Sometimes Barriers to Innovation are Cultural

October 10, 2013

When I was a student at Worcester Polytechnic Institute we had to complete three projects in order to graduate. One project is called the IQP and is an interdisciplinary project designed to expose students to working with people in different fields. My project involved working with a start-up that wanted to create a social network that encouraged the installation of renewable energy systems.1 The entrepreneur had a website built and his intention was to have us spend time populating the site with information. This did not jive with the educational goals of IQP so our project advisor set it up so that we would research ways to improve the website. However retrospectively I think we were working on the wrong problem. The question wasn’t how to create a website to encourage adoption, it should have been how to encourage adoption of renewable energy generally.2

I thought of this when listening to NPR’s Planet Money podcast on the automated check clearinghouse. The podcast describes how our system of money transfer between banks is much slower than the system that Europe uses. The United States could choose to create a system that would transfer money instantly but the consortium of banks that uses ACH decided against it. The technology is here and would have many benefits, but for cultural reasons (and some perverse incentives) the banking system is declining to adopt it.

The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet. It’s not enough for science and engineering to solve problems if people do not adopt the solutions.

  1. I was not pleased when I was assigned the project at the time because other projects involved more tangible outcomes like improving water quality and sanitation in Namibia. Building a website was not interesting technically, I had made them before, and the engineers working with the company viewed it as working on a solved problem. 

  2. My general sense from interviews we conducted with installers and users during the project is that the costs in time and money are high up front for a slow payback. Government incentives do help, but if I were to do it over again besides looking at creative financing I would look at supply-chain issues and programs that target developers of new housing stock or new homebuyers that would roll the upgrade into the new house purchase. Elon Musk figured this out when creating his Tesla cars. They are not marketed to people looking to save money and invest, they are marketed as luxuy vehicles superior to the Mercedes or Jaguar the buyer is already considering. 

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This work by Matt Zagaja is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.