When asked to name the greatest innovations in human history, people invariably think of technology. Polls often reveal the Gutenberg printing press, a technological contraption, as the greatest in history (Sci/Tech 1999). Recently published “biographies” of other discoveries and inventions point to the importance of plastic (Freinkel 2011), anesthesia (Fenster 2001) and even salt (Kurlansky 2002).

These answers indicate that we too often think about innovation the wrong way. Behind these things, we have forgotten an essential component: the social context. For a technology to solve a given problem, accelerate a sluggish process or elevate our standard of living, it must respond to a social need, such as giving women more control over their fertility. Focusing solely on a technology, such as in vitro fertilization, is misleading. Innovation is about the needs of a society, its readiness to adapt and its ability to do so. If we think of innovation in this way, we understand that the story behind innovation is not about particular technologies. It’s about us.



When contemplating the greatest innovation of the Industrial Revolution, the influential American sociologist Lewis Mumford had a surprising response. One might have expected him to name the technical marvel of the era: the steam engine. After all, this machine set in motion factory production, new methods of transportation and mass industrialization. Perhaps no other era has been so defined by one technology.

But Mumford did not give this answer. “The clock,” he wrote, “not the steam engine, is the key-machine of the modern industrial era” (Mumford 1934, 14). At first blush, it seems like a strange answer. In itself, the mechanical clock simply measures units of time, as other time devices had done before it. The mechanical clock of the nineteenth century was only one step in a technological chain that has culminated and matured into today’s Clock of the Long Now, which is being built to last 10,000 years as a symbol of the future that will get people to ask questions such as “Are we being good ancestors?” (Tweney 2011). In a sense, the mechanical clock at the time of the Industrial Revolution was merely a software upgrade. So why did Mumford consider it to be so important?

The social context tells us. At the moment it was invented, the mechanical clock helped unleash the idea of modern time, with its standardization of sleep and work, prayer and play. This innovation dissociated time from the natural rhythms and regularities that had governed life up until then — sunrise, sunset, hunger and tiredness. E. P. Thompson, a historian of the working class, describes the shift as one away from the notations of time used by craftspeople, whose work depended on natural factors (for example, the fisher organizing the day around the tide or the hunter using the night to lay traps) and toward abstract mathematical sequences that now measured work output using clock time (Thompson 1967, 59). 

The mechanical clock was the quintessential and ubiquitous machine that facilitated the transition to a mature industrial workforce, allowing managers to maximize output and control wages. It punctuated the day into intervals, disciplining workforces. This simple upgrade revolutionized the human experience in a fundamental way. “When one thinks of time, not as a sequence of experiences, but as a collection of hours,” Mumford wrote (1934, 17), “it could be divided, it could be filled up, it could even be expanded by the invention of labor-saving instruments.” Even though the clock produces nothing other than the units of minutes and seconds, the potential it creates to reshape labour and life is enormous.

Innovation is about the needs of a society, its readiness to adapt and its ability to do so.

Innovations such as the mechanical clock are essentially social. They are about us, rather than about technology. We evolve by interacting with them, incorporating them into our social norms and standards. This interaction is the true innovation. The social context adopts the invention and gives it meaning. Technology itself is not sufficient for innovation.

For a modern example, look at the contemporary revolution in childbirth. According to Statistics Canada, in 2013, for the first time in our history, there were more babies born to women over the age of 40 than to teenaged women (CBC News 2016). We have witnessed a decline in teenage pregnancies at precisely the same moment as an increase in pregnancies among women over 40. Naturally, we might be inclined to think that the technological advances in assisted reproduction explain this shift. But do they? 

The reality is that advances in assisted reproductive technology are only a part of the story. A report assessing the rise in the use of these technologies uncovered increases in the known rates of infertility of the overall population (Bushnik et al. 2010). Another study showed that the use of in vitro fertilization in women over 40 has a failure rate of over 90 percent (Kirkey 2012). In other words, technologies such as birth control and assisted reproductive medical procedures are only partly behind this phenomenon. They do not, moreover, explain the social trends. 

Instead, the narrative behind this phenomenon is one of social change. Counselling and the provision of health and sexual education services in schools, hospitals and community organizations have greatly shifted consciousness about teenage pregnancy. More of us live longer, extending the age at which women and men can rear children. Women participate more in the workforce, thereby gaining greater independence over fertility decisions (Statistics Canada 2016). And we have changed how we perceive teenagers, viewing them as children rather than wage earners. The scientists who developed birth control and assisted reproductive technologies could not reasonably have foreseen these social trends. Alone, these technologies were not sufficient for innovation. They needed a societal context to give them force.


Perhaps the best example of our blinding focus on technology is vaccines. These are among the most remarkable inventions of the twentieth century, because they suddenly provided protection — immunity — against previously devastating diseases. For example, since 1988 the world has seen a drop in polio cases of 99 percent (World Health Organization 2016). But this drop was not precipitated by a vaccine alone.

By themselves, vaccines only protect individuals. One individual with immunity does not eradicate a disease. Those diseases were stopped through social programs that immunized enough of the population to disrupt the chain of infection. This strategy, known as herd immunity, created a threshold of protection and immunization among enough of the population so that even those who were not vaccinated — because of illness, pregnancy or age, for example — were still protected. Of course, researchers have indicated that the threshold level needed depends on critical factors such as infectivity of the disease, the vulnerability of the population and the environmental context (Berger 1999). But at its core, this strategy is the basis of immunization programs — and the reason behind their success. 

One individual with immunity does not eradicate a disease. Those diseases were stopped through social programs that immunized enough of the population to disrupt the chain of infection.

The effect of herd immunity has been remarkable (McNeil 2007). According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there were over 15,000 deaths from diphtheria in the United States in 1921 but none in 2004 (2016a). Whooping cough killed 7,500 people in 1934, but only 277 for all the years between 2000 and 2014 (CDC 2016b). And tetanus-related deaths dropped to two in 2009 (Tiwari 2011). As recent news stories show, today the biggest threat to public health comes from an undermining of the strategy of herd immunity, through fear of vaccines.

Not only is technology not sufficient for innovation, it is also not necessary. The historical legacy wrought by the Napoleonic Code is evidence of this. When Napoleon extended the civil code to parts of Germany such as the Rhineland, it imposed stable legal order on the regimes there. Despite the plunder by the French, those areas prospered more than their neighbours that did not adopt the code. The code helped abolish “the seigneurial regime and the guilds…paving the way to a relatively free labour market” (Acemoglu et al. 2011, 3289-90). The civil code accomplished this by replacing feudal land holdings and oligarchies with legal certainty and fairness. 

The innovation that was the Napoleonic Code spread so that many other states, including Belgium, Germany, Austria, Italy, Lower Canada (Quebec), Portugal, and others, benefited from application of its basic principles (Lobingier 1918, 128). The evolution of the common law had a similar effect. What we see is that the rule of law and equality before the law were drivers of growth from which we still benefit today. And these innovations have no technological base at all.

Napoleonic code


If technology is not sufficient or necessary for innovation, what are we missing? Evidence suggests that countries that were most open to technology use in the fifteenth century are up to five times better off today than those that were slow adopters (Comin and Mestieri 2014, 589-90). While the technologies themselves are long gone, the social norms and values of 500 years ago continue to affect our growth today.

Throughout history — including in ancient Athens, Baghdad under the Abbasid caliphate, Hangzhou in the Song dynasty, Florence during the Renaissance and Silicon Valley today (see Weiner 2016) — places that are more tolerant, more welcoming of immigration, places where ideas are debated and challenged, where the law is fair and equal, generate more innovation and creativity than those that are not. These are not technological conditions but social ones.  

Our ability to welcome the stranger is a key component of our ability to innovate. One author notes, for example, “that immigration has been essential for the United States’ leadership in innovation and entrepreneurship” (Kerr 2013, 23). Over 35 percent of US innovators were born outside the United States, with another 10 percent being children of immigrants. As one group of authors writes: “Immigrants born in Europe or Asia are over five times more likely to have created an innovation in America than the average native-born U.S. citizen” (Nager et al. 2016, 5). As countries flirt with fear of the other, they risk the very basis upon which future innovation and prosperity lie.

Over 35 percent of US innovators were born outside the United States, with another 10 percent being children of immigrants.

Another destructive form of innovation, neo-nationalism, as practised in some parts of Europe and in the United States, threatens the social conditions that give rise to productive innovation. These nationalisms turn their backs not only on tolerance and immigrants but also on fact, in favour of fear — the same fear that leads enough people to doubt the effectiveness of vaccines or that humans are the major cause of climate change.

Despite the importance of the social context, our policies and funding mechanisms focus on technology and too often ignore this critical ingredient. We are locked into the wrong narrative. The mechanical clock, assisted reproductive technologies and vaccines are all compelling examples of why we need to revisit our narrative of innovation to focus on the social context. Innovation is as much about people and their hopes as it is about technology and our fears.

If we want to benefit from innovation — and to share its benefits fairly and justly — then we need to educate our population. We need to invest in our institutions and social infrastructure as much as in technology. Most of all, we need to preserve our values of tolerance and openness in order to assure our future prosperity. In the end, these are the social values necessary for innovation.

Works Cited

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Bushnik, Tracey, Jocelynn L. Cook, A. Albert Yuzpe, Suzanne Tough and John Collins. 2012. “Estimating the Prevalence of Infertility in Canada.” Human Reproduction 27 (3): 738–46.

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———. 2016b. “For Parents: Vaccines for Your Children: Pertussis.” December 15. www.cdc.gov/vaccines/parents/diseases/child/pertussis.html.

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