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Clément Ader invented man-powered flight (and not the brothers Wright)

Our society glorifies the one or two persons that finalise an invention up to a point the rest of us can finally imagine its potential. Before that point, ideas are brought further by many a people taking an endless amount of small steps. Good ones, wrong ones, time-consuming ones, expensive ones, cheap ones, risky ones. And the final person, the one that everyone sees as the original inventor, closes the last missing link.


Collaboration at work

All inventions are a collaborative act. Inventions like man-powered flight, attributed to the brothers Wright, or the incandescent light bulb from Edison, or the World Wide Web from Tim Berners-Lee turn out to be collaborative efforts when looking closely at the invention process. As Keith Sawyer, creativity guru, explains in his book group genius, inventions happen in a collaborative way.


When I was at high school I learned that the French Clément Ader invented man-powered flight, a couple of years before the brothers Wright (1890 versus 1903). Oh, and did I also mention that I attended high school in France? Both Ader and the brothers Wright were part of the same grail for man-powered flight. Like was Otto Lillienthal in Germany or Alberto Santos-Dumont in Brazil. We all glorify our heroes without acknowledging the ones from others.


The lone genius does not exist

Complex challenges have always been solved with collaboration, creativity and result-orientation. The idea of the lone genius is well… not more than an idea. As man-powered flight shows: collaboration is the human answer to complexity.


And it has brought us far, very far. Our current world had not been more wealthy, healthy, peaceful and connected than in any other time earlier. That’s true for the developed world as for the developing world. Of course there still is room for improvement, nevertheless: as a human species we’re doing better than earlier generations.


There is, however, a downside.



The downside of breakthroughs

Inventions and breakthroughs never come with purely positive effects and impacts. Manmade flight has given us the ability to fly everywhere, but some 120 years later its environmental impact is huge and rising. And we don’t yet know how to solve it.

When the negatives of an invention seem relatively minor compared to the positives, then the invention can grow and mature and only a couple of generations later do we see the flip side of them.


The T-ford was a revolution of speed, comfort and cleanliness compared to the horses and its dung that littered the streets of our pre-industrial cities but nowadays cars are an increasing part of the clogged cities, bad air and climate breakdown. The internet revolutionised data creation and processing, altering the way we interact, and shrinking the world to the size of a pea, but it raises the question of hyper-connectivity and privacy.


Saturation and how algae fill the lake

And those flip sides turn out to be huge, decades down the road. How does that happen? For me, there are two different processes at play. Once the positive impact of an invention becomes clear people adopt it. First at small pace, then it reaches a tipping point at which adoption speeds up before slowing down again. That’s the point at which the pool dries up. In economic terms: the market is saturated. So inventions seem to have a maximum reach in terms of positive impacts.


The second process at play concerns the flip sides. That one works like compound interest. Each cycle the bad stuff adds up to the old one. And as the invention hits the tipping point, the growth of negative goes exponential. The problem with this kind of growth is you don’t see it until it’s too late. If a lake gets filled with algae and the growth of algae doubles each day, by the time the lake is half-filled it already too late. A day later algae will have covered the whole lake.


And that’s unfortunate, because it requires tremendous efforts to clean up. As society we realize too late that we need to clean up. We just don’t see it on time. Two days before the lake was filled just a quarter, so no need to act. A day later, the lake is half filled and then it’s already too late.


That’s why we’re in deep trouble at the moment. The lake is half full when it comes to CO2 and it equivalents in the air, to plastics in our oceans and landfills, to the loss of biodiversity and forests. Yet the positive impacts of the current systems are hardly getting better because we reached the limits of their potential.


Taking ourselves out of this mess with collaboration

Time is ticking

So how do we get out of this mess? Again with collaboration. It’s at the start and at the end of the process.


And I am pretty confident we will get out of this mess. But we’re lagging behind with our collaboration. It will require us to speed up. We need better and new ways at collaborating than the once we currently have. That’s why hierarchical organisations are in distress. It’s a form of collaboration that got us up to this point, but won’t get us any further now. As Einstein is being quoted regularly: ‘We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.’


In the next couple of blogs I will delve into the kind of collaboration that we need to get further. And for that you might help me by answering the questions: ‘how do we get out of this mess?’ and ‘what role should or could facilitators play in helping us out of the mess?’

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