The Faster Horse

The Faster Horse

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“If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said ‘faster horses’.”

This quote from Henry Ford has more relevance now than ever. The gap between what is already possible for humanity and what is actually being delivered is widening every day.

We are trapped in a world with governments aspiring only to breed faster horses or even worse – to maintain old horses. That does not help any of us, because the solutions we require for our problems involve making step changes, compared with our current approaches.

We live in an extraordinary time. Thanks to exponentially-changing technology and its knock-on benefits, such as access to global knowledge, the ‘faster horse’ approach is rarely the effective solution to our problems.

And this is where the challenge with government and democracy lies. If you ask people what they want, they will ask for a faster horse. If you ask people how we can improve health, education, transport etc they will ask for only incremental improvements to the current systems and procedures.

So politicians will win elections by promising faster horses – and that is what they will attempt to deliver whilst they are in office. And this perpetual risk-averse incrementalism will continue to prevail, at the huge cost of human potential.

This troubles me, because in the gap between what is possible and what is being delivered lies unnecessary suffering. The quest for the faster horse has consequences, such as people unnecessarily dying from diseases, and us needlessly damaging the planet.

If you look at a company like Apple, in developing new products they do not heavily rely on what customers tell them. Steve Jobs was famously quoted as saying: “People don’t know what they want until you show it to them.”

In some ways, under Steve Jobs, Apple was run as a form of benevolent dictatorship. One person had enough power, freedom and belief to deliver something remarkable. If that company had been more democratic, they might never have managed the degree of innovation that they achieved. The majority might merely have hoped for faster horses.

The challenge is that democracy in its current form and innovation do not mix too well. And that is a big problem for humanity. To deal with the world’s challenges, we need a forms of benevolent dictatorships and/or democracies that we never seen before.

We need small numbers of people in charge for the long term with the freedom and vision to deliver things like the autonomously flying electric car that is becoming possible now.

We are moving into an era where democratic systems are not working well, because the speed of change is increasing all the time. Many traditional democracies will start to break down, as people realise that they cannot be served by such structures. People will demand more leadership from fewer people with the freedom to make the changes they want to see happening in the world.

The era of the large, cumbersome democratic structures and systems will come to an end, with their decreasing ability to deliver what communities believe to be possible and necessary. What forms they will take in the future, I do not know. What I do know is that the systems we have now are unsustainable in a rapidly-changing world with ever-increasing human potential.

The revolution is coming, and it is not far away. I just hope that no blood is shed in the process.

Innovation versus democracy is a tough and challenging debate. I would love to know your views on this subject. Please share in the comments section below.


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  1. Marc,
    Very interesting and thought provoking.
    You could argue that you have just given reasons not to support the Arab Spring, and that sometimes in some places, authoritarian governments act faster, innovate more, and give the people what they don’t know they want.
    It is certainly true that our democracy both in the Channel Islands and indeed the UK needs review.
    Some would even argue that aspects of our systems are not truly democratic at all.
    Those in authority here constantly reject greater democracy and transparency, in Guernsey the lack of referendum rights is a glaring example. The recent decision not to allow Island Wide voting. Yet Island Wide voting was one means by which there could have been fair democratic election of people to exercise strong leadership roles.
    There is very much dissatisfaction in the air, will it lead to positive change, revolution, whatever, who knows ?
    It is up to those who want and believe in change to make it happen…

  2. Marc,

    All of your post is certainly true but you are clearly thinking much wider than, I am sure, the well meaning contribution from Tony,

    So I would like to encourage other contributors to keep the focus wide. And certainly not about IOW voting in Guernsey!

    It may or may not be good but it certainly won’t change the world.

    A sad but true fact is that historically war has been the greatest stimulation to innovation.

    I have so often stood in the gallery of the Air and Space Museum in Washington and, looking upwards, have always been astounded at the pace of change in technology of aerospace immediately before and after the second world war. That pace of change was inevitably repeated in all other aspects of life.

    I am not advocating war.

    The other point that is rarely discussed is the increasing mismatch between how the world is governed (and regulated), and how we live our lives and regulate our business and other activities.

    We live and do business internationally but still attempt to govern and regulate nationally.

    So I totally agree that change is needed.

    Governments view will be for more government.

    I suspect that will not be your or many others view.

    New, and peaceful, processes need to be found.

    Such an important debate.

    More contributions please.


  3. Very tricky subject! In some ways you are right – it takes a benevolent dictatorship to deliver significant step changes in how society is organised. Unfortunately though dictatorships rarely stay benevolent for long. Fidel Castro hasn’t done too badly but Colonel Gaddafi is perhaps the best (?) example of how it can all go horribly wrong. Both delivered significant improvements in their country’s standard of living in terms of access to education, healthcare and housing (not a well known fact about Gaddafi) But we know how things ended there.

    The idea of a meritocracy is similarly fraught with difficulty. The proposition that you have some people who are best able to determine what is best for everyone else…..Aldous Huxley and George Orwell showed us what could happen there. Nevertheless, I think even in the real world, we do have a class of top civil servants who think they know best and simple “manage” their political masters to limit their ambitions and effectiveness, without being accountable to anyone themselves.

    Churchill put it best I suspect when he said “Democracy is the worst form of government; except all the others that have been tried”. But what is perhaps most relevant to your point is that the greatest changes do not necessarily come through any political system at all. Paradigm shifts of the kind initated by Einstein, Jobs, Larry Page, Henry Ford etc – who changed the way we think about the world, organise our lives, get around – they had nothing at all to do with the people in power at the time.

  4. I see a potential ‘fatal’ flaw in your ‘highly interesting’ article. The flaw being your implied belief that government needs to innovate to drive the outcome you seek. In essence, that government needs to be the benevolent dictator. I agree that government needs to innovate but I believe to a different end. My argument would be that government should be less involved in ‘dictating’ innovation and ‘dictating’ what the future should look like and more involved in supporting its people to accomplish better outcomes. Government should create the necessary infrastructure and then get out of the way of its people. The benevolent leader you seek should exist within the population (like Steve Jobs) and not be hindered by government to act. I believe there are many ‘Steve Jobs’ out there, but governments have made operating businesses very difficult, and therefore, many great ideas never get elevated.

    You rightly comment that governments cannot adapt to the speed of change…it is precisely (as you stated) because governments are too big. Governments need to be smaller (less power and influence) and more nimble. And they need to use this nimbleness to find and remove the hurdles faced by the Steve Jobs of the world.

  5. “So politicians will win elections by promising faster horses – and that is what they will attempt to deliver whilst they are in office.” – this is the route of the problem I see in the UK – it’s about creating headlines and headline stats that look appealing.

    But I fear the reality is often very different from the statistics.

  6. Agreed.

    The resolution to the paradox is that the world can benefit from innovative dictatorships so long as everyone in them has *total freedom to leave*.

    Many companies already work this way, which is why they out-innovate government. They may set the rules while we work for them, but we can withdraw our support any time we choose (to go work somewhere, or nowhere, else). And that is a powerful vote.

    Governments, historically, handle this process of worker/citizen choice in a worse way. The worst of them try to kill those who try to leave, and the rest create arduous tax burdens as a disincentive. Having stifled most competition for the hearts and minds of citizens, the current paradigm of government reaps mediocrity.

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