Do Wars Boost Innovation?
War is a horrible thing. Images of killed, wounded, or orphaned Ukrainian kids, victims of Russia’s barbaric aggression, leave little room for belief that anything good can come out of a war.
Though, it is interesting to see its effect on innovation.
Invented or adopted?
One of the most common arguments in support of “war-driven” innovation is the surge in technology patents in the United States in the aftermath of World War II. To stimulate war-related research, the U.S. government made a massive infusion of federal R&D money (in the tune of $7.4 billion in today’s dollars) in the early 1940s. What followed was nearly doubling in patent filings in technological areas and geographic locations that received the funds.
It’s also popular to tout now common innovations that came out of development during WWII. Take, for example, penicillin. Providing soldiers with the antibiotic was a major priority for the U.S. military, which drove the drug’s manufacturing and distribution. After the war, penicillin became available to civilians too.
Or take radar, another posterchild of “war-driven” innovation. Originally, it was intended to be used as anti-aircraft weapon, but as such, it proved useless. Later, radar was adjusted to detect enemy’s ships and planes; it’s in this detection capacity that we use radars today.
One should remember, however, that neither penicillin nor radar was invented during WWII: penicillin was discovered in 1928, and the first radar system was built in 1935. The war just highlighted the urgent need for both innovations and sped up their adoption.
Necessity as the mother of invention?
The belief that wars can boost innovation seems to come from a more general notion that innovation benefits from crises (war being arguably an extreme case of a crisis). The idea here is that crises generate acute unmet needs that must be immediately fulfilled.
Indeed, Iowa State University’s Matt Clancy points out that not only WWII but other major crises, such as the oil shock of the 1970s and the Covid-19 pandemic, led to a spike in patents aimed at dealing with the consequences of these crises. For example, the Covid-19 outbreak stimulated a sharp increase in the number of clinical trials targeting anti-Covid medications (vaccines, drugs, and testing protocols). In parallel, there was a dramatic surge in patent applications related to remote work that became so widespread across the country during the pandemic.
However, Clancy is quick to add that you can’t invent a technology only because there is a need for it; you need prior knowledge too. It’s, therefore, worth pointing out that fundamental discoveries that formed the basis for the Covid-19 vaccine development were made 15-20 years ago. The Covid-19 crisis didn’t invent the vaccines—knowledge was already there—it only facilitated their speedy adoption. And let’s not forget that the U.S. government has forked a hefty $20 billion on their development, something that doesn’t happen for “everyday” innovations.
Crises are usually short-term events; innovation, in contrast, takes time. There is simply not enough time to invent anything truly important during a crisis. What crises do accomplish is that they overcome cognitive and bureaucratic resistance to the adoption of new technologies and business models. Remember telemedicine? It was hyped up for decades prior to the pandemic, but the adoption was blocked by doctors and insurers. Telemedicine came to the forefront of the healthcare system not because the pandemic invented it, but because it helped clear regulatory barriers.
Innovation requires freedom and prosperity, not poverty and desperation
Renown author Matt Ridley is another opponent of the concept of “war-driven” innovation. In his brilliant book How Innovation Works, Ridley argues that “innovation happens when people are free to think, experiment and speculate. It happens when people are relatively prosperous, not desperate.”
Ridley makes another good point: “The main ingredient in the secret sauce that leads to innovation is freedom…Innovative societies are free societies.” This sentiment echoes my own analysis showing a strong positive correlation between the innovative potentials of world countries and the level of democratic development in these countries.
Crises and wars are bad for innovation because they bring suffering, fear, and desperation—and do very little, if anything, to strengthen democratic institutions. Yes, desperation can be a powerful stimulus to break a bureaucratic wall—paving the way to a previously “suppressed” innovation—but it provides a poor intellectual environment for creative thinking.
Innovation’s true triggers
The available historical data shows that the number of wars has dramatically fallen over the past 80 years. Do we see any drop in the number and quality of innovations? What an absurd idea!
Fortunately for all of us, innovation is driven not by warriors, but by explorers. It’s their intellectual curiosity and drive for change that brings new products and business models to the marketplace.
Take, for example, Sara Carvalho at Bosch. Her inspiration to start a venture came to her not on a battlefield, but on a hiking trip in Peru. Sara was saddened by the inability of the people who hosted her to have something she would take for granted—a hot shower. To address the problem, Sara developed a concept to provide reliable sources of hot water in developing countries using a mobile phone payment system.
Or take Krisztian Kurtisz, once the local manager for UNIQA, a large insurance company in Central and Easter Europe. Living in peaceful Budapest, Hungary, Krisztian saw no looming crises on the horizon. But he was concerned that the insurance industry was losing its original purpose as a community effort of helping those in need. As a result, he created Cherrisk, a venture that is disrupting the insurance business.
Sarah and Krisztian are not alone. They are part of the growing cohort of Corporate Explorers, innovators who build disruptive ventures within existing corporations. They’re successful because they know how to bring together individual creativity and resources available at large companies. They will further succeed because they have skills and passion to change the world to the better.
Of course, we all heard this: never let a good crisis go to waste. Crises do and will happen, and we must learn how to use them to challenge assumptions and find new, more effective ways to do business. But we also must learn to be creative and innovative every single day, without waiting for an extreme event giving us a “permission to innovate.”