Adopting Innovations

In my previous post I wrote


As a development economist, I have often asked myself what are the invariants that underlie development. I know for sure that high technology (computers, internet, cell phones) are neither necessary nor sufficent for development. Most of the developed economies of the world developed at a time when all those were not yet invented. I believe that one invariant is the ability to adopt innovations.

People, societies, economies which can successfully adopt innovations tend to do better than those that don’t adopt innovations. The operational word is adopt. Innovations happen all over the place and all the time. Who innovates and how is not what I am concerned about although it is a fascinating subject in itself. What I am concerned about is the adoption of innovation rather than the causes innovations.

Innovations are primarily discovered or invented by what I call ‘micro-agents’. That is, the suppliers of innovations are individuals or very small groups of people. These are the real smart people who have understood some problem very well and figured out a solution to the problem. This is hard work and it requires truckloads of inventiveness, intelligence, luck, and all sorts of fortuitous circumstances for innovations to arise. Therefore, the number of successful innovators is small relative to the overall population and so is the number of real innovations very small. But what is significant is that any real innovation has a multiplier effect in its implementation when the innovation is adopted by society at large. We all don’t have to invent a wheel or a wheel-barrow. Someone somewhere came up with the innovation of a wheel-barrow and for ever not so intelligent people have been using wheel-barrows to cart stuff around with much less effort than would
be required without one.

Ever been to a construction site or a farm where they did not use wheel-barrows? The answer is: depends. I have seen hundreds of constructions sites in India and they don’t use wheel-barrows. The one right outside my window, where three massive buildings are being built, don’t use use wheel-barrows. They pile the stuff up on their heads and carry small loads. The lever and the wheel (two innovations that form the basis for a wheel-barrow) have been known for ages. I have seen the use of wheel-barrows all over in developed nations. But not in India. In India, it is stuff on their heads. Go to a railway station and coolies will be lugging stuff on their heads for the majority of the loads. If you insist they will get a huge luggage cart but then you will have to wait for a while for them to track down one and they will have to charge you extra for that.

So as I was saying, micro-agents invent the stuff and macro-agents adopt them. Micro-agents have to be very smart to invent clever things. The society at large, the macro-agents, don’t have to be particularly smart: only smart enough to be able to use them. You have to be a veritable genius to invent the wheel-barrow but you have to be a certifiable moron to not use a wheel-barrow after it has been invented.

I am going on about adoption of innovation because that is the important bit. It does not matter who came up with the innovation. What matters is whether a society uses or adopts the innovation. What causes one society to adopt innovations and others to neglect them is a fascinating question and I have my theories about them.

For now, I will continue to explore this topic next.