This is just a short post to clear my mind of some converging thoughts. The first background element is the announcement this week that the UK government has slashed its school building program (although the new government is still likely to do more then the old); and finding a place in an Australian University is a difficult as ever.
The second element is a couple of radio features discussing the evolution of mankind in particular the key point some 100,000 years ago when our ancestors developed trade and probably saved themselves from extinction. Followed by the development of agriculture some 10,000 years ago followed by cities that allowed the time for arts and science to flourish.
Arguably, the shift from low density, low interactive populations of hunter gatherers to the relatively high density, high interactive communities of the late Stone Age and Early Bronze Age facilitated the emergence of early civilisations in the Middle East, Indus Valley and Central America some 3 to 4,000 years ago.
The third element is a book on ‘The Lunar Men’ a group of natural philosophers, scientists and business men that largely kick started the industrial revolution in the UK Midlands (Birmingham) in the 18th Century. This group were the last of the European ‘renascence’ which itself was based on the ability to communicate effectively assisted by the development of printing and inter European communication.
All of these leaps in knowledge were based on the ability to interact and communicate in a more effective way than was previously possible. The supporting elements are improvements in trade and commerce and the ability (in latter times) to overcome entrenched opposition to new ideas. A modern example of this phenomenon is Silicone Valley and the massive leap in the way the world interacts caused by the development of the Personal Computer.
Waves of innovation seem to be partially serendipity, you need the right people and the right ideas, but this is helped by the quality, density and flexibility of the communication network between them. Discussion, argument, collaboration and competition in an environment that allows multiple independent threads to develop concurrently seems to be the catalyst for literally changing the world. Based on this construct, my prediction is the next massive wave of innovation is likely to come out of China.
The one statistic that for me sums up where China is going is the 60 million qualified university graduates that enter the workforce each year. Many of China’s Universities are world class and the concept of an annual intake of new graduates entering the workforce that is three times the total population of Australia speaks volumes for the skills, innovative capability and sheer energy being generated in this vast economy.
The region I visited was the Yangtze River Delta. This region has always been a major industrial centre and the emergence of Shanghai as the economic capital of China has simply accelerated its development and expansion. Today, this part of China has double the foreign trade of the entire Indian economy and represents 25% of China’s GDP.
The China I saw actively encourages innovation and technical development, has effective communication and a very large talent pool. All that is needed is a little serendipity and who knows what may be developed. In the same way efficient steam engines created the industrial revolution (Watt and Boulton were both Lunar Men) and the PC created the knowledge revolution anything may be possible (and predicting the outcome in advance is nearly impossible).
There are alternatives – the internet allows everyone to communicate so location is no longer a central issue to collaboration; and the major limitation on the Renascence was the entrenched interests of the Church and secular authorities. However, overall I feel the next major wave of innovation cannot be far away what it looks like and where it starts are open questions but slashing access to quality education and limiting the desire to learn certainly won’t help the UK or Australia be in the forefront.
On a smaller scale, every organisation can help its people innovate by creating the right environment for ideas to emerge.