Editorial: Is optimism the safest bet?

There is a telling gap between generally right and “wrong all the time” and for whom.

general assumption is democratic governments with an established form of civil service able to provide continuity of advice irrespective of perspective of political leadership will develop stable strategies for innovation development. Lee Kuan Yew, the statesman who led Singapore for 31 years after its independence from Malaysia 50 years ago, and his son, current prime minister Lee Hsien Loong, have provided just such continuity.

The elder Lee’s death last month at 91 shows what an enlightened innovation strategy can do as he helped transform Singapore from a small port city into a wealthy global hub. The whipsaw of policy and budgetary changes in other countries, such the UK and Russia, show that even clear mandates to focus on innovation as a driver for growth can be caught by the details of how to deliver the policies.

Bryan Mezue, a member of the Forum for Growth and Innovation, a Harvard Business School think tank developing and refining theory around disruptive innovation, in this issue (see comment) argues that “while innovation can be pivotal to macroeconomic prosperity, not all kinds of innovation are created equal”. He pushes for“market-creating innovations,” such as those that make products and services accessible to non-consumers or those who are under-served.

There is a long tail of inventions seeking a market and trying to create one. As we near the 70th anniversary of perhaps the apogee of such market-creating innovation, the use of atomic bombs out of the Manhattan project, it is worth remembering Robert Oppenheimer’s speech afterwards, where he quotes the Lord Vishnu from Bhagavad Gita: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.”

Most innovation, even market-creating ones, however, rarely have such defined births. Mezue rightly points out that market-creating innovations “are almost always harder to execute… They do not come together automatically; executing them consistently and successfully requires unparallelled collaboration between policymakers, investors, entrepreneurs and other stake-holders.” This very level of collaboration and consistent application of effort means it is hard to notice when such watershed moments are happening.

Last month’s MIT Technology Review feature on Engineering the Perfect Baby does a nice job of capturing another of these moments: editing the DNA of the germ line - the egg and sperm, which combine to form an embryo – which is now conceptually feasible. It is already noticeable in communities of in-vitro fertilised (IVF) babies that a donor can be chosen by multiple people who end up having siblings potentially unaware of each other. As one family member put it: “So by happenstance, [Samantha] and this other women discovered their children were siblings.”

That this level of IVF treatment is expensive – about $500,000 for Samantha so far – brings in a combination of social exclusivity that germ line engineering could only enhance if the treatment is more costly.

But it might become redundant as governments consider equality of potential opportunities and outcomes and then look beyond genetic engineering to a time when brains and computers can interact directly. Last month in a conversation between Yuval Noah Harari and Daniel Kahneman published by Edge, they questioned what it means if “death is optional… once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface [the so-called singularity moment]”.

Harari, a historian, warns “you should take into consideration the possibility that medicine in the 21st century will be elitist, and that you will see growing gaps because of that, biological gaps between rich and poor and between different countries. You should take very seriously the option that people will lose their military andeconomic value, and medicine will follow… Once you are superfluous, you don’t have power. In terms of ideas, in terms of religions, the most interesting place today in the world is Silicon Valley, not the Middle East. This is where people like Ray Kurzweil [who popularised the term singularity] are creating new religions.”

In October’s New York magazine, Marc Andreessen, co-founder of internet browser Netscape and venturecapital firm Andreessen Horowitz, said while not all the innovations and ideas would work, “I can tell you, atleast from the last 20 years, if you bet on the side of the optimists, generally you are right…The skeptics are wrong all the time.”

There is a telling gap between generally right and “wrong all the time” and for whom. The concerns for government venturing units tasked with supporting innovations – whether market-creating or otherwise – will lie in what is defined as right and wrong: for a select few or generally. This challenge of our times will be hampered by whipsaw policies and a lack of vision by governments and their political leaders.


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