Necessity is the mother of invention

In the Socratic dialogue ‘Republic’, Plato famously wrote: “our need will be the real creator” (Wikipedia.org, 2020) which was moulded over time into the English proverb ‘Necessity is the mother of invention’.

Having read multiple articles of inventions and innovations in medicine, technology, or supply chains over the last 6 months, more than once a design and development process could be described using this proverb. One recent article in the Conversation about the accelerated design process of a new PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) to allow surgery on deaf children during coronavirus explicitly stated:

The process involved to translate a novel idea from the laboratory bench all the way through to implementation at the patient’s bedside is normally a very complicated and lengthy one that can take years, and sometimes decades, to complete. So it has been heartening to witness the value of a team working to solve a problem at breakneck speed, without much need for the phrase: “I don’t think we can do that.” Necessity is truly the mother of invention and, with a bit of luck, some of this innovation spirit will live on beyond the pandemic.

So, will the spirit survive beyond the pandemic? History suggests that the greatest drivers for inventions and innovations were in times of war, famine, pandemic, and death (the slight reference to the ‘Four horsemen of the Apocalypse’ wasn’t intended, but well…). I wonder when, for example, does our climate (eco-)system reach the point of urgency, similar to that of the pandemic? Here I don’t mean a fuzzy threat, but a specific – in your face – urgency. Something that necessitates the immediate implementation of inventions and innovations that save us from extinction.

That returns my thought to necessity. We all have needs, all the time, but only the most fundamental need of securing immediate survival seems to inspire this kind of acceleration of innovations into use. So maybe the proverb should be ‘Urgent necessity is the mother of invention’? But the climate crisis doesn’t seem to feel immediate enough, instead, it might be compared to a frog in the water that is slowly heated, not realising it is cooked alive. It puzzles me: ‘Why can’t we feel the urgent necessity to spring out of the water into action?’ In fact, it seems that we add a few logs into the fire that heats the water and cooks the frog, day by day.

Looking back at the innovation the surgeons had implemented, we can see much more plastic coverings being employed to protect both patient and surgeon from potentially contaminated droplets reaching eyes, mouth and nose. Why are the surgeon-designers not motivated by avoiding the use of plastics in their ‘invention’ to reduce this additional unrecyclable rubbish reaching our oceans and killing eco-systems? It might have to do with the instant gratification when you tackle a problem immediately in front of you. The surgeon-designers have built on established methods and materials from the operating theatre and readily available products to solve the problem quickly. They might have perceived this immediate gratification and they didn’t look further, for example, to using novel materials that can be reused or recycled. You can say, well that wasn’t their aim. Their goal was to solve the problem of restarting non-urgent operations. But is this good design thinking, when you only look at the obvious quick fix rather than the whole problem? A recent paper that examined the use of plastic products in operating theatres in the NHS came to this conclusion that is sadly still is an increasing trend, because these materials control infection well, are affordable and easily obtainable (Chauhan at al., 2019). Maybe I am being unfair, and the next iteration of their process would include the re-thinking of the amount of plastics used to solve this problem. But I think it is dangerous to celebrate how quickly we can innovate when there is a real immediate need, but we don’t manage to see other urgent needs that perhaps pose conflicting requirements.

Since 2020 seems to be the year in which we celebrate innovations to fight the pandemic, then maybe 2021 could be the year we accelerate innovations that also curb climate change?

 

References:

Chauhan, MN., Majeed, T., Aisha N. and Canelo R. (2019) Use of Plastic Products in Operation Theatres in NHS and Environmental Drive to Curb Use of Plastics. World Journal of Surgery and Surgical Research; 2: 1088

Hartley, D. (2020) https://theconversation.com/coronavirus-stopped-us-doing-life-changing-surgery-so-we-invented-a-new-form-of-ppe-144752

Wikipedia.org (2020) https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Necessity_is_the_mother_of_invention

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