I often use the tram in Oslo, and couple of times – when I’m in a philosophical mood – I look out the window and wonder how humanity developed into a complicated society with smartphones, cars, bikes and street lights. How did we get here, and could my view from the tram have been very different with small changes in human history? These answers are not easy to find, but if we can see beyond historically important inventions like the internet, the computer and electricity, and focus on the mechanisms behind all kind of inventions, the continuous innovation process, we may find some interesting insight.
The studies of innovation are quite new in human history, but the practice of innovation has been there throughout most of our history. In the stone age, routines and practices were developed to take advantage of animals and plants. This led the way into an agricultural society, which – of course – is an important step towards the society we have today. But the story of how our world turned into the world I see from the tram at Grünerløkka, is the story of innovation itself, and not the story of certain inventions at a certain time.
One of the most important parts of innovation is our ability to understand and learn from our surroundings. We use our senses to take in information, and we use this information to learn so we’re able to change our behaviour into something more efficient. For thousands of years the human behaviour did not change radically, and one of the reasons for this is the lack of new information to learn from in our surroundings. Stone age societies and early agricultural societies can be characterized by small groups of people living together in more or less the same environment as their ancestors. When you have access to the same knowledge and environment as your grandparents, it’s not easy to find radically new solutions to your problems. To increase the rate of innovation something had to change.
This important change came when humans began to settle down in fixed settlements as a consequence of more efficient food production in the agricultural society. The semi-nomadic society made it possible for humans to own more stuff, because they didn’t have to move around carrying what they owned. Therefore, it was possible to develop technology and products which was heavier than before, in a bigger scale. This may be the reason why industries like pottery and weaving became big business just after humans had settled down in villages. Another effect of fixed settlements and efficient food production was the ability to specialize the workforce. Fewer had to work in food production, and more people could focus on other professions. This combination of more people living together – competing and sharing knowledge – and the ability for specialization and dedication, laid an important foundation for the innovative society.
People living in fixed settlements with more people than before gave a lot of synergic effects on innovation, and especially when villages became bigger and connected through trade in the middle ages. Towns and trade gave certain societies what they lacked: access to different products, beliefs, ways of organizing society, as well as different ways of thinking and solving problems. This diversity created competition, which made it necessary to learn from each other to avoid economic stagnation. In innovation language we call this sharing of knowledge, and the development of modern towns was essential for this in human history. Towns became a place for new thoughts and ideas, which we needed to be able to learn and change our behaviour.
Fixed settlements and trade was important for society to reach a higher level of sharing. But this isn’t enough for the innovative society. In the feudal era in the middle ages, competition and trade was low due to the system of guilds and trade based on personal relationship between monarchs and nobilities. These traditions prevented the sharing of knowledge at a high level. When the mercantilist era grew out of the feudal system, nations became stronger and the merchants got more power. The strongest nation had the strongest town, with most trade and the best products. An example of this can be found in the European textile industry. In the 17th century, the North-Western Europe became the leading geographical area of the European textile industry. They copied some of the earlier manufacturing techniques and improved it by using lighter fabric with more colours, which fitted the market demand better. They also organized the whole process of production in a more efficient way. All the way from ordering materials from farmers to sales of the final product. If some other towns wanted to compete, they had to learn and become better, just like the north-west of Europe had done. Humanity had taken the step into a society of innovation.
From 1500 to 1650 prices tripled in Europe because of imported gold and silver from the New World. This gave merchants increased income relative to landowners, which gave more focus on the quality and price of products over personal relationships. In the same period, we see huge changes in people’s minds. There were new views on both religion and science, which made the reformation and the scientific revolution possible. This would probably not happen without the heterogeneity created by towns and trade in the same period. Changes in religious beliefs made it possible for humans in the western world to act and behave in new ways, and science was necessary in a diverse society with different theories which had to be tested. Later, in the 18th century, we also got increased critic of government, which laid the foundation for democracy.
The process of innovation may seem complicated in the modern world, and they are. But even the most primitive societies did develop innovations, because in the end, it’s all about how we think, behave and interact with each other. So, the next time you look out of the window from the tram and wonder why all you see could grow out of a nomadic stone age society, you can think of the power of innovation, which is the power of people working together, sharing and creating.