Historical breakthrough changes occur when innovators seek cures for societal problems
James E. Smith and Michelle Jamshidi
We have become a society steeped in the habit of identifying the symptoms of a problem and then committing our personal and fiscal resources to managing those symptoms. Only rarely do we take the time to recognize and then eliminate the origin of those problems. We often see this in the medical industry, where managing symptoms takes immediacy over seeking a problem’s cure, while hoping that the original malady will not get worse and our natural healing process will fix the problem.
We also see the process in how we as a society approach everyday challenges, in our lifestyles and workplaces. While our primary goal should always be to identify and fix the sources of our problems, the reality is that some problems are beyond the scope of current capabilities, and providing comfort may be a best second choice.
Breakthroughs do happen, however, and history reflects well on the turning points that occur when the right combination of individuals is put together to solve seemingly impossible or unrecognized problems. They are the innovators and decision-makers who change our lives, and often they are among the youngest of our population.
It is noteworthy that breakthroughs, and even constant developmental improvements, can cripple segments of our economy, just as steam power and the automobile effectively wiped out the blacksmith and carriage trades of yesteryear. Of course, this all comes with the process called change.
In fact, history is full of breakthroughs and social reformations from innovators who saw the bigger picture and persevered to find a cure or create an exciting new product or service. We celebrate those breakthroughs as historical events, often indifferent to or unaware of the original wrenching impacts.
This is most likely the way it should be, since the good of the many normally outweighs the well-being of the few. Revolutionary innovations allow society to make its furthest leaps forward, as compared to the evolutionary changes that occur naturally. Technologies like computers, cell phones and the Internet, were revolutionary changes, which now progress more slowly on an evolutionary course. They will continue to improve over time, but most of the big changes they brought to industry and society have already happened.
Breakthroughs are where the need for education and social improvements become obvious to everyone. We can further enhance this developmental process by teaching our youth the skill sets needed to be leaders and decision-makers, while encouraging their drive to be innovators.
Our current educational system often teaches students to learn enough material to graduate and then service society’s current needs. If we can encourage them to look beyond that, they will be challenged to seek new ideas and pursue projects that will set them apart as problem solvers and change agents.
The United States has a long history of providing a rich environment for problem-solving, using new ideas and technologies. It is primarily a result of the free enterprise system that we continue to cultivate. These breakthroughs have been a constant source of inventive energies that have provided us with a standard of living much envied around the world.
Indeed, it is the very nature of this free-market environment, where we create our entrepreneurial, innovative and leadership skills, allowing us to prosper while providing a beacon for the rest of the world to follow and emulate. Unfortunately, today our country lags behind many others in most of the primary growth indicators where we previously maintained top ratings.
In addition, other producing nations are advancing their technical capabilities, leaving us to fall behind not only our past selves but our current competitors. If this trend isn’t reversed, we could be removed as an economic and social power in the not too distant future.
One of these indicators can be seen through GDP (gross domestic product) per capita. This statistic reflects a country’s total economic output divided by its population, thereby roughly estimating the average citizen’s overall productivity. World Bank data show that the USA was ranked very highly during the 1960s and early 1970s, alternating between first and second place. Since then, however it has dropped significantly and fluctuates in the tenth to twentieth range.
Another indicator is America’s industrial production. Up until the past ten years, the U.S. enjoyed a steady increase in its industrial production growth rate. Since then it has been slowing and heading for a plateau. Meanwhile many of the world’s other more industrialized nations are accelerating their capabilities and could soon surpass the America’s, if they haven’t already.
We have both the physical and intellectual capital to match any rival, supported by a long and continuous history of innovation and development of the leadership needed to direct industry and its decision makers. The process has gone on for so long that we have created social and business biomarkers for the essential elements of the process.
In the past, it was almost never that we tried to compete with the world. Instead, we competed with ourselves, and we did so decisively and successfully. So what happened to make us fall so far behind our own capabilities?
We have become a society focused on symptoms. Addressing symptoms is fast and doesn’t require the hard work of identifying and fixing original problems. It allows us to match an effort with a positive feel-good result, even though it doesn’t solve the problem for the future. It also makes it easy to assume that someone else will do the hard work, while we enjoy the illusion of a symptom-free experience.
It isn’t that we became lazy, as much as that comfort and complacency eroded our will to excel. We fell for the illusion that feeling good was the end game, and we lost sight of the pain it always takes to make a real improvement or change. We need those advancements and improvements that drive the social agenda. We need to feel the pain of rebirth in all aspects of our lives, along with the excitement that comes with these discoveries and achievements.
Currently we spend our time on symptoms such as our shrinking abundance, real or perceived social inequities, minor environmental impacts, what others may or may not be doing, and our lack of personal prosperity. What we need are more entrepreneurs and innovators. They are the ones determined to break the cycle and truly find the answers to society’s problems.
The issue currently is the limited availability of these specialized individuals, the lack of timely support, and the interference they often endure for their visionary efforts. More importantly, it is with our youth where most of the breakthroughs or cures will be created, even when we don’t believe they are capable.
Many of us see a technology solving or reducing a longstanding problem. Too often, others see the problems created in the course of solving that problem, especially when they have been taught to focus on the “precautionary principle,” which holds that new life-enhancing technologies should not be permitted if they could conceivably cause new problems. Yet, without the foundation and support for our nation’s young people, we cannot foster the next groundbreaking discovery or innovative technology.
If we keep focusing on our symptoms and not the problem, the United States will continue to fall behind, and young people will become further disenfranchised and alienated. We need to provide our youth with leadership skills and reward their innovative efforts.
Only then will the next generation of revolutionary thinkers arise and not only treat our country’s symptoms, but ultimately cure its infirmities.
James E. Smith, PhD is a professor of engineering in the West Virginia University Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering in Morgantown, WV. Michelle Jamshidi has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and is working toward her master’s degree at WVU.