Those looking to history to shape our future innovations should be wary of the conclusions they draw.
Remember the Roaring Twenties? Maybe not in life, but in film, literature, and all of the nostalgic art that has glorified that period of history – that era immediately after the First World War and the Spanish Flu Pandemic characterized by so much growth, positivity, and innovation? It’s apparently coming back if history has anything to say about it.
The problem is that history has only a little to say about it and only if we listen to what it tells us rather than what we want to hear. It’s a parable for how we think about innovation and is one that we have the chance to write if we pay attention.
Let’s first look at the big ‘history repeats’ arguments of the present and then to what it means for innovation predictions.
History’s Repeats: The Post COVID-19 Case
Yale University Professor Nicholas Christakis has a new book on what he thinks will come from the post-COVID years ahead. Never mind the fact that the book was written at the start of the pandemic in the first half of 2020 (in order to be published for late 2020) and thus misses what’s happened with the second (and in some cases third) waves. Christakis is relying on history to make an argument for what the post-COVID years will look like (and I should say that I have not read the book, only interviews with him about the book and quotes from the book itself, which is what I am basing this article on). Christakis writes:
“If the Roaring Twenties following the 1918 pandemic are a guide, the increased religiosity and abstemiousness of the immediate and intermediate periods could give way to increased expressions of risk-taking, intemperance and joie de vivre in the post-pandemic period,”
Note the ‘could’ and ‘if’ parts of that quote.
Cathal Kelly, writing in the Globe and Mail, points to this idea of the Roaring Twenties as “QAnon for the middle-class – a collective delusion about what’s headed our way based more on wish fulfilment than reality.”
As others have pointed out, the distribution of effects of COVID-19 have reshaped our social and health landscape to the point where it is unlikely to bounce back with any uniform manner.
What all of these arguments do is try and use the past to predict the present. It’s also about — as Cathal Kelly writes — selective memory about the effects of what history actually brought forward in the 1920’s. Within this are lessons about innovation we can take forward as we start to consider what comes next.
Animals — like us — are pattern-seeking. We look for trends, repeated behaviours, and cause-and-effect relationships where we can so we can hedge our bets in guiding our next action. It’s an efficient use of energy. It’s also why we end up with prejudices and biases that don’t serve us.
Human systems are largely complex and interconnected. They are tied to social movement, time, and what we pay attention to and value. These three things all change over time and have been doing so at an increasingly rapid pace over the past century on account of technology, greater mobility within and between regions, and the fact that our population has quintupled since 1900.
We are far more interconnected in ways that bend time and space (think: telecommunications), physical ability to move (think: air travel), and knowledge of past and present (think: science + Internet). These have real effects. They have shown to have enormous influences on how we innovate and how much we innovate.
They also have enormous effects on the ways in which markets — for products, services, and ideas — operate. Concentration of wealth and the leverage of those with it to use it to manipulate these markets (think: Facebook, Amazon, Google) is unprecedented in how these oligopolies operate at a global scale.
Policies (think: COVID-19 pandemic restrictions) are being influenced in real time by what people are seeing online from neighbouring jurisdictions and — humans being biased toward their own local needs and wants — leads to lobbying efforts for those policies that are least restrictive in most cases. We see others enjoying things, we want that too because we see ourselves in others.
These are all examples of what shapes our perceptions of innovation and the real present and future value of the products and services we design.
But we also miss a lot.
In the Roaring Twenties we noticed fashion changes and music and social-political ideas changing. We miss a lot, too as Kelly points out, in our efforts to celebrate the success of the 20’s:
“The U.S. was smack in the middle of a fitful 50-year project converting itself from an agrarian society into an urban one. All that change did not exactly endear people to one another. Around the same time that Duke Ellington was rewiring the way music is written, thousands of members of the Ku Klux Klan were doing an annual picnic in the streets of Washington.
That part of it – political gridlock, grinding poverty, division and strife, nativism, the fall into a devastating global depression – doesn’t get mentioned as much as the pretty dresses. Nor the fact that the eventual way out of it was a much worse war.”
We miss the innovation efforts that didn’t work, the technologies that were not adopted or the policies that were never approved. We also miss the social context of what we generated. We are selective in what we choose as victories and the context of those victories. To many Blacks in the US old enough to remember, the Black Lives Matter of 2020 isn’t much different than what what Martin Luther King Jr and his colleagues were fighting for. To many women, the second-wave feminism of the 1970’s echoes the ‘No Means No‘ of the early 1990’s and today’s Me Too Movement in fighting for the same thing.
These might be changes, even social innovations, but it’s critical to understand time, movement, and position and recognize our history and what repeats, what doesn’t and why.
History doesn’t repeat, but it might rhyme.
Confusing the two means we might lose the opportunity to do something truly special today to allow us to change the beat of that rhyme for more of us than just a few.