At a time when virtually all rational research into what makes individuals, organisations and countries successful points towards the support of grass roots innovation and decision-making why is it that our governments and thereby the funding agencies are so busy solidifying system that generate mountains of knowledge from the outset to kills game-changing innovation?
In his excellent book “Adapt: Why success always starts with failure” Tim Harford writes, “So far we have discovered two vital principles for promoting new technology. First, create as a many separate experiments as possible, even if they appear to embody contradictory views. Second encourage some long-shot experiments, even though failure is likely, because the rewards to success are so great. The great weakness of most government-funded research is that both these goals are the antithesis of government planning. Bureaucracies like a grand plan, and they like to feel reassured that they know exactly how that plan is to be achieved. Exceptions, such as the Spitfire are rare”.
What he and many innovative thinkers are saying is that nature has come up with a powerful system for selecting success based upon these same principles, evolution. Successful species (Ideas) that fit the demands of a particular niche survive and those that do not disappear from the fossil record. The loss of the unfit is not an argument for destroying the evolutionary process. If we add in the human propensity for synergistic cooperation we have a very potent strategy for achieving success in almost any area of human endeavour.
Our current hierarchical top-down structures governing research and its funding reward the safe, the predictable and the cost efficient at the expense of risky, speculative and potentially world-changing discoveries. Innovations that trigger big changes in the way we live spring from risk, adversity, eccentricity, stubbornness and often conflict. The way we are forced to operate in research is in danger of burying us in factual detail and is slowly pulling down a blindfold to our evolutionary advancement. There are only so many angels that can be balanced on the head of a pin but if you create a new kind of pin the world changes.