What is Development?: Evolutionary Progress

Evolutionary problem solving is a power agent for addressing complex challenges:

In his 40-min lecture posted on the Center for Global Development, Owen Barder makes a new and compelling case about how we should think about development. His talked, titled “What is Development” presents us with 2 key ideas that should shift the way we think about foreign engagement in developing economies.

In Part 3 of this blog series (Part 2: Progress in a Vacuum ; Part 1: Where we've been) we look at a case example that demonstrates the power of evolutionary problem solving. In our final post next week we'll tie together these insights into the implications it has for developmental policy.

In Part 1, we discussed the complexity of development and how each successive theory of progress has added more layers or agents that are necessary for development to happen. The economy is a highly complex inter-dependent system and it has proved difficult to find the right levers to spur growth.

In Part 2, our case example highlighted the networked nature of systems. A simple toaster making company requires a large ecosystem of products and services in order to function, yet once these are in place, growth is exponential. 


The Original Soap Powder Nozzle

The process for making soap powder is fairly simple. It requires mixing several chemicals and forcing the mixture through a spray nozzle. The force of the nozzle makes soap power crystallize and fall to the floor. You then sweep up the powder and sell it at a huge profit.
The critical component is the nozzle. At Unilever, a roomful of scientists had puzzled on how to design a better nozzle. The challenge was that the fluid dynamics were non-linear resulting in a horribly complicated model. Numerous physicists and engineers were unable to make any kind of progress on the redesign.

Steve Jones, a young evolutionary biologist assigned to the team decided to try a different approach. Taking the existing nozzle he made ten copies which were random variants of the original. After testing these he selected the best, and then made another ten random variations of this new nozzle. After 45 such generations of testing a new nozzle emerged that look somewhat like a chess piece. It would have been impossible to envision at the beginning.

The new Nozzle after 45 generations of testing
The new nozzle worked. If it had increased efficiency by 20%, Unilever would have been ecstatic. The nozzle wasn't 20% better; it was hundreds of times better. The most incredible part was that no one could explain why it worked.

To quote Owen:
" This is a characteristic of adaptive change: It doesn't just bring about small improvements; it often brings about startling, game-changing jumps to new solutions, like the evolution of the eye for example in biology."

This is the central message to development experts. The products that impact are lives are not the result of one person's innovation but hundreds of iterations of trial and error. Thomas Edison might have invented the light-bulb, but the hundreds of iterations since have increased the efficacy of the product thousands fold. 

In order for progress to happen, economies must cycle through a process of trial and error, with firms emerging and failing. The idea is embedded in Schumpeter's theory of creative destruction

The last point to make is that adaptive problem solving isn't a choice we an ignore. We are already adapting. With each generation of humans we have new preferences, choices and world-views that impact our society. With each generation of new businesses we find new products and services that fundamentally shift the human experience (think about the transition from the printing press to the internet). Hence, attempting to manufacture progress in a static world-view can only be explained as profound naivete or short-sighted arrogance. The change we need to make is embracing change.

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