“Inspiration for Innovation”: Reading Brazil’s Época Negócios

Innovation is more than invention. An invention is something new, it can be done by a single person. Innovation is the introduction of something new, it always involves the interaction between several people. It is the process of creating and delivering new value on a market or in a community. Innovation journalism covers how innovation happens. –Wikipedia, “Innovation Journalism”

Invention: A non-obvious, novel and useful idea relating to a device or process that has been reduced to practice.

Invention, from the Latin invenire, to come upon: the discovery, whether accidental or deliberate, of the saint in its original burial place (loculus or cubiculum), leading to its veneration and possible translation.

Innovation: A novel, beneficial change in art or practice. –“Facilitating the Transfer of Rehabilitation Technology,” American Institutes for Research, 1989 (Glossary)

If I have seen further [than certain other men] it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants. –Isaac Newton, letter to Robert Hooke, February 5, 1675

Innovation violates tradition—attacks it in public and steals from it in private. –Mason Cooley

Two case studies in “innovation journalism” from Editora Globo’s Época Negócios magazine for October 2007.

See also

The first case is a secondary cover story — in the “books” sections, as it turns out — on globalization.

The cover copy reads:

“Is it a globalized world? Not really. In a provocative book, a Harvard professor warns: Strategies that bet blindly on an end to national borders may lead companies to disaster.”

That thought appears to have been prescient. See

More accurate would have been to write: “In a provocative book published 20 years ago, a Harvard professor URGED companies to bet blindly on an end to national borders.”

As it happens, a panel of the Harvard professor’s colleagues did hold a colloquium on the 20th anniversary of the publication of that book, concluding the book had had “very little predictive success.”

That panel was held in 2003. Four years ago.

Here, however, one searches in vain for mention of any other provocative book by a Harvard scholar, as announced on the cover. Much less a book new enough to merit a review in the magazine’s “books” column.

The only book by a Harvard professor mentioned during the first 2,000 to 3,000 words or so of the article in question is Theodore Levitt’s The Globalization of Markets.

When the article finally gets around to mentioning, on p. 150, a book it identifies only as Illusions of a Borderless World — which was indeed co-authored by a Harvard faculty member, along with a member of the faculty club at the Leland Stanford Junior farm — it omits to name the authors.

Much less mention their academic affiliation.

The actual discussion of the book — whose title, Who Controls the Internet? Illusions of a Borderless World, is not given in full — occupies less than a paragraph.

What you have, then, is a cover line announcing a review of a “provocative book” from the Harvard faculty, a book suggesting that Levitt’s predictions failed to pan out.

But when you go to read the article, the book to be reviewed is not mentioned until 2,000 or 3,000 words into the article. Its correct title is not given. Its authors are not named. Their academic affiliations are not idenfitied. The book is discussed in fewer than 100 words.

To the extent that the book review presents the ideas developed by the authors of that book, technically speaking, it plagiarizes them.

Ecce Globo. Truth in advertising is not our thing. What is truth, anyway?

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What to read for students of the contemporary Brazilian business scene? Not this dreck..

The second case is the issue’s main cover story, “Why Are We [Brazilians] Not Very Innovative?” by Clemente Nobrega — “business consultant, nuclear physicist and once took the Strategic Management Course at Harvard Business School,” according to his personal Web site.

It is one of the most astonishing pieces of gabbling nonsense I have ever read in my life and times of squinting at page proofs and infographics.

And I squint at gabbling nonsense and infographics about business trends for a modest living, mind you. Normally I get paid to take a blue pencil and gently suggest ways of making it less nonsensical and more credible — though not always. Buy me a beer and I will tell you some stories.

At the heart of the article is a nifty-looking infographic showing an “innovation index” of some kind, rating different nations according to their “innovation score.”

The U.S. ranks at the top.

Brazil ranks at the bottom.

Two points about this infographic: (1) The article itself actually makes no detailed reference at all to the eight factors covered by this “innovation index” in its analysis of the question at hand, and; and (2) The “innovation index” itself, as presented, makes absolutely no sense.

Its only purpose seems to be to dress up some vague notion — that Brazil ought to try to be more “innovative,” like the U.S. is — in the rhetoric of quantitative analysis.

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But let’s start with (2).

At first glance, the “innovation index” appears to be original with Época Dinheiro, because the magazine lists no source for this ranking of nations according to their “innovation index.”

Or is it?

There IS a reference, in the body of the article, on page 88, to “INSEAD — the Global Innnovation Index, GII” (the chart is on page 62).”

Page 62 of the magazine, however, presents us with a full-page photographic portrait of the late Body Shop founder, Anita Roddick.

A chart titled “Nations and Innovation” appears on page 80, with a companion set of league-chart tables on the facing page. Brazil is shown at the bottom of the chart — although we are later informed on page 88 (which points us to a nonexistent chart on page 62) that Brazil actually ranks 40th among 106 nations studied in terms of the preconditions required for “innovation.”

Whatever that means.

So let us assume, after scratching our heads over the problem of sourcing for half an hour, that what appears on page 80 is “INSEAD — the Global Innnovation Index, GII”

What, then, first of all, is INSEAD? What does the acronym stand for? And why should I have any faith that its “Global Innovation Index, GII” measures anything that is atually measurable?

The extent to which the magazine explains the methodology used to calculate this innovation index, for example, is as follows (in miniscule pica type, IN ILLEGIBLE ALL CAPS, along the edge of the infographic bylined to ALE SETTI.)

The analysis involves eight factors:(1) Institutions & Policies, (2) Human Capacity, (3) Infrastructure, (4) Technological Sophistication, (5) Business and Capital Markets, (6) Knowledge, (7) Competitiveness and (8) Wealth. The index ranges from 1 to seven.

That is all it tells you.

Furthermore, in a breakdown of top scorers in each of these categories on the facing page, we learn that the United States leads the world, not in “Technological Sophistication,” but in “Technological Satisfaction.”

With a score of 6.23 out of 7.

And how exactly do we assign a score in each category, anyway?

How, for example, do we rate a nation’s “Knowledge” score?

Suppose you decided to quantify this in terms of the percentage of the population who finish college, for example.

In one study I saw recently — it was in CartaCapital magazine, I have that here somewhere, yes, they cite the source fully, it was UNESCO study No. 4,077, yada yada — Canada scores highest in this category, with 40%. Brazil scores lowest, with about 5%.

Would we assign Brazil a 1 and Canada a 7, in that case? And set the cut-off points for nations with graduation rates in between those extremes proportionally?

But then again, why use that measure? Perhaps that might fit “Human Capacity better.” Or not. How much more useful is a person with a college degree than a person without one when it comes to innovation?

Edison, the folkloric ur-innovator (he was often accused of poaching other people’s intellectual property, however, as we read in Empires of Light) didn’t have one, for example.

And after all, you have to have a college degree to work as a journalist for the Editora Globo. And just look how that has turned out. This guy claims to have taken courses at Harvard Business, for example. And he reasons like an unfortunate sufferer from schizophrenia who sleeps in the tunnels under Grand Central Terminal.

So instead, perhaps we could use, say, patent applications per capita per year, or patents currently in force per capita, to measure that factor.

Or some other factor, but in any event based on hard data from somewhere, with an explanation of why we should believe that those numbers should be taken as reflecting on the level of “knowledge” in a society.

Or again, how do we go about rating ‘Institutions & Policies”? The most “advanced” nation in this category is said to be Singapore, with a score of 6.28. Singapore is a dictatorship that canes people in public and has the death penalty for drug possession. Are those the kinds of policies we are evaluating positively?

Really, just what IS meant here? Does Singapore have more institutions and policies than the others? Fewer? Better? Better how? Better for whom?

And finally, if these are the eight essential preconditions for innovation, what remains to be shown is the correlation between the presence of high scores in these areas and actual innovation.

Which is to be measured how?

What actually is innovation, anyway, in economic terms?

Is the SDI missile defense system — which has been innovated on for decades now, and still does not work — innovative, whereas the Embraer SuperToucan propeller-driven fighter — which apparently does adequately serve the quite modest ends it was designed for (shooting down narcoCessnas, apparently) — is not, for example?

Laser-guided smart bombs were an innovative idea, but in practice they sometimes turned out not be as smart as the brochure said they would be.

But returning to point (1): all of the above is actually immaterial to the article, which explores another set of factors entirely to explain Brazil’s alleged lack of preparedness for “innovation”:

  1. Trust in personal relationships
  2. Pragmatic leadership
  3. Meritocracy
  4. Transparency

“These,” the coverline reads, “are the attributes of the world champions of innovation.”

And here I thought those attributes were superiority (of some kind) in the areas of

  1. Institutions & Policies
  2. Human Capacity
  3. Infrastructure
  4. Technological Sophistication (or Satisfaction)
  5. Business and Capital Markets
  6. Knowledge
  7. Competitiveness
  8. Wealth

Perhaps those four (vague and qualitative) attributes of innovative nations are to viewed, somehow, as means to accomplishing superiority in the eight key innovation-enabling areas.

But according to whom? According to various “studies” that our intrepid reporter does not bother citing. For example, he writes:

In 1996, a survey asked the following question of people in various nations: “In general, do you think that most people in you country are trustworthy? The diversity in the responses was impressive. The nations with the highest percent of persons answering yes were Norway (65%) and Sweden (60%). In Peru, it was 5% and in Brazil (bringing up the rear) 3%.

This is 2007.

Why does this 1996 survey matter now? And for that matter, what survey was that, anyway? Who conducted it? How?

This is all gibbering pseudoscientific nonsense, of course, from start to finish.

And what a finish:

I was going to say more about computer simulations that corroborate these conclusions (these guys have actually modeled corruption, not easy, right?) These are among the coolest applications of scientific technique in recent decades. But I have run out of space. …

Yes, well, I was going to talk more about computer simulations by some cool guy that prove conclusively that monkeys regularly fly out of my butt.

But sadly, I ran out of patience with this exercise in belaboring the obvious: I have been suckered into laying out $R10 for subliterate gabbling nonsense.

So are just going to have to take it on faith, gentle reader, that lower primates are capable of flight, and regularly emerge from my lower bodily stratum.

When we were in college, we all produced a term paper or two like this: Cobbled together out of disparate sources, not properly cited — some of them just made up on the spot out of thin air, even — and kludged together with glittering generalities and pure idiocy.

We had referred attending a kegger every single blessed night of the week to taking a methodical approach to our studies, and so we inevitably paid the price with the brutal all-nighter required to eke out our “gentleman’s C.”

But here the Editora Globo wants to charge you nearly R$10 for this nonsense — an entire day’s bare subsistence wage for a family of four. (Its U.S. peers generally cost between one and two hours of minimum wage, I reckon.)

I would suggest, therefore, that one of the reasons that Brazil may not be up to the task of innovating — if that is the case, and whatever that is supposed to mean — is that its [self-styled] leading business journalists and editors have not learned the most basic lessons about how to source, present or interpret quantitative information in support of a coherent argument about what is and what, concretely, ought to be done.

If anything, however, it does tend to corroborate the author’s point about meritocracy.

Brazil has some very, very good business journalists.

And if the Editora Globo were a meritocracy, they would be writing the cover story for its flagship business publication, not this self-styled rocket-scientist.

Paulo Francis probably explained more succinctly why Brazil is not more innovative when he wrote: “Brazil has always been a godforsaken backwater whose backstabbing elites do whatever the hell they feel like.”

Paulo got nuttier and nuttier as time went on, but the more I observe these people in action, the more I think he was experiencing a moment of transcendental lucidity when he wrote that.

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