During major crises, such as those that arise out of the failure to take well-known proactive measures against emerging pandemics, there are often loud calls for innovation. The basic idea of these calls is to bring out the best in us to focus on new ways or technologies to solve problems.
These calls often assume that new problems require new solutions. That’s a potentially costly assumption because it is more likely that new problems can best be solved by implementing old established solutions.
Yes, innovations (which are markets as much as they are new intellectual of tangible assets) can yield benefits.
But when the first reaction to emerging problems is to innovate, it’s at the expense of refashioning existing infrastructures and processes.
The opportunity cost of innovation is forgoing efforts to refashion. That cost might be justified. If it isn’t, the cost is probably very high.
Perhaps there is a slight error in the notion that crises implicitly require innovation: overlooking ingenuity that can be applied to refashioning.
That error – a cognitive skipping over ingenuity right into innovation – could very well send talented minds and scarce resources down an enormous drain.
We know enough about infectious diseases to know what measures work. We know – or should know – how to feed people during lockdowns. In spite of gaps in our knowledge of C19, we know enough to rise to the occasion.
We know that we need ventilators to treat critically-ill covid patients. But if you have a limited number of healthcare providers to attend ventilated patients, producing an infinite supply of ventilators or ECMO circuits won’t help, and will recruit away precious resources from other projects.
An innovation won’t help if it fails to account for the limiting agents in a system.
More healthcare providers would help more than a ventilator that’s passed the final marginal limit. How do you create critical care specialists and nurses in a short time?
You could refashion non-specialists, and that might take a take a lot more ingenuity than innovation. Ingenious refashioning will get to a quicker and safer solution than an innovation because the cumulative experiences and practical knowledge of billions of human hours can be leveraged more immediately.
Applying ingenuity under those pressures would then make clearer how existing conditions can be refashioned, with the benefit of openning-up specific spaces for innovation to then enter. An innovation in itself won’t create more critical-care workers.
Just because there are challenges in refashioning tried-and-true measures and technologies and infrastructures, it doesn’t mean innovation is necessarily cheaper and more effective than (ingenious) efforts to surmount those challenges.
As a matter of fact, last-moment and desperate urges to innovate can make things worse, especially when resources and ingenuity can be marshaled to refashion the givens.