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Business News/ Opinion / Columns/  There’s no magic formula for policy to foster innovation
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There’s no magic formula for policy to foster innovation

The story of mass printing illustrates the limitations of a determinist approach to inventiveness

Photo: AFPPremium
Photo: AFP

Given that I spend a good amount of time thinking about tech policy, I am often asked to provide suggestions of key regulatory changes that will improve the quality of innovation. The trouble with this sort of a request is that it presumes a straight- line correlation between innovation on one hand and statutory or structural impediments on the other. In my experience, there is no link whatsoever. In fact, I believe it is impossible to predict what it takes to turn an idea into a successful innovation.

Let me tell you a story. Johannes Gutenberg is widely regarded as the father of moveable-type printing, and, by extension, of the modern era of innovation. The Gutenberg press democratized access to information like no technology had ever done before. Written text that was until then the exclusive preserve of either the clergy or the wealthy was now widely accessible by the masses. So radical was the transformation wrought by this technology that authors had to petition the Crown for protection against the rampant copying of their works that followed. This, in turn, resulted in the enactment of the Statute of Anne, the world’s very first intellectual property law, which granted authors copyright over their works and recognized both the concept of intangible property (such as an idea or invention) and its need for legal protection.

But Gutenberg was not the first person to invent printing technology. In his history of the publishing industry, titled The Book, Keith Houston points out that 400 years before Gutenberg, the Chinese already had a way to generate printed sheets of Chinese text using individual blocks of wood with characters embossed on them that could be lined up and arranged into a typeface. Since they were re-arrangeable, anyone with a set of Chinese characters could print just about anything; and since these blocks could be repeatedly inked, as many copies of the text could be generated as required.

And yet, today, the very existence of this remarkable Chinese invention has been lost to history.

There are many reasons for this. In the first place, at the time this printing press was being built in China, manuscripts were produced by skilled calligraphers who used brushes to inscribe text on sheets of fine paper. As a result, most of the inks that were available for use in the press were water-based, and therefore largely useless for any sort of printing, as the ink would smudge when pressed onto paper. What’s worse, Chinese paper itself was far too delicate for printing. In order to form a clear impression, paper needs to be so strong that it does not tear when pressed firmly on the inked surface of the typeface and thick enough to make sure that ink does not seep through it onto the other side of the page.

Ironically, the high level of advancement that the Chinese had achieved in paper and ink technology proved to be fatal to the success of its own printing industry.

But the real reason why we had to wait another 400 years for a good printing press has to do with economics. The Chinese script is made up of tens of thousands of words, and in order to represent even the smallest usable fraction of them, printers needed a massive storage system that would efficiently let them retrieve the correct character when it was needed for typesetting. The real innovations in printing of the time were the storage solutions that printers came up with, sometimes involving seven-foot long revolving tables with compartments in which characters were organized by rhyme. The problem was that the expertise required to operate systems like this was simply not scalable, and so it was often cheaper to hand-carve text, one page at a time, onto a single block of wood.

Thus, even though it had been invented 400 years previously, it was not until the son of a cloth merchant from Mainz in Germany applied the concept of moveable type to the far more limited set of characters that make up the Latin script and used the coarser but more printer-friendly paper that was available in Europe at the time, that the printing press became the radically transformative invention that we recognize it to be today.

This is what happens with most inventions. Success often evades the first inventor of a major invention for reasons impossible to ascertain in advance, while the very same invention in the hands of another several years down the road turns out to be a roaring success. Having been involved with the development of a hand-held touchscreen computer seven years before the iPhone made them ubiquitous, and an all-electric car nearly a decade before Tesla made EVs cool, I know from personal experience just how important timing is when it comes to market success. As Matt Ridley says in his book How Innovation Works, you cannot innovate before the world is ready for it.

It is impossible to prescribe specific policy pathways that assure success in innovation. However, what we can do is create an environment in which a worthy innovation has the greatest chance of succeeding. This often comes down to creating the right set of circumstances under which innovation will flourish—environments that are conducive to serendipitous connections. Innovation flourishes at the intersection of unconnected disciplines, where different ways of engaging with the problem being addressed collide to yield entirely novel results. Once we have enabled chance collisions such as these, we will no longer need policy interventions to promote innovation.

Rahul Matthan is a partner at Trilegal and also has a podcast by the name Ex Machina. His Twitter handle is @matthan

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Published: 22 Feb 2022, 10:29 PM IST
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