How ideas spread and develop
A practical guide to understanding and fostering technical change
Zed Books, 2002
ISBN 1 85649 972 3 (pb) £15.95
ISBN 1 85649 971 5 (hb) £49.95
review by John Jopling
Why are some technological innovations widely adopted whilst others struggle? And what light does the answer to that question throw on how we should seek to spread radical ideas?
Even though this book is about the best processes for developing technological innovations, its relevance runs far beyond its subject. Everyone interested in how ideas develop and spread will find it fascinating.
If you ever wondered whether we need more innovations at all in view of the problems they've created in the past, I don't think you will continue to do so when you've read this book. Douthwaite says that given that our natural resource bank is becoming exhausted and the world's population is increasing, new technologies are needed if per capita consumption is not to fall to disastrous levels.
The book therefore argues that the crucial question is not innovation or no innovation but the process by which innovation is developed. It proposes a theory, 'learning selection', to explain why some innovations have been developed successfully and others haven't. The word 'selection' has echoes of Charles Darwin's 'natural selection' and, sure enough, the way into understanding what 'learning selection' means is via Darwin's theory of evolution. Here's Douthwaite's neat summary:
Natural selection is at the heart of Darwin's theory of biological evolution. It is the process by which, because of constant competition for the necessities of life, only the fittest individual plants or animals, those best suited to their environment, survive. Differences between individuals in a population arise because of random genetic mutations and sexual reproduction; if any of these differences proves advantageous, it will enable those possessing it to produce more offspring. Some of the offspring will inherit the beneficial trait and produce more offspring too, and so, over time, the genetic composition of the population will change.
So today's world is the result of lots of 'selections.' Natural selection, Douthwaite points out, consists of three mechanisms:
- Novelty generation. As a result of random genetic mutations and sexual recombination of differing genetic material, differences between individual members of a species crop up from time to time.
- Selection. This is the mechanism which retains random changes that turn out to be beneficial to the species because they enable those possessing the trait to achieve better survival and breeding rates. It also rejects harmful changes.
- Diffusion and promulgation. These are the mechanisms by which the beneficial differences are spread to other areas.
The development of a new technology often starts when someone has a bright idea. That's novelty generation. If someone then makes use of the idea, that's selection. And when others take it up, that's diffusion and promulgation. The point that Douthwaite makes is that one should see these three mechanisms as part of a single learning process in which everyone involved - researchers, manufacturers and users - have important parts to play. 'Rather than natural selection, let us call this whole interactive and experiential learning process learning selection' he writes.
In his Foreword, Niels Röling, the professor of innovation studies at Wageningen University in the Netherlands summarises learning selection thus: 'the book argues that successful innovation is based on ...mobilising creativity among people who are willing to run with a brilliant idea, even if it is still flawed and underdeveloped. The fact that [the idea] is underdeveloped is a boon, so long as the various agents in the system are invited to improve upon it.'
Nothing very extraordinary in that you may think but in fact this book is paradigm changing stuff. Douthwaite has enunciated a theory that embraces the diversity of place, human experience and people as an integral part of achieving successful technical innovation. It's new thinking, the first time anyone has put forward, and precisely described, a comprehensive theory on these lines. The contrast between this 'co-development' model, involving people 'learning by using' and 'learning by doing', and the conventional 'consultancy' development model is huge.
Douthwaite shows that, for developing new technologies, the 'co-development' model works best. In the course of his post-doctoral research on how post-harvest agricultural equipment was developed and adopted in the Philippines, he began to realise that
agricultural equipment was more likely to be beneficial to more people if the people who benefitted could understand it and adapt it to their local needs. Moreover the agricultural technologies that were most widely adopted were exactly the ones that had been most adapted. This link between adoption and adaptation had some far reaching implications. In particular, it showed that contrary to the standard view that agricultural extension is the job of 'spreading the message to achieve diffusion and adoption of the innovation by as many small holders as possible', it is largely about helping farmers to understand and innovate.
That realisation led him to enquire if similar conclusions held good in fields other than agricultural technologies. The book is an account of that enquiry. It starts with grain dryers in the Far East and then moves on to wind turbines, (why did the Danes succeed in developing good turbines while the Americans, who spent more money, did not?) IT (Linux versus Windows), LETS (local exchange trading schemes) and biotechnology (the Green Revolution and its legacy). And a thoroughly readable and extremely informative account it is.
The practical implications of the 'learning selection' theory are discussed throughout the book. For example, it seems that each new technology needs to have a 'product champion' to push it forward but this person needs to be 'low at the ego end' so that he or she can incorporate other people's ideas. A 'healthy mixture of top down and bottom up' generally seems to work best, too, but there are horses for courses. And different forces are important at different stages. The idea that people in different roles can be equal partners in technology development is fully explored. The strengths and roles of the public and private sectors are discussed in an unbiased way. The impacts of the profit motive and patent laws are spelt out.
I wasn't sure why it was thought necessary to have ten pages on the history of money to introduce the chapter on LETS. It seemed more than the reader needed to know in order to be able to follow the discussion about the money system's development. Not that the history wasn't beautifully written, but it took one's mind off the subject of the book. But the LETS story itself was fascinating. What a refreshing change to be asking not: 'which LETS system is best?' but: 'what are the lessons to be learned from the LETS story about what processes of development work best in practice?'
Although a technology can be regarded as a success if it is widely adopted since that means a lot of people are making use of it, the incompleteness of this measure surfaces in the chapter on the Green Revolution. By the standard of widespread adoption, the Revolution was a success but Douthwaite quotes Vandana Shiva: 'The Green Revolution has been a failure. It has led to reduced genetic diversity, increased vulnerability to pests, soil erosion, water shortages, reduced soil fertility, micronutrient deficiencies, soil contamination, reduced availability of nutritious food crops for the local population, the displacement of vast numbers of small farmers from their land, rural impoverishment and increased tensions and conflicts.' To which he adds: plus high levels of external inputs involving large amounts of energy nearly all of which comes from fossil fuels, which are running out.
'The decision about which R&D paradigm to use should not, however, be based purely on the question of which model can produce the highest number of adopters in the shortest period of time' Douthwaite writes. 'Instead the decision should be determined according to which model is likely to produce the more beneficial impact in terms of peoples' qualities of life, sustainability and the protection of the natural environment.' That's about the nearest one gets to Douthwaite's idea of what constitutes 'success.' A fuller discussion is left for another day; and will require another book, or books.
The great value of having an intellectual framework is that it enables comparisons to be made between very different sorts of technical innovation. Once you have a model, it's extraordinary how it suggests the questions that need to be asked and provides a mental sorting system for dealing with the answers. I have no doubt that many people working in the fields covered by the case studies will find Douthwaite's insights useful; but in proposing a comprehensive theory of successful technical innovation, he has provided a framework which can, and will, be used in many other fields.
Niels Röling ends his Foreword by explaining that a 'praxeology' is a theory that regulates the thinking of practitioners in a particular field. He goes on: 'I believe that Boru Douthwaite has developed the kind of brilliant incipient innovative praxeology that innovation managers will run with, learning and selecting as they go.'
That's enough to justify giving the book ten out of ten, but for me it's not the end of the story, since it's a book that sets one thinking. It confirms that it's not enough for us to have bright ideas about what needs to be done. We must become information managers studying the processes by which successful change is achieved, with 'success' being measured in terms which include wider sustainability issues. I'll definitely keep coming back to this book.
|This book review is from
Growth:The Celtic Cancer,
the second Feasta Review. Copies of the Review can be ordered online from Green Books, priced at £9.95 plus postage and packaging.