During last month’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas in New Haven, CT, a participant in a panel discussion on innovation shared an interesting anecdote. He explained how his company was pondering how to provide a lower cost incubator warming system for premature babies in lesser developed countries. The high-tech model sold in the US was approximately $23,000 per unit; too expensive and too complex for less developed countries. After collaborating with an innovations center in its India affiliate, it hit upon an ingenious solution: stripping down the highly automated US unit to a low-tech but just as effective manually controlled unit at a fraction of the price.
That got me to wondering. If the low tech, low-cost unit works for Indian kids, why isn’t it good enough for US kids? How much does our obsessive fetish with automated this and high-tech that drive up the cost of service in the US with little or no discernible benefit? To what degree does this mindset account for the fact that we pay a premium for mediocre medical results?
I remember the commencement speaker at my brother-in-law’s graduation from dental school in 1979. He spoke of how hospitals with state of the art cardiac treatment centers were experiencing higher than anticipated mortality, and longer recoveries to discharge, contrary to their projections. They ultimately concluded that automating the monitoring of patients to reduce the human contact was having an adverse affect on patients psychologically. Human interaction was as important a component of the healing process as monitoring vital signs.
Then I remembered a video I saw of a Soviet fighter jet that was ranked competitive with ours. Its maneuvers and performance in flight were impressive. But equally impressive was the observation by experts that the aircraft could be maintained in the field with a much smaller support complement, and could operate from less developed facilities, making the system easier to deploy to a broader array of combat theaters.
Which brings us to Iraq-istan. We built ever bigger vehicles to protect our forces from ever more potent, but comparatively primitive, lethal devices, modified on the run by people not prepped at The Point. Why are we trying to build indigenous armies to look and operate and equip like us, when our tactics didn’t win the wars, and they are unlikely to be able to sustain an army in a format we can no longer afford ourselves?
Then there’s the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ship, which was recently reported to be of questionable combat capability. At $670 million a pop, that’s not reassuring, but for the DOD, that’s not unusual.
Then there’s ‘Big Data’, which I have spoken to previously. There are appropriate places for Big Data. But is it a need, a niche, or a rage? Is it a security blanket to cover lazy analysis and a paucity of insight with an impressive pile of data that reveals little?
No doubt, there are marketing opportunities for big data to identify targets of opportunity with the precision of an electron microscope, but how much is the supporting investment worth in aggregate in sucking blood from the bloodless of the broader economy?
A marketing professor once noted a survey of CEOs revealed that most doubted the value of their advertising in affecting sales, but they nonetheless felt compelled to make the investment in it. Faith based management. The constant struggle of the data parasites to gain more ‘insight’ into the market and attract more web advertising seems more like a churning of possibilities for would-be advertisers than achievement of measurable results.
In my own professional pursuits, I have often been dismayed to observe how little we use of the technological capabilities we have. For example, most professional business people use Excel as little more than an electronic piece of paper. They are substantially ignorant of most of its functionality to make them more productive, and not highly motivated to learn. Do we need a better Excel, with more options on the ribbon? A different format? More intuitive? A dab of artificial intelligence to anticipate our needs and fill in the logic as well as the blanks? No. We need to learn to use what we have to better effect. More managers are adept at using PowerPoint than at using Excel or various database applications that create the content for the presentation. More focus is placed on the image of presentation than the substance of what is being presented. Is that where the focus should be?
And apparently nobody does Big Data like NSA? Does it make us safer? I doubt it. Sweeping everything into a gargantuan pile gives a delusion of control; being able to drill quickly and reliably to the critical core is what matters. If our intelligence services are so capable, and so well equipped with the latest data crunching technology, why is it that we are continually blind-sided by international events that they are so meticulously scanning? Wrong data? Wrong systems? Wrong management perspective? Clearly, we are not getting enough ‘bang for the bytes’.
Eventually, our pursuit of technology becomes an unsustainable defense of technology’s promise more than an attainment of its productivity. The perpetual upgrade cycle is a hook, not a destination. As true improvement becomes tougher to achieve, superficial refinements mask mediocrity as progress. Marketing supplants R&D. PT Barnum (“There’s a sucker born every minute, and two to take him”) becomes the management guru of choice.
We are now witnessing a victim of this cycle. Apple has become a mature company. It is now more a competitor than an innovator. It has critical mass, momentum. Like Microsoft. It can cruise for a long, long time, doing its thing. But it may have passed its moment as ‘disruptor’. Now, as it moves through the tech jungle, bloated with its success, and financially insulated from the immediate consequences of lethargy, myopia and bad decisions, it must wonder what small microbe could bring it down.
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By now I hope you get my drift. I’m no Luddite (or so I’d like to think). I love data and respect technology, but I question the pay-back in many instances. Big Data does what only Big Data can do in gene sequencing and climate change modeling. The Mars rovers and Hubble space telescope are truly remarkable machines, evidence of our best capabilities put to appropriate use. I hope that someday, some large-scale particle collider will uncover mysteries of energy that will make desk-top fusion and unlimited cheap, clean energy a reality.
But I question the wisdom and benefit of constant turnover for the sake of turnover. I question disruption for the sake of profit without progress. I don’t suggest that we return to some imagined ‘golden age of simplicity’. But we do need to put the brakes on neurotic ‘innovation’ for its own sake.
Or, putting it another way, we now have over $4 trillion in infrastructure investment deficit in the US to upgrade sewage, water treatment and distribution, roads, public transportation, bridges, power generation and distribution, reliable and modern communication to areas lacking it, basic healthcare to those with none, basic nutrition to those with little,…..
Do we really need a better iPad?