Picture any film scene set in “the future.” More often than not, it’s a futurescape populated by flying cars, efficient robots, and teleportation. These dazzling fictions color our perception of what progress looks like. And this means it’s the inventions that come with bells and whistles that grab our attention in real life too — think SpaceX’s Starlink mission or the Asimo robot from Honda. Technological propositions that are big, glitzy, and out of this world (sometimes literally) are those that attract the accolades and the headlines. And whilst such innovations are indeed incredible, truly impactful progress often comes from humbler technology. As we face the challenge of building a better future post-crisis, it’s the simple technology that should be getting us excited.
Throughout history, simple innovation has often punched far above its weight. Take the tin can. This straightforward cylindrical creation revolutionized our ability to preserve food. Its brilliance, as artfully described in Tim Harford’s 50 Things That Made the Modern Economy, has seen usage endure for over two centuries. Likewise, the humble bicycle liberated millions by making transport over longer distances practical and affordable. In comparison to a self-driving car, its systems are rudimentary — but it has stood the test of time and continues to change lives. The list of such innovations goes on. From the sticking plaster in 1920, to the tiny glucose monitors that have transformed the lives of diabetics in recent years, so-called “simple” propositions have enduring legacies.
Sometimes the simplicity of something clouds our judgement of its impact. As a doctor, I’m often asked to review new platforms, products, and tools designed to make my life easier. More often than not, they’re more trouble than they’re worth. The solutions I’m actually interested in save a few precious minutes in the day, or seamlessly add value to my patients. Straightforward technology that frees people up to be more human, more engaged, and kinder is what’s needed. Whilst we (rightly) develop robot surgeons and invest in cutting-edge tools, doctors are still lumbered with pagers and fax machines, and patients can’t access their own health records. In shooting for the moon, we risk passing eminently fixable problems en route.
The pandemic has shone a further light on the power of simplicity. Doctors reached for the humble telephone like a life-raft as they switched to remote consultations. A long-used, off-patent steroid has emerged as one of the most effective treatments for the most seriously ill. And homemade masks are the new must-have. They stand in stark contrast to the many stumbles made by governments scrambling to build effective test-and-trace apps. It isn’t the machines who’ll save us — it will be humans backed up by genuinely effective tools.
And this isn’t just true in the health sector. Few democracies have yet to embrace digital voting, for example, despite the relatively straightforward tech involved in making it happen. Likewise, many services still require an in-person verification process, despite the rise of digital passporting. And millions of people remain locked out of traditional banking. There are ample societal problems that remain in need of a solution. Many of these are well within our purview (although complications can abound in the implementation and behavioral changes needed to help them scale), but many entrepreneurs are guilty of over-cooking the process in the quest for startup glory.
Simple doesn’t always mean easy. Some of the most “straightforward” innovations were ahead of their time and were based on years of iteration and discovery. But the final products are simple at the point of use and make a tangible difference. We’ve all come across websites where it’s a struggle to make head or tail of the business offering. This over-engineering of ideas is a classic example of where the myth of “more is more” has taken hold and overlaid a good innovation with layers of unnecessary complexity. In contrast, simple technology makes sense.
Yet the startup scene unwittingly fuels the more-is-more myth. Hype around the acronym-laden “next big thing” creates a culture of moon-shooting that drives each entrepreneur to think showier, bolder. But as VCs rightly focus on seeking out the next unicorn, perhaps we need to explore the different routes we can get to the moon? Ideas that might appear, on paper, to be “smaller” can still have big, game-changing ambitions. And therein lies the heart of the problem. If we want to discover the next tin can, we need to break ties with our shiny, robot-filled version of the future and expand our field of vision. We need to rediscover the beauty of simplicity, creating space for it on the pedestal where complexity currently sits unchallenged.
For everyone in the ecosystem — founders, funders, customers — there is huge value to be derived in broadening our concept of progress. Sometimes progress isn’t sexy but focuses on the nitty gritty. Perhaps it doesn’t transform an industry in one fell swoop but effectively solves individual problems step by step. And whilst certain offerings might look simple, they might make a genuine difference to lives and societies. Simple technology doesn’t equate to simplified outcomes. More often, we’re simply overlooking its potential.
Dr. Alexander Finlayson is CEO of Nye Health and an NHS doctor. He is also founder of the TheHill innovation hub in Oxford and founder of the non-profit MedicineAfrica.
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