Science – a great innovation

What makes a great innovation? It should certainly generate value for society. That is, for many, many people. It should also have a lasting impact. And maybe, in retrospect, it could have changed the course of history? Now that’s a tall order. Examples, please.

  • Taming fire – offering light, heat, new access to food, and even a weapon, all in one go.
  • Agriculture – providing predictable, secure access to food, the opportunity to create surplus and store it, and ultimately settlement.
  • The wheel – revolutionising transportation, carrying larger volumes, over greater distances, at higher speeds.
  • Script – storing information, for now and future generation.
  • Printing – sharing information rather than keeping behind the high walls of the monasteries.
  • The zero – taking calculus and mathematics to a hole new level of abstraction.
  • Money – creating an abstract currency, moving beyond barter trade.
  • Double-entry book keeping – opening the gateway to reliable accounting and modern business practices.
  • Penicillin – producing effective antibiotics that saved millions of lives.

You’ll certainly have your own favourite innovation, and I’m sure that will be a worthy entry to a probably endless list. For mankind’s record is truly impressive. In every area of human life.

But if you were to ask me for my personal favourite, I’d put science pretty close to the top of the list. To me, science is one of the greatest innovations ever. While it is not amongst the best appreciated or most spectacular innovations we have seen so far, I think it is clearly amongst the most influential, because it is a meta innovation: science is an innovation on how we do innovation, it changed the way we approach and think about innovation. Science served as an effective multiplier that enlarged our innovation toolbox as well as our understanding how to use those tools individually and in combinations. It expanded, and keeps expanding, our knowledge on every single aspect of how we orchestrate phenomena to fulfil a purpose: to generate value for society.

Sir Isaac Newton famously remarked:

If I have seen further it is by standing on ye sholders of Giants.

Well, that is a token of modesty, acknowledging his predecessors’ foundational work. To stay within Newton’s image, I’d dare summarise the impact of science as growing ever taller giants, in increasing numbers, faster and faster. That is the unique contribution science made, and keeps making, to the progress of mankind; and that way science affected every single person’s life ever since it was conceived.

To be fair, science didn’t come out of thin air. Rather, the Renaissance enlightened creative minds across Europe and thus set the stage. And science didn’t simply flourish all by itself. Rather, the Revolution of Rights and the Reformation created favourable conditions that enabled curious investigation beyond previously established norms. And no, the success story didn’t come overnight either. Rather, over several generations science co-developed together with the economic and political institutions that support its further evolution, and that benefited from its results.

We usually focus our attention on the Industrial Revolution when we look for breakthrough innovation. And it’s true: that period saw an impressive explosion of new ideas explored, developed and put into practice. But here’s an interesting question: to which extent was that burst truly industrial? How much of it was owed to science? Which influence did the political, legal, and economic conditions have? And how did all of that play out over time? Sounds like another topic for a future post …


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