playing Their Hand
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 landmasses 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 for the arrival of transformative innovations. 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. Have to admit that I now know more about the development of patenting than I ever thought I would. Overall, I 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