On the Nature of Innovation – 1 “O’ Hodja! Spare us from the elephants!” Collective Memory and Risk

You must have heard the name of Nasreddin Hodja, in one form or another, the witty wise man claimed by more than ten cultures across Anatolia, Balkans, Eastern Europe, and Southeast Asia. Hodja mostly delivers a pedagogic message, posing as a fool, but history tells us that he was more of a political figure, acting as a mediator between Persian and Seljuq kings, serving as a judge of Islamic law, and organizing civil resistance against the Mongol invasion. In one of his most well-known stories, he takes the role of a diplomat. Timurlenk, who wishes to establish the strongest army in the world, buys elephants to carry soldiers, large amounts of ammunition, and to use them in smashing villages. He gives each elephant to a village in the land he reigns. Soon, elephants start to devour the villagers’ food stocks. Hunger hits the villages one by one. Villagers fall ill in dozens, but out of Timur’s fear, nobody voices their troubles. Then, they go to the wittiest and the most adept orator they know; Hodja. “O’ Hodja!” They say, “Spare us from the elephants or we will die!”

The rest of the story is another discussion, this piece is about elephants, villagers, and solutions. To be more literal; this is about risks, problems that could affect the whole society, the society itself, and institutions created to tackle with these problems.

American economist Hyman Minsky  says; “Stability breeds instability.” Although it strikes the reader as oxymoronic and reminiscent of Orwell’s 1984 at first sight, this is more a nuanced deduction than an aphorism.

Following the catastrophic Yalova earthquake of 1999, then-the director of Kandilli Observatory, geophysicist Ahmet Mete Işıkara was iconized in the Turkish media. The media went so far as to call Prof. Dr. Işıkara sexiest man of Turkey. These reactions show how crises and catastrophes influence culture and social perception. Memory about destruction is built upon ruins. That could be seen as a cathartic effort towards healing and a protective strategy. However, the long remission periods of natural and social risks turns remembrance into hearsay, and gear into lethargy. In most cases, this means a decrease in the attention paid and resources allocated to be prepared, and to fight. But neither decrease in care and resources, nor witnessing’s lack of immunity against time does not explain why people have to confront the same problems again and again, with the same level of unpreparedness and perplexity. The real reason is, much like fear and remembrance, catastrophe is also under time’s reign. What renders all the efforts to triumph over the next catastrophe void is not only forgetting or slackness, it is the metamorphosis of the risk. In other words, armies stop using elephants, changes of regime and wars take down kings, the life of the automobile commences, Thomas Hardy dies; but hunger keeps haunting people through global warming and climate change.

New constituents of the risk might be in forms and at such strength that they may render old reactions and combatting methods futile. In this case, a need for new solutions or adaptations of the old solutions to new problems prove vital.

At this point, we need to stop and examine the dichotomy created by forgetting and technology. As the wounds left by catastrophes heal and the physical traces of destruction fade, the financial resources and effort set to combat destruction decreases. However, people of today, are much less inclined to see catastrophes and social crises as fair returns and punishments of their wrong deeds. They are far less fatalistic than their ancestors for they are aware of the productive potential of their time. That leads to an ever-present demand for shields while the public inevitably lowers theirs. Luckily, this is an incoherence that offers some merit for it transfers responsibility to governmental organşzations and non-profits which possess an edge over the general public, financially, organizationally, and resource-wise. Thus, it prompts the creation of lookout units and transforms the intellectual and scientific elite from the ivory tower to the watchtower enabling the use of intellectual capital for the common good.

The use of spring plates in construction and early earthquake warning systems in Japan which is a high-risk country experiencing frequent earthquakes and tsunamis stands as proof to the benefits of making problem-solving and solution building constant practices. In addition, the Taiwan cave rescue that led to the survival of twelve kids and their football coach with the aid of drones, pumps, underwater technologies, advanced engineering, volunteers at the peak of altruism from all over the world, and crisis management methods give us uncontrolled, real-life data about the need for integrated and expandable solutions that are built not around situations but concepts, and the joint power of humans and technology. This is the real magic of innovation when applied right, it accumulates the power of peoples, public institutions, and actors in the tech sector on a lens, and projects this power upon massive problems.


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