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 innovations rather than the causes of 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.



Categories: Adopting Innovation

7 replies

  1. Amazing post. Agree with you totally. The place I live currently – Singapore – is extremely good at copying innovations and localizing them. Every single public infrastructure developed here has been implemented before in the West or the East. The differentiator is that Singapore implements these infrastructures with precision (Mass Rail Transit, Electronic Road Pricing, Automated parking lots et al) and then successfully trains citizens to effectively make use of these infrastructures.

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  2. I would say a major factor in the adoption of suct innovations depends on a flagbearer for the same. Someone must be ready to champion the idea and atleast ensure its adoption in his/her sphere of influence.
    This is also a major reason why many innovations fail to meet the eye and fail to make it beyond the drawing board.
    But what would the flagbearer be classified as …. a microeconomic factor or macroeconomic factor??
    beyond just an economic view there is also a hard look to be taken on society that is to be affected by the change. The very fabric of the society determines the aceptance or rejecting a very good idea.
    Also the cost of existing services and the cost of bringing the new innovation forth… even though it might be less , also the cost of change which people might associate with the adoption of the innovation. ( Economics is definitely there) as said before , a very very interesting subject but I do not know how to take this forward….
    Arun Varadarajan
    ( These rantings….??? leave me confused and start within me a thought process that seems to contradict what I know and my existing beliefs…)

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  3. Atanu is right on the mark with the concepts of micro-agent and macro-agents. What any country needs is a whole bunch of macro-agents to champion the use of many of the various types of “wheel-barrows” that the world has produced so far. The macro-agents have to be particularly sensitive to the short-term nature of some of the technologies.
    Good article, Atanu.

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  4. I am aware ‘wheel barrows’ is just being used as a symbolic reference here. However, I have the following observations about why wheel-barrows cannot be used in India.

    1) If you closely observe the construction site area, you will find that the stone or brick loads are carried UP stairs to the first floor or second floor, where they are not too helpful. They are not helpful if the path is sandy or very uneven.

    2) As regards Railway coolies, for one most stations have stairs you have to climb to cross platforms, quite unlike the western countries. Check out Bangalore station or Coimbatore station, you will see what I mean.

    3) When there are wheel barrows, I would not need a person to help me with the luggage in case the railway platform is even and smooth (with out stair cases) right until the Taxi stand. The government tried to provide these much like a western airport, but the labor unions intervened to prevent loss of jobs.

    What I am saying is that, simplification is fine with thinking up theories, but the matters are more complex than that.

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  5. there is still a cause and effect relationship involved in the acceptance of innovation amongst societies, the diffusion of innovation follows the traditional curve of earyly adapters, early majority and laggords. anything that is supposed to be a latent demand of people, comes out as an innovation, and is adopted at some point, but the real thing for innovators who come up with any product is to look at the end game for innovations, if they see that there is need that would be present in future, go for it, how to bring that innovation to market and to make it acceptable, they could produce products as compliment for power Buyers, like ADOBE knew that if google let adobe crawl in searches, it would itself enhance its image as a comrehensive search engine.

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