Sat | Dec 4, 2021

Alfred Dawes | Innovation or sufferation

Published:Friday | March 26, 2021 | 12:06 AM

During the first half of the 20th century, Switzerland produced between 50 and 95 per cent of all watches sold worldwide. The economy was heavily dependent on watch manufacturing and the country enjoyed an unassailable monopoly because of the craftsmanship of Swiss watchmakers and technology. Then in the 1970s and 1980s Switzerland suffered its worst economic crisis ever. This became known as the “quartz crisis” and it offers valuable lessons on the need for corporations and countries to evolve with seismic industry disruptions and changes in consumer attitudes.

The massive fall-off in Swiss watch sales was triggered by the development and growth in popularity of quartz watches. Swiss mechanical watches were powered by precision crafted gears and were of high quality and accuracy. Then in the 1970s quartz watches exploded on the scene. In the heart of the timepieces were tiny quartz crystals. The crystals vibrate at a precise frequency whenever a current supplied by a small battery passes through them, thus creating an extremely accurate driver for the hands of the watch. With less reliance on master craftsmen and the ability to mass produce, quartz watchmakers were able to wrest market share from their Swiss counterparts who suddenly were the makers of overpriced, less accurate pieces. The tepid response of the Swiss to the new technology was partly out of arrogance and probably wilful blindness to the fact that the technology was superior to their own mastery.

Japanese watch maker Seiko wholly embraced quartz technology, using it in analogue and later digital watches. Having learned the power of innovation, the company consistently improved its technology, embracing LCD watches as the technology became popular. The strategy worked. Seiko became the world’s largest watchmaker by 1977 at a time when the Swiss watch companies were being bailed out or merged in a massive restructuring of the country’s prized industry. The lessons of the need for innovation and adaptation does not end there.

RELEGATED INTO HISTORY

If you wanted to watch a film in 1980s and ‘90s America, you went to the cinema or rented from Blockbuster. The latter company was a behemoth. As a result of their dominant position, they ignored the concepts of films mailed to subscribers without late fees and later streaming over the internet, pioneered by a little start-up company, Netflix. Where is Blockbuster now? Different phone styles and keyboards made Nokia the industry leader in phones. Other phone manufacturers such as Blackberry and Palm enjoyed unparalleled success with focuses on productivity and gaming ability. When the iPhone was released I remember then Microsoft chief Steve Balmer scoffing in an interview that the phone didn’t even have a keyboard. But while other companies were making multiple phones optimised for different customers, Apple made one phone with the ability to be customised to anyone’s liking via the revolutionary App Store. It soon became one phone to rule them all. Early adopters of no keyboard touchscreen phones enjoyed success as the giants Palm, Nokia and Blackberry were relegated to the pages of tech history.

The list continues, Amazon versus brick and mortar stores, Google versus Yahoo, Facebook versus MySpace, etc. The lesson is simple, evolve or die. A dominant industry position can easily become your Achilles heel as times change. It begs the question: how will we manage the disruption to our tourism industry? Will we eventually evolve to online shopping given the proven ease of use during the pandemic? On at international level, how will Germany react to electric vehicles? We all know German engines enjoy a premium place in the automotive industry. In fact, handcrafted AMG engines can be traced back to the engineer who put them together. This is eerily reminiscent of the prestige of the Swiss master watchmakers as we embrace electric vehicles that do not require the complexity of German engines. The ever resourceful Germans will undoubtedly adapt, but will we do so for our threatened industries?

There are several industries in Jamaica begging for disruption. Agriculture is notoriously inefficient and characterised by gluts and scarcities with little value-added products. The financial sector stifles enterprise with the predilection towards consumer loans instead of financing legitimate businesses requiring commercial loans. Healthcare is separated by a chasm into those forced to utilise crowded, miserable public health facilities because of affordability, poor or no insurance coverage, and those who can pay their way into expensive private facilities. Transportation and education are similarly examples of apartheid systems separating the haves and the have-nots. It will take the brightest visionaries to create the solutions that will not only create value for Jamaicans, but considerable wealth for themselves.

Key to fostering innovation are state-sponsored support programmes and protection from industry leaders who would rather crush disruptive innovation rather than adapt to regain lost market share. Unfortunately, this is the norm and innovation in Jamaica is slow and far between. With many market leaders hurting from the economic fallout of the pandemic, and with many hungry entrepreneurs with no safety net to foster complacency, the conditions are ripe for a massive disruption of the status quo. Who knows if you, the reader, are one of the mavericks who will think outside of the box and disrupt an entire industry. It’s not easy but the beginning is all the same irrespective of the field, look to where the technology and the consumer are evolving and avoid reinventing what the industry leaders are doing. Who knows, through you Jamaica may just become a world leader in the fourth industrial revolution.

- Alfred Dawes is a general, laparoscopic, and weight-loss surgeon; Fellow of the American College of Surgeons; former senior medical officer of the Savanna-la-Mar Public General Hospital; former president of Jamaica Medical Doctors Association. @dr_aldawes. Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com and adawes@ilapmedical.com.