On Cylindrical Revolutions

The three technological innovations new to my life in the last year with the greatest impact are:

  1. Pfizer mRNA vaccines (price = $19.50, input costs: no less than $2 Billion, probably more)
  2. Amazon Basics Foam Roller (price $18.99, input costs: $4.44 per ounce of styrofoam)
  3. Zoom teleconferencing (price: $no idea what my school pays for it, input costs: $146 Million in venture funding)

The vaccine, of which I am scheduled to receive my first dose of tomorrow, will allow me to (sort-of) return to my pre-pandemic life. The introduction and regular use of a cylinder of high-density styrofoam has given me a better functioning left leg than I’ve enjoyed in 5 years. Zoom has arguably done more to maintain my the short-term integrity of my income (i.e. it’s allowed me to teach online effectively).

That is a very oddly shaped distribution of investments in high-utility yield innovations.

Biotechnology and medicine as a high investment, high risk, big payoff innovation game is well understood. Less known was whether or not a rapid “innovation on demand” vaccine project was an achievable outcome, no matter how much money was thrown at it. Turns out it was, and we’re left with what might be the most impressive feat of willed innovation since the moon landing. High-resolution teleconferencing technology, on the other hand, is exactly the kind of product we’ve grown accustomed to modern tech firms producing– the supply of such innovative products via the private capital-entrepreneurship pipeline is almost always less in question than the eventual demand it may or may not find in the marketplace.

But what of treating your muscles like sugar cookie dough? This is neither a sophisticated new composition of materials nor, at face value, a particularly complex theory of musculature. But, to my knowledge, this is not something even professional athletes were doing 7 years ago, yet now is both the bleeding edge of physical maintenance and such common knowledge that everyone who’s strained a muscle in the last 6 months currently has one of these cylinders leaning against a wall in their home. And, while I don’t mean to oversell it, the introduction of foam rolling has massively improved the quality of my life, not just when I try to play any sort of sport, but when I walk down a flight of stairs. It’s not crazy to suggest it may buy me an extra decade of easy use of my preferred mode of transportation, and while using my natural knees at that.

Investment in innovation is an interesting thing – there appears to be significant returns to scale at the micro, meso, and macro levels. Firms flush with capital can focus teams on single problems, fill them with talent, and grant them the keys to every piece of equipment deemed to hold even the slightest possibility of aid en route to an end product. There are simply innovative outcomes on the horizon for the Pfizers of the world that will never be available to scrappy new start-ups. At the same time, we can see the network-driven returns to scale in markets, a la Silicon Valley or Hollywood, that only begin to appear when a critical mass of agents all find themselves drawn to the bubbling creative soups that appears in the diners, salons, and coffee shops of whatever place has become the place.

But there are scale returns at the most macro of macro levels as well, and that is where we get miraculous cylinders of foam, as well as wheels on suitcases and the polymerase chain reaction. People are many things. Occupiers of space. Emitters of carbon dioxide. Consumers of fried dough. Sometimes while doing all three they also come up with ideas.

Humans as idea machines lies at the core of Michael Kremer’s theory of economic growth, and it is perhaps my favorite idea within economics in the last 40 years. Simply put, more people leads to more ideas. Population growth is not just a product of innovation, it is a source of it. Every individual is a lottery ticket that we hope pays off with a world changing eureka moment that the rest of us can benefit from and build on for all time going forward. More people, more lottery tickets.

Those organic globules of cognitive betting slips coalesce into the long tail of innovation return on investment. We take the brightest minds, throwing them and piles of cash at our biggest problems, hoping that for the closest thing to a assured payoff. But it’s within the billions of people, and their billions of bad ideas that sometimes aren’t, within which we get countless miracles that change our lives for the better bit by bit, one smoothened middle-aged stride at a time.

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