Innovation and War (The Narco Way)

Decorating this post I placed the image of "The Monster" a vehicle used by the drug cartel "Zetas", seized today by authorities at Tamaulipas. What is interesting is that the vehicle shows technological evolutions. It is heavily shielded (even the tires!), only showing lateral spaces for firing weapons. "The Monster" as newspapers have called it, even has a back compartment that throws nails and oil to the ground. But more impressive, this vehicle can run 110 km/hr compared to its earlier seized predecessor that only reached 40 km/hr and had less interior capacity. More speed while adding protection, weight and space? Something every car company would brag about.

"The Monster" reminded me about a submarine that was seized at Colombia three months ago (February 15) who had as a destination Mexico, with 8 tons of cocaine. Before I saw the news, I'd never thought cartels had submarines with autonomous navegation that could get from Colombia to Mexico carrying a heavy load. What made this particular submarine special was that it actually sumerged 9 meters below water, when all earlier caught versions almost navegated supperficially. The estimated cost? 2.12 million dollars.

I write this post because I've been working on an investigation related to war-driven innovations that, as its name states, are those that emerge, or are catalyzed, by factors related to armed conflicts. War gets economy moving as well as innovation. Although these reasons will never justify a war, we can analyze what specifically helps them to develop and replicate it in an non-violent environment or even in business. Here are some thoughts:

- Strong motivation (life or death priority) and resource-allocation to defeat the opponent. The radar, rockets, satellites, vehicles (submarines, jet engines) and even internet have all been influenced by war for protection, attack, supply or communication needs, inherent to the conflicts. These needs are sometimes extrapolated to “mainstream” market needs for other innovations into our everyday objects. Ever rode a Jeep, a Hummer or even a VW Beetle? Innovations can also be in the field of processes, such as the use of paramedics in the Vietnam War. Knowledge on supply chain in logistics and even ergonomics in design come from war. Non-violent best practice: Motivate and invest knowing innovation is a matter of business survival.

- The “scaling effect” of war. In addition to the last statement, we can emphasize that war, as a conflict between groups, scales up innovations: If someone creates a weapon, the other will create a stronger weapon and a way to protect themselves from the new weapon… and the original opponent will react the same way, and so on. It is a competition-driven innovation cycle with a Just-Can't-Lose Strategy. The clearest example comes from the space race during the Cold War between the US and the Soviet Union. Non-violent best practice: Embrace competition.

- The "lead user approach". which means that the harsh and demanding conditions during war help develop complex knowledge and technologies that can later be applied to "normal" conditions with great success. It’s like designing urban auto tires by analyzing F1 racers. As an example: Kimberly-Clark had created “cellucotton” which was 5 times as absorbent as cotton and half as cheap to produce, made out of wood pulp in times when cotton was scarce for bandages. It was used by soldiers in WWI to stop bleedings but soon it was also used by allied nurses for their menstrual cycle. Born: Disposable Feminine Pads. Non-violent best practice: Anlyze your products/services in extreme conditions or by "extreme" users and observe new ways they are using it.

- With government incentives, private interests get the competition going. In the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered 12,000 francs to anyone that created a cheap and effective method of preserving food, which led to canning food. Remember this everytime you open a Campbell's soup or a soda can. Another example, one with an unexpected result, was when in 1943, during a rubber shortage, the US government asked private companies to create a synthetic rubber substitute. The best researchers at General Electric created… “Silly Puddy”, used today as a commercially successful kid’s toy. Non-violent best practice: Search incentives, maybe if you don't get things right, it can actually be good for something else.

- The “What do we do know? Effect”. After a war ends, many resources that were used for armed purposes are left unoccupied. DuPont had created Nylon, as a silk alternative, used mainly for parachutes, tires and flak vests, that gained importance in WWII when Japan cut off the West from their silk. What to do when nylon demand for war ended? Nylon Stockings for woman! There is also a "what do we do know" effect on knowledge, for example Walter Fredrick Morrison, that during WWII learned areodinamics flying a P-47 Thunderbolt, came back to invent the "Pluto Platters" the plastic forerunner of the Frisbee. Non-violent best practice: When a door closes, another one opens, its a matter of seizing the opportunity creatively.

- The aftermaths: Important innovations also come from dealing with the damaged caused by battle, such as medical advances. Prothesis are a main example. Last year I went to a great conference held by Armando Bravo, a young Mexican innovator, who created a low-cost mechanical hand prothesis, commercialiced by his company Probionics. Another example is the use of Virtual Reality to treat post-traumatic effects of violence, as psychologist from UNAM are doing in Ciudad Juarez with specially designed software for violence treatment. (Read news in spanish at Both examples proudly made in Mexico! Non-violent best practice: Problems by definition need solutions, you can focus on finding the right problems, it is not about giving the right answers but asking the right questions.

- Unethically, war has been a "permissive" environment, with experiments made in secrecy and protection from power groups: examples in history are using human testing for medical purposes. Most of our modern knowledge on how the body reacts to freezing temperatures comes from Nazi experimentation at concentration camps searching to prevent and treat hypothermia for their soldiers. The Atomic Bomb thrown at Hiroshima during WWII and nuclear effects studies is also an example of technology put to practice in a way that it normally wouldn’t be allowed. Non-violent best practice: Of course, this is an innovation factor we can't replicate.

My investigation for obtaining a Master’s scholarship is concentrating on detecting innovations, especially in the medical fields, that can emerge (or are emerging as my hypothesis sugests) during Mexico’s war against organized crime. I'll keep posting on the subject and any contributions on the topic will be welcomed.

(1) "The Monster" photo from

(2) Colombia-Mexico submarine seized on February 2011 - photo from

No comments:

Post a Comment