From a macro perspective – understanding innovation

If you want to investigate the development of mankind from a macro perspective, don’t be shy, do it at a truly global scale. And if you want to look at that development over long periods of time, why not begin with, say, the end of the last ice age, some 16,000 years ago? Too ambitious? Well, that is exactly the approach that Ian Morris took in “Why the West Rules – For Now”.

In this fascinating endeavour, he looks at how social development evolved in different corners of the globe over time. While Morris accepts the differences between individuals, he observes that large groups of people will always display similar behaviour regardless of location or time. As he expresses the concept through his own Morris Theorem:

Change is caused by lazy, greedy, frightened people looking for easier, more profitable, and safer ways of doing things. And they rarely know what they are doing.

People seek to improve their lot through changing their environment to their benefit. That is what we call innovation, the purpose is a safer, easier, richer life. In essence, Morris describes the key psycho-social drivers for innovation: human sloth, greed, and fear. These are the innate motivations that make humans strive for innovation.

At the same time, he observes that change has desired as well as unintended consequences: today’s solution can be tomorrow’s problem.

Rising social development generates the very forces that undermine further social development. I call that the paradox of development. Success creates new problems, solving them creates still newer problems.

Change creates the need for further change, and innovation requires further innovation. In our attempts to make our lives easier, richer, and safer, we are partially successful; yet we also create contrary effects that force us to correct our course: requiring more change, more innovation. The wheel is set in motion.

Once you give in to the drivers, you become driven. Our ancestors took a pre-conscious decision ages ago, at a time when they left the trees and stepped out into the open plains. Today we don’t have a choice, we have embarked on a relentless journey.

But where is that journey going to lead us? Where is it going to end? Is it going to end at all? In the subtitle of his book, Morris addresses The patterns of history and what they reveal about the future. Building on his ideas I’ll dive a bit deeper into the perspectives for the future in my upcoming post “Is growth inevitable?