Digital Transformation Insights

Wed, 19 Aug 2015

Omnichannel NOW Book Review : How We Got To Now – Six Innovations That Made the Modern World

Author : Steve Johnson  
Publisher : The Penguin Group

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You might pick up the book How We Got To Now seduced exclusively by the “innovation” word in the subtitle. While innovation certainly is its core topic, the book will have an unanticipated additional gift for you. Much like Bill Bryson’s Made in America gave you an interesting perspective on the history and evolution of culture in America over the last three centuries as part of discussing its core topic - how the English language evolved in America, Steve Johnson’s book on innovation exposes you to quite a bit of fascinating history of the conditions, places and personalities over the centuries that touched or were touched by the innovations Steve discusses in the book.

The book’s main thesis is that innovations lead to sociological, cultural and other changes that spur other innovations quite unrelated in a technological sense to the original innovation – what Steve calls the “hummingbird effect” where the evolution of pollen in flowers millions of years back to attract insects ultimately lead to the coevolution of a new kind of a bird with wing design like no other bird that allows it to hover over the flower.

The typical book on innovation discusses Silicon Valley wizardry. Steve Johnson chooses instead to take the “long-zoom” approach discussing fundamental developments over centuries that changed history and culture. He takes us through a tour of how fundamental innovations in six areas came about – glass, cold (as in cooling), sound, clean (as in cleansing water), time and light. The author claims and you’d agree with him when you finish the book, that his account allows the reader to view history from a totally fresh perspective – not the way we were taught history as children where history is all about kings and invasions but from the point of view of how societies and the course of history evolved driven by these innovations.

Among the several examples Steve recounts in his book of innovation triggers that result in the hummingbird effect:

  • Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century created more demand for reading. For the first time, many people realized they were long-sighted leading to an explosion of innovations in lenses ultimately resulting in the development of microscopes and understanding of germ theory of disease and telescopes that allow humans to peer into distant space.
  • The attempt by Scott de Martinville, a French stenographer, to create a contraption to automate conversion of human voice to shorthand writing in the 19th century led to inventions in audio technology and mass media with the social outcome of the first induction of African-Americans as musicians and entertainers into the living rooms of mainstream America.
  • Galileo Galilei’s fascination as a teenager with the periodicity of the swinging lamp in Duomo of Pisa in his hometown leading to the invention of devices for measurement of time and how these inventions were critical to the onset of the industrial age.

Some of the connect-the-dots efforts in the book will strain your credibility but all of them will make you think.

 Now, what does all this have to do with Omnichannel and Digital – topics on your mind in your workday? It is universally acknowledged that the ability to innovate is one determinant of success in the digital age. As individuals seeking the respect of your peers and professional success and as members of organizations competing in the digital world, the book offers you many insights on traits to detect and cultivate in yourself and in your organization to spur a culture of innovation. It is astonishing to learn how many of the qualities and approaches of Thomas Edison (discussed in the book’s chapter on Light) are still applicable today.

Postscript: There are many interesting side stories and anecdotes in the book worth reading about and too many to recount here. One worth pointing out for those among the Omnichannel NOW members who are of Indian origin – The Ice House structures of Calcutta, Chennai and Bombay are discussed in the book as tied to the Boston businessman Fredric Tudor who became fabulously wealthy mid 19th century, exporting blocks of ice cut from frozen lakes of New England in the United States to hot locations around the world. The Ice Houses in Calcutta and Bombay have been rebuilt but the Ice House in Chennai still stands after 150 years, rechristened as Vivekanandar Illam.