Having a clear and threatening enemy helps in rallying and motivating the troops, or, in less martial terms, having a formidable adversary helps to mobilize the resources and keep the eye on the ball. That was abundantly visible during the initial stages of the pandemic. Once the threat of the SARS-CoV2 virus became apparent to its full extent, everyone was willing to endure the lockdown.
However, after the first success in halting the spread of the virus, the focus on the pathogen as the adversary started to blur among a significant number of people. Other adversaries started to (re)emerge, like the authorities, making it increasingly more difficult to combat the pandemic by enforcing social distancing. Nobody can predict what would have happened if science and technology wouldn’t have prevailed and provided light at the end of the tunnel by developing effective vaccines at breakneck speed.
A strong adversary is also very useful in business. When I worked at Philips, the company was competing in many arenas. There were different dominating adversaries, depending on the market segment. In general, with Philips’ chosen focus on consumer electronics, the main competition came from Japan at that time. This battle was multi-faceted: besides competing, the main players were also working together. Take, for example, the IP cross-licensing with Matsushita, the joint development of battery technology with Panasonic and, most importantly, the extremely successful joint work with Sony in the standardization of optical recording.
But still, many of us considered Sony the one to beat, to measure our efforts and successes against. Sony was widely seen as the leader in new technology, especially concerning design and user-friendliness. That certainly contributed to a strong drive within Philips to focus on and invest in these two product aspects. Although Philips as a consumer electronics company didn’t survive the continuing onslaught of (initially state-supported) rivals from the Far East, Philips Design became renowned the world over. The Dutch Design Week, which was partly fathered by Philips Design, grew into the largest annual design event in Northern Europe.
The industrial electronics parts of Philips, which were split off or were the final destiny (Healthcare), also put the presence of a major competitor to good use. I’ve seen this the strongest at FEI, the Oregon startup that did a reverse takeover of Philips Electron Optics and is now part of Thermo Fischer Scientific. Looking at US politics, it’s probably not a coincidence that a US company would make extensive use of very polarizing imagery vis-à-vis competitors.
I was very lucky to be invited every year to the annual sales meeting of FEI, initially somewhere equidistant between Eindhoven and Oregon, then progressively closer to the American North East. These were lavish, entertaining and very useful events for retrospection and new product introduction. I very well remember the one on a cruise ship from Florida to the Caribbean, where we kicked off the product launch of the Titan Krios. It started with a loud and impressive movie of failures (image: rocket exploding after launch) by the main competitors (Jeol and Zeiss) set against the successes of FEI (image: speeding tank hitting target). This framed the strategy and made clear where the focus needed to be: in the area of corrected optics and cryogenic sample handling for structural biology. Failure was not an option. It set the tone and gave you an energized warm group feeling, which you later conveyed to your own department.
Another type of rivalry is nowadays apparent in emerging technology fields like integrated photonics. It can have significant business and societal impact and Dutch companies are at the forefront. History has taught that this leadership can easily be lost to the US and the Far East, at present especially China. It’s therefore heartening that this rivalry has focused all the relevant Dutch (and European) players in boosting this new technology as much as possible in the post-Covid decade.