Necessity is the mother of inventors: my PhD lecture

The following is the traditional Lectio praecursoria a doctoral candidate in Finland gives to the audience before his/her PhD defence. This one is mine, delivered on 12th December 2017.

Esteemed custos, esteemed opponent, ladies and gentlemen!

You all are probably familiar with an old saying, “necessity is the mother of invention.” Many may also remember stirring tales of ingenuity, where poorly equipped underdogs come up with brilliant inventions or insights that permit them to succeed against the odds. In fact, those of us who have happened to be born in Finland have been positively marinated in such stories.

What these tales and that old wisdom are telling us is that sometimes, less can be more. Tales of ingenuity tell us that human creativity can overcome formidable obstacles, and that the rich and the powerful do not always win in the end. As such, these stories are important if only from an educational perspective: we certainly need to remain optimistic and dare to attempt even the impossible, or otherwise most things we today take as granted would never have been achieved. Triumph over adversity makes for a good story, and we all enjoy good stories.

Furthermore, the connection between resource scarcities and creativity is not merely a question for academics, but increasingly, for the whole society. As the world population is heading towards ten billion or so individuals, and as the exponential growth of extractive economy shows few signs of slowing down, more and more resources are likely to become contested, if not altogether scarce. While the greatest scarcity is likely to be the capacity of the atmosphere to act as a sink for carbon dioxide, according to some reports we may face even scarcities of sand. Yet, if necessity is reliably the mother of invention, we can rest easy in the knowledge that the invisible hand will always save us in the end.

However, as researchers, our task is to remain professional skeptics. Just how well founded is the belief that necessity, via increased demand and hence increased prices, begets innovation that restores the equilibrium? If necessity is indeed the mother of invention, shouldn’t it follow that poverty is the most effective tool of innovation policy? If less is more, shouldn’t us PhD students simply be grateful that our stipends are so low?

When confronted with dilemmas like these, the usual human response is to believe the truth can be found in the middle of two extreme viewpoints. Perhaps getting the “just right” amount of scarcity produces the best results? Such an answer would be very convenient for today’s society, especially for those who control the purse strings. It would normalize the societal mechanisms that make necessities scarce in the first place, treating scarcities not only as inevitable consequences of inevitably endless demand but also as positive forces that prod humans to even greater productivity. If we live in a world where human ingenuity can overcome all obstacles, scarcities and scarcity-inducing policies are to be welcomed as a force for inevitable progress.

Unfortunately, research findings suggest that as a rule, we do not live in such a world.

Since it is ultimately individuals and product development organizations that would need to come up with solutions to scarce resources, it is useful to look into what research says about individual and team creativity under constraints. Prior research[1] has found that some constraints that limit the options available to the designers are likely to be beneficial to individual and team creativity. These findings confirm a well-known axiom in design business: creativity requires constraints, because constraints help you concentrate. However, once we begin to talk about organizational ingenuity, the beneficial effects of constraints seem to be heavily moderated by situational factors, such as attitudes and interpersonal dynamics prevalent within organizations.[2] In short, members of a well-functioning development team that relishes a challenge may well find themselves invigorated by the challenge posed by constraints, but a dysfunctional team is more likely to simply give up.

That said, given the pressing reality of environmental degradation, one oversight of existing constraint and scarcity research is its focus on financial constraints. Most research so far has studied how organizations cope with lack of money, time, or personnel. Few studies give deep insights into how organizations act when some other resource, such as raw materials or energy access, are in danger. My research seeks to respond to these questions.

In my thesis, I examine closely two historical accounts of technological innovation that resulted to important technological changes in an industry. The first and most important of these case studies is the study of so-called flash smelting furnace, while the second concerns the development of radical jet engine cooling technology.

Both of these innovations had considerable impact in their respective industries. Flash smelting technology, developed immediately after the Second World War, was a breakthrough in energy efficiency in copper manufacturing. It was also a commercial success that at one point responsible for as much as 60 percent of world’s primary copper production.[3] The engine cooling concept examined in the thesis would’ve permitted the wartime German Luftwaffe to build cheaper jet fighters. Fortunately, the Second World War ended before the invention came into widespread use. Both of these innovations are believed to be direct results of a scarcity of some important resource: electricity in the flash smelting case, and nickel metal in the jet engine case.[4]

In both of these cases, I found that the technologies themselves were almost ready to be taken into use when the scarcity occurred. Furthermore, scarcity did not appear to have significant impact in creativity of the solutions. In both cases, competing development teams had considered the exact same ideas, but abandoned them because their chosen solution offered superior performance. In other words, it would be more accurate to say that in these cases, scarcities at most slightly accelerated the adoption of almost ready technological solutions.

Two conclusions follow. First, scarcities may sometimes prod industries into using novel technologies. However, second, there are absolutely no guarantees that scarcities can be reliably overcome through human ingenuity. There may well be goods and ecosystem services we simply cannot substitute, and even if we can ultimately find substitutes, there may be no telling how long the technologies require to develop. Technological development is not a black box where planners pour money and out comes innovation on demand: instead, what can be invented at any given time depends on what knowledge and what components are available at that time.[5]

Since it is extremely difficult to predict just which components are needed for the breakthrough discoveries, it is also very difficult to use simple demand mechanisms to stimulate radical innovation. For example, in my case studies, some of the technological knowledge required for breakthroughs came from entirely unrelated fields – from coal power stations in the flash smelting case, and from manufacture of cups and ammunition cartridges in the jet engine case. Demand for less energy intensive methods for smelting copper or for methods for cooling jet engine turbines could not create incentives for the development of coal burning technology, nor for the development of cartridge manufacturing machines. No matter how large the incentives to develop a breakthrough, these developments could not happen unless the time was ripe. On the other hand, when the time is right, it is more than likely that multiple inventors will be able to realize the idea simultaneously.[6]

Now, an economically literate person could object to my research, stating that so far we’ve overcome all scarcities. After all, we have been able to survive, both as a species and even as a developed society, from a variety of shortages and constraints, even though some have been extremely serious. This is true, but depends on how we define the words “scarcity” and “overcome”. There may also be some selection bias: the businesses and societies that have faced scarcities they couldn’t overcome have ceased to exist.

Even if the business or the society adapts to a scarcity of some resource, the society often needs to change as a result. Change is of course not necessarily bad in itself, and this brings us to what I believe is the more interesting and important question than the periodic, somewhat fruitless and often apocalyptic debate about possible resource crises. This is the question “what kind of specific impacts can result from scarcities we may be facing?”

Perhaps the most pressing scarcity at the moment is the scarcity of nature’s capability to deal with carbon dioxide our society spews into atmosphere. Limiting the production of pollution is going to be mandatory, if we are to survive as a species. However, many existing industries such as fossil fuels industry could not operate under necessary restrictions, and many others, like aviation, would be severely constrained. At the moment, the employees of these industries would pay the highest cost of any serious attempts to curb environmental damages. Even though tight carbon budgets would cause an average person to suffer only very modest reductions in well-being, employees in endangered industries would lose their jobs. Since workers who would lose jobs are also voters, meaningful reductions in carbon dioxide emissions remains difficult, if not impossible. The problem is likely to remain intractable as long as we approach the issue mostly from the viewpoint of standard economic theory, which continues to argue that environmental improvements should bring net benefits to the society. While this is true, the theory fails to appreciate just how much pain and suffering these improvements can cause to the losers.

One reason for this lack of vision may be in the economic theory’s lack of distinction between different types of scarcities. I find some theoretical and empirical reasons to suggest that meaningful talk about scarcities should include at least three distinct types of scarcities.[7] These are, first, relative scarcities, which refers to the so-called normal situation in economic theory where resources are not unlimited and have competing uses; second, absolute scarcities, which refer to resources that cannot be realistically substituted by other resources, such as breathable air; third, quasi-scarcities, which refer to resources that may exist in abundance but which cannot be accessed by the needy, most often because they are not entitled to access.

I believe that most actual situations of scarcity could be usefully conceptualized as quasi-scarcities, or lack of entitlement to give full credit to Amartya Sen’s groundbreaking work[8] which lies at the root of the concept. In our world, resources are more often abundant than they are not. However, for various good and not so good reasons, our access to those resources is limited. Environmental regulation, not physical realities, actually limit how much our factories can release pollutants. Lack of access, not lack of food production, is a major contributing factor behind famines. And lack of political or financial power, not productive capability, is the reason many people even in so-called rich countries have to live without even basic fundamentals of life, from shelter to medicine to healthy food.

In both of the cases I studied, the supposedly hard resource constraint turned out to be something that could very well have been amended through exercise of political power. In both cases, it seems that the key reason the developers did not exercise political power was belief in technology. The developers believed that the technologies would be so useful so soon that political action to increase access to the scarce resource would not be needed. Particularly in the case of flash smelting, it is very difficult to imagine that the company in question – Outokumpu in Finland – would’ve been unable to secure access to more electricity, if flash furnace had appeared to be infeasible. After all, failure to deliver copper the Soviet Union demanded for war reparations payments might have been used as an excuse to occupy Finland.

To sum up my findings, my research cautions against relying on technological miracles to solve the problems caused by diminishing natural resources. Technologies are certainly helpful, but sooner or later we will face a situation where some previously abundant resource is simply not available any longer. Even though our societies may be resilient and unlikely to collapse as a result, the adjustment periods are likely to cause hardships to many. Even though the hardships are usually local, they are not less real to those who experience them. Furthermore, I believe that questions of power and power relations need to gain more attention in research and debate about economic relations, organizations, and the society. Questions such as political power wielded by an organization should no longer be ignored in economic debate simply because measuring political power is difficult, because otherwise we risk obtaining a very biased view of the world we live in.

Finally, far as creativity and ingenuity are concerned, I wish to point out that the solutions developed to these resource constraints were not really novel ones. Similar development was happening elsewhere, and the adopted solutions suffered from problems that caused less constrained developers to use different approaches. However, there is no reason to believe that Outokumpu, for instance, would have developed its flash furnace and gained worldwide commercial success, if the electricity shortage had not forced its hand. In this manner, I believe the answer to the original question motivating this thesis could be formulated as follows:

Necessity is the mother of inventors, not of inventions.

Download my PhD thesis, Constructed Solutions to Constructed Constraints, here.

Footnotes and references

  1. See e.g. Rosso, B. D. (2014). Creativity and Constraints: Exploring the Role of Constraints in the Creative Processes of Research and Development Teams. Organization Studies; Joyce, C. K. (2009). The blank page: Effects of constraint on creativity.; Moreau, C. P., & Dahl, D. W. (2005). Designing the solution: the impact of constraints on consumers’ creativity; Goldenberg, J., Lehmann, D. R., & Mazursky, D. (2001). The idea itself and the circumstances of its emergence as predictors of new product success.
  2. Weiss, M., Hoegl, M., & Gibbert, M. (2013). The Influence of Material Resources on Innovation Project Outcomes; Hoegl, M., Gibbert, M., & Mazursky, D. (2008). Financial constraints in innovation projects: When is less more?
  3. Moskalyk, R. ., & Alfantazi, A. . (2003). Review of copper pyrometallurgical practice: today and tomorrow.
  4. Särkikoski, T. (1999). A Flash of Knowledge; Habashi, F. (1998). The Origin of Flash Smelting; Gibbert, M., & Scranton, P. (2009). Constraints as sources of radical innovation? Insights from jet propulsion development; Schubert, H. (2004). Turbine – The Hollow Metal Blade as Solution for Material Shortage.
  5. See also Arthur, B. W. (2009). The Nature of Technology: What it is and how it evolves.
  6. For simultaneity in invention, see e.g. Ogburn, W. F., & Thomas, D. (1922). Are Inventions Inevitable? A Note on Social Evolution; Brunk, G. G. (2003). Swarming of innovations, fractal patterns, and the historical time series of US patents; Cole, S. (2004). Merton’s Contribution to the Sociology of Science; Sarafoglou, N., Kafatos, M., & Beall, J. H. (2012). Simultaneity in the Scientific Enterprise; Lemley, M. A. (2012). The Myth of the Sole Inventor.
  7. For prior work, including the concept of quasi-scarcities, see Daoud, A. (2011). Scarcity, Abundance and Sufficiency: Contribution to social and economic theory.
  8. Sen, A. (1982). Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation.

About J. M. Korhonen

as himself
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