VIEWPOINT – Piero Formica

Professor PIERO FORMICA

Winner of the Innovation Luminary Award 2017
Founder of the International Entrepreneurship Academy Network
Senior Research Fellow at the Innovation Value Institute, Maynooth, Ireland
piero.formica@gmail.com

Case studies of successful regions in Europe have suggested that the viability of local economies relies on clusters of small and medium-sized businesses that are a major platform (‘wrestling school’) for flexible, adaptable and capable workforces.  In my recent article (Formica, 2017), I recounted one of these success stories: namely, that of the packaging machinery cluster in and around Bologna, in the Italian region of Emilia Romagna.

Clusters appear to be subject to the “Cargo Cult Science” syndrome, which prevents to glimpse a turning point in the near future.

Now let’s broaden the perspective to observe two images of innovators through the prism of culture that reflects the paradox of “Achilles and the Turtle” attributed to Zeno of Elea (ca. 490-430 BC).

T, which stands for turtle, is the cluster of incremental innovators, who are conservative reformers.  T has a long manufacturing tradition in the transport industry.  The continuous improvements made to their horse-drawn carriages give hope that they can one day reach the speed of 100 km/h.  Likewise, by continuing to invest along the known technological trajectory, incremental innovators aim to constantly increase the cruising speed of their sailing vessels.

A stands for Achilles the fleet-footed hero – say, visionaries who change the state of the art, so laying the foundation for a cluster-building process.  Unlike T, A has no extensive and deep industrial roots.  Its innovators are free to move around.  Their mental models depict means of transport driven by internal combustion engines, rather than the muscular energy of horses and wind energy.

Will A’s cars and steamships overcome the challenge with coaches and sailing ships of T?  Post mortem, the answer is obvious.  It is not ex ante, when the contenders are not yet in the race but just on the starting line.  And even during the competition the answer is not unambiguous.  What is really at stake is the culture of the two communities.

The Cargo Cult Science

“Cargo Cult Science” is the expression used by the Nobel Laureate Richard P Feynman, credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology, to describe the behaviour of the South Sea Islanders after World War II: “During the War they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they have arranged to make things like runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas – he is the controller – and they wait for the airplanes to land. They are doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it does not work. No airplanes land. So I call these things Cargo Cult Science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they are missing something essential, because the planes do not land”.

(Feynman, 1999)

According to the Aristotelian culture of the Turtle, it is not relevant that its means be slower than those offered by the newcomers.  The disciples of the “the master of men who know” ” (Inferno IV, 131), as Dante Alighieri (1265-1321) defined Aristotle (384-322 BC) in the Divine Comedy, assimilated this lesson recounted by the Greek philosopher: “In a race, the quickest runner can never overtake the slowest, since the pursuer must first reach the point whence the pursued started, so that the slower must always hold a lead”.

T’s incremental innovators are convinced that the infinite plays in their favour.  At the start of the race, T has an advantage over A.  Its products have long been well established in the markets.  Customers appreciate them.  A’s visionaries set off with unknown products that lend themselves to anxiety among potential buyers.  At first glance, Karl Benz’s first practical motorcar car appeared to the inhabitants of Mannheim as a devilish work from which to retreat.  If A run faster than T, it is about to clear the initial gap.  However, the forward movement of T produces a second gap, albeit smaller than the first one.  And so on, no matter how much speed A gives its pace to fill the gap.

When a culture is so deeply rooted, the veil of knowledge accumulated over time covers doubt and uncertainty.  Aristotle’s rule is a fixed star in the mindset of incremental innovators.  The fallacy of the argument will only emerge once the race is over, when it is clear that the pursuer A has achieved his or her goal because, in practice, it was a race composed of finite parts.

Fleet-footed Achilles has the best on turtle.  The winner is the visionary innovator, an eternal child who doesn’t cling to the accumulated experience – as the Spanish philosopher George Santayana might have said.

In an article in the New York Times of 22 June 1902, the columnist wrote: “Five or six years ago . . . there were fewer than fifty motor vehicles of various patterns (types, models) in the whole of what is now the Greater New York”, commenting somewhat sceptically that it would not be easy to persuade people accustomed to travelling by horse and carriage to change to the car.  A mere two decades later, however, cars had spread beyond expectations.  The New York Times reported on 6 June 1924 that the US$23 million of capital invested tweny years earlier in the automotive industry was worth almost US$2 billion in 1919, and that the number of workers in the industry had increased from 13,000 to 161,000.  At the same time, capital invested in the horse-drawn carriage industry had fallen from US$152 million to US$97 million and the workforce had decreased from 91,000 to just 30,700.  In 1916, not more than 500,000 cars a year were produced in the United States.  Production in 1929 amounted to ten times as much, five million and 340,000 vehicles.  Twenty million cars and three million industrial vehicles (trucks and buses) were circulating in the United States in 1929.  It was in this way that crashed the supply chain ranging from horse-drawn carriage manufacturers and horse breeders to carriage maintainers, farriers, horse stables and coaching inns that were part of the transport infrastructure and were used to provide food and accommodation for travellers with their coaches or in the public riding stagecoaches.

The same fate hit the age of sailing.  Since the end of that period sailing has been confined to some niches, among which the niche of luxury sailing boats stands out as a distinctive sign of social prestige.

Messenger of memory, history conveys a culture that solicits a query about how long a cluster can be remarkably resilient.

REFERENCES

Feynman, R P.  (1999)  The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.  The best short works of Feynman, R P, London: Penguin Books.
Formica, P.  (2017)  “Bologna Shows How a Business Cluster Can Stay Vibrant for Centuries” hbr.org, October 26.
See also: Piero Formica, Industry and Knowledge Clusters: Principles, Practices, Policy, Tartu University Press, 2003 (ISBN 9985-56-724-2).