Ajit Balakrishnan writes on how we forget the broad reality when it comes to innovation. It is the impact on the so called incumbents who are suddenly found grasping for survival. And when the incumbents are a sizable lot, one should expect a pushback:
He picks this brutal case of medical innovation:
Whenever the talk about innovation bubbles up into a fever, as it is currently doing in India, I abandon my normal route to work from Colaba to Mahim through pretty Marine Drive and take the inner route, through Chinchpokli and Jacob Circle. I do this to catch a glimpse of what is now called Kasturba Hospital and bring myself back to the ground.
The Kasturba Hospital was built in 1892 as The City Fever Hospital. In the late 19th Century, the city then called Bombay was struck by a series of epidemics: malaria, cholera, Spanish influenza, and, most of all, the bubonic plague. Why Bombay? It was then, like today, India’s most internationally connected city and ships carrying infected people from Hong Kong brought these diseases, and spread from Bombay city to the rest of western and northern India. In Bombay city alone nearly 200,000 people died in that last decade of the 19th century.
The innovation called “vaccines” was still a decade away, so the British colonial government of that time started enforcing the only measure governments of that time knew against such epidemics – isolating the infected people in hospitals such as The City Fever Hospital to limit the spread of these diseases. Widespread protests erupted against this enforced segregation. In Poona, the British official in charge of enforcing this segregation, W C Rand, was assassinated to the applause of many nationalists. What was an innovative measure to combat a deadly epidemic, in fact the only known measure at that time, was interpreted as yet another act against Indians by the colonial government. The protests around this were a clear accelerator to the Indian Independence movement.
Everyone loves innovation, but, what is often not recognised is that innovations, particularly the really big ones, cause societal crises which can then be harnessed by astute politicians for their causes.
Another one from independence movement:
In a similar vein, in the early years of the 20th century, the synthesis of indigo from synthetic sources through innovations in chemistry caused hardships to the indigo growers of Champaran in Bihar – whose protests Gandhiji went on to lead, gaining him prominence in India’s nascent Independence movement. The Congress Party’s flag, which was used to rally all Indians to the Independence movement to drive out the British colonial government, had for many decades a charkha, the hand spinning wheel, a symbol of indigenous technology that was made obsolete by the arrival of the Spinning Jenny and the use of machines that could multiply productivity manifold.
The power to cause societal pain, at least to some segments of society, is intrinsic to the nature of technological innovation. For that reason, more often than not, it creates forces that pushback and create not only new leaders, be it Tilak in Poona or Gandhi in Champaran, but also protests from novelists and poets. The late-18th century innovations in yarn spinning and textile weaving that we now know of as the First Industrial Revolution, created immense changes in English society – and the work of poets like William Wordsworth and novelists like Charles Dickens in novels such as Hard Times is the response of many at that time who yearned for an idealised, simpler past.