For the last few centuries, the United States economy has been dependent upon a few different things. One of those is innovation, for without it, no growth would be possible. One of the things that has always pushed the American system forward is a spirit that promoted and demanded innovation at the same time.
People used their creative juices to create things that would benefit society and from there, we have grown to a point where new innovations are almost elementary. The abstract definition of innovation has to do with simply taking what we currently have and improving it to better benefit society. There are quite a few examples of this where gifted individuals have taken steps to empowering an entire industry.
What is Innovation?
In its purest form, innovation is what we have seen from many of the developing industries over the last century. It is the molding of current ideas and methods of the development of new ideas based upon what we already know. In order for innovation to be possible, people must continue to think and continue to keep an open mind about various issues. Once businesses and innovators think they have it all figured out, these people cease to improve. From there, the economy becomes stagnant, businesses don’t grow, and capitalism as a whole suffers.
There are many examples of innovation that can be used to illustrate this point. The automobile industry is a perfect place to start, though they have no exactly followed through on that idea over the last decade. In the early 20th century, Americans traveled by foot, by bike, or by train. There obviously were no cars going around from town to town, so people had to find other ways to make it happen.
Some very smart people proposed ideas for powered machines that could fill the void and take people where they needed to go. One of these people was Henry Ford and his original cars set the standard that the industry would live by for some time to come.
The interesting thing about the automobile industry is that it was born out of a spirit of innovation, but things didn’t stop there. All sorts of new ideas were developed, including putting air in tires, developing more complex engines, and a host of other technologies. Over time, as vehicles became more capable, innovations in the safety industry were introduced to the automobile.
Things like airbags, crumble fronts, and anti-lock brakes have been staples that were developed because someone sought to improve what we already had. After that, there were the technological innovations like radios, satellites, and GPS response systems. Over time, things have just gotten better and better, which is one of the reasons why the industry saw its meteoric rise.
Other Examples of Innovation in Society
You don’t have to look very far or very hard to find places where society has evolved and innovations have taken hold. When you walk into your home today, you can flick on a host of lights with only one simple act. Electricity has evolved and the ways that we use it have changed since it was originally found. Even more than that, innovation in how we communicate has taken place over the last century. Gone are the days when the only way to get in touch with someone in another town was the Pony Express or a telegram. We developed phone lines to help with communication and things have grown from there.
Even over the last ten years, innovations in telecommunications have been profound. Just about everyone has a cell phone these days and most people have some form of high-speed internet. These people don’t have to worry about what their options are when they seek to get in touch with someone a world away. They can either fire off an email or make a long distance phone call and within minutes, they can be connected to someone sitting in China or someone doing business in Tokyo. This industry is one where innovation has not slowed down, either. The combination of cell phones and the internet is the new thing, as more people are using Blackberrys and other PDAs in order to stay on the net at all times.
This might seem like a far cry from where we once were, but it’s an example of how a capitalist society can not only benefit from innovation, but also depends upon it. Today, many of the businesses that keep society afloat would not be able to function without the technologies that have been developed and the improvements to those technologies that have been similarly implemented. It is a cycle that has been necessary in nature.
What Happens when Innovation Stops?
One of the biggest fears of any capitalist country is the stopping of innovative thinking. We live in a society that demands the development of these ideas. The earliest inventions seemed like big news at the time, but they are just footnotes in today’s world where things are more complicated and education is more readily available.
Every person in industry has to be looking for new ways to do things and ways to improve upon what we have already developed, or society itself will cease to go any further. When we become stagnant, we run the huge risk of losing out primary means of survival. It is something that’s dire, though on a different level than you might have seen in the old days.
One industry mentioned previously provides a glimpse into what it’s like when innovation ceases to exist anymore. The automotive industry was quite obviously the model for how an industry should operate all throughout the 20th century. It was run by pioneers who started out with a dream and developed that dream into a multi-billion dollar world where everyone was driving a car. Things became affordable, they became safe, and lots of different companies were throwing their hat into the ring. With all of these competing companies, new things popped up often and companies had to keep trying to improve in order to get better and maintain a competitive advantage.
What has happened lately is something that industries in the future must learn from. Instead of continuing to get better and adding new ways for cars to serve consumers, the automotive industry has gotten stagnant. They have just been tweaking little things about vehicles and they’ve been making cosmetic changes to new models instead of developing new ideas. For instance, if you go look at the GMC Yukons made in 2000 and those made in 2009, you will see very little difference, aside from some slight improvements to appearance.
The cars have remained mostly the same and that’s not good for business. Only now, when faced with bankruptcy and the prospect of going out of business have these companies seriously considered new ideas. Consumers would have responded to more fuel-efficient and environmentally friendly cars, but the automotive industry had no reason to pursue those avenues. At the time, they were making plenty of money without pushing the envelope, so there was no motivation to get out and try to improve upon things in a tangible manner. These companies have mostly picked up and started trying to innovate a bit more now, but it might be too late to save them.
Where are the majority of automobile companies now? They are either going out of business or they are begging the government for bailouts to stay in business. Detroit itself is losing jobs by the thousands of and people are being cut that have given their lives to the company. This is the harsh reality of what happens when you cease to improve. When an industry or a sector of a capitalist society sits around and expects improvement to just happen, it rarely happens. Instead, they end up with a result like the one we have today. That is, Saturn shutting down its operations and many big companies buying other car makers in an industry that is struggling mightily.
How Could This Have Been Prevented?
The higher ups at these companies have looked very foolish through all of this, but they should be thanked for providing a blueprint of what not to do in a capitalist society. These executives wonder just what their options were. After all, with fuel prices rising, what were they going to do? The problem, of course, is that they never acted. If they had put the efforts into developing new ideas into these cars that they did in the 1950s, they would have had their solution right in front of them.
The ability to make cars would have been enhanced, prices could have come down, and demand would have increased. Unfortunately this didn’t happen, so we are left to wonder, “What if?”
The argument is that, at some point, innovation becomes more difficult because many of the best ideas have already been explored. That might seem valid except for the fact that almost every generation has struggled with this. New innovations are possible because we currently have the technology to research them and to test them. We have more technology available today to handle these things, so it follows that we should be able to continue pushing the envelope.
At the very least, an industry like the automotive industry should be able to do a good bit more than they have been doing over the last fifteen years.
Innovation and its Place in Capitalist Society
Capitalism is not an economic system that was designed to be easy. It is one where entire industries sometimes get swallowed up and people who don’t continue to improve end up getting cut out. Because of the nature of the beast, it is absolutely essential that everyone involve keeps looking for ways to improve. That doesn’t just include looking for new technologies, either. Many of the best innovators are those people who come up with new ways to analyze performance and new ways to think about business. Efficiency is a key in capitalism and that only comes as a result of long and hard thinking about where you are as a business and where you are headed, as well.
Innovation alone will not make a capitalist society go and it won’t help a capitalist society survive. It does play a very key part of the equation, though. As the folks in the automotive industry can attest, the moment we stop looking forward and developing to the fullest of our ability is the moment that we are doomed to something like bankruptcy. It may not seem fair, but it is a reality that many before us have lived with and it is something that they coped with. Moving forward, it is something that we will have to face, as well.
It will look like this: Without Innovation There Is No Survival in Society