07: Regard chance and surprise as allies

In 1928, while on holiday, the Scots biologist and pharmacologist Alexander Fleming accidentally left a number of cultures of staphylococcus bacteria uncovered. He returned to find the growth of bacteria in one dish inhibited by a growing blue-green fungus, Penicillium notatum. Penicillin, which Fleming named after filtering it off from a hot solution of the fungus, was later found to dispose of several of the world’s major diseases.

From the microwave oven through the Post-it note and on to the Viagra pill, serendipity – a random turn of events that proves fortuitous – has played a major role in the process of innovation. [1] Yet if 21st century managers always say they’re ready for ‘out of the box’ thinking, in practice many bridle at the idea of an innovation project moving sideways. Why should chance, tangential discoveries absorb researchers in the unexpected, the unfamiliar, the difficult, and the costly?

Innovation processes can lead many organisations down paths they would rather not go. But that is precisely what is valuable about them. Their logic is not the logic of the market. Innovation needs planning; but one cannot really plan for its intrinsically serendipitous character.

As human endeavours, innovation and technology will surprise

Like surprises in the process of innovation, the history of ‘finished’ technological products and systems is the history of transformations for the most part unforeseen. As the Internet bears witness, technologies conceived for one use have acquired other, unexpected uses over time.

Why do typical processes of innovation share with the social evolution of technology the capacity to inflict pleasant surprises? Because the fate of both depends on a surprising species: humanity. It’s real men and women that not only originate innovations, but also chance upon them, and continuously adapt them to new ends.

To discover the uses of things is the work of history-making human beings. The ocean, once seen as a barrier, in time became a means for human development and exploration.

It is not the atomic nucleus that makes for nuclear war, but the plans of men. It is not the Internet that creates democracy, but political action. It is not newly engineered houses that create community, but the people who live in them. It is social circumstances, not the functionalities within a technology, which dictate how, in different times and places, it will be adopted, rejected, used or abused. Any other view of innovation would fall into technological determinism, in which technology is held to have a relentless logic not subject to the preferences of society.

Luckily enough, however, innovation and technology always contain the possibility of happy accidents, not just unhappy ones.

Let’s hear it for unanticipated needs

Yes, necessity is the mother of invention. But inventions themselves call forth new needs.  [2] Nobody needed the carwash before the car. Nobody needed uranium much before atomic weapons and atomic power were established.

In innovation, the concept of the unexpected deserves continued acclaim, for that shows confidence in human ingenuity. Human beings can solve problems thrown at them, can take advantage of fresh insights, and can usefully invent new problems to solve. Most of the time, that will tend to make scientific and technical surprises a source of delight, not of despondency.

Will the generation of new and unanticipated needs, through technology, lead to further problems? Perhaps. But many tricky problems, old and new, must be solved if society is to go beyond the post-war legacy of innovation.

1 In 1945, radar researcher Percy Spencer noticed that his equipment had melted a bar of chocolate he had on him; after that he and his employer, Raytheon, patented and built microwave ovens. In 1968 3M scientist Dr Spencer Silver made a glue of clear, sparkly spheres rather than film: it could be used again and again, but wasn’t very sticky. Only when Silver’s colleague, Art Fry, found himself repeatedly losing the bookmark in his church hymnbook did it occur to 3M to develop an application for that glue as repositionable pieces of paper. Today, more than 600 Post-it products are sold in more than 100 countries. See 3M, ‘Post-it Note History’, on http://www.3m.com/us/office/postit/pastpresent/history.html. In 1996 pharmaceutical chemists at Pfizer developed a new compound in the hope of treating high blood pressure and cases of reduced blood supply to the heart. Clinical trials at Swansea showed few benefits around angina, but an unexpected side effect: penile erections. By 2008 sales of Viagra had topped $1.9 billion – see Pfizer, entry for Viagra in ‘Key medicines and their performance’, Doing Things Differently: Annual Review 2008, on http://www.pfizer.com/investors/financial_reports/annual_reports/key_medicines.jsp

2 See David E Nye, Technology Matters: Questions to Live With, The MIT Press, 2006, p2.


One Comment so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Not quite the whole story of penicillin but it illustrates a point.
    The problem in the UK is not a shortage of these chance discoveries but a shortage of the people who can recognise them.
    So often an inventor makes a presentation to a group of venture capitalists or funders and as you peer out you realise that even with schoolboy mechanics and maths these guys just don’t get it.
    I think James Dyson said he couldn’t understand why they didn’t back him when they were looking at a working model of his cyclone cleaner in front of them. I have been in exactly the same position, a working demonstration but an inability of the funders to see the potential.

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