What is innovation? Why jetpacks and flying cars are overrated and the internet deserves a Nobel peace prize.

From a pure practical point of view jetpacks and flying cars appear overrated to me. But that isn’t going to be the subject of this post today. The subject is that both objects of desire come in very handy as a concept to claim that – because we are all not whizzing around in them by now – we are not really innovating anymore; and in addition that the speed of innovation and change is slowing.

Whereas I like the discussion because we should always be questioning our depth and speed of innovation (is the internet sucking up all entrepreneurial talent and venture capital?) I feel it falls short of what is actually going on.

Let me jump right to the conclusion:

  • The internet has achieved that we are heading in to an era where everyone and everything is connected
  • This is one of the most astonishing achievements of mankind because networks of computers, things and people are going to supercharge the development of the human race and spark innovations across every space imaginable or even outside of our imagination (be it in medicine, nutrition, energy, etc – i.e. also ‘outside of the internet’)
  • 142 characters, an easy way to share a picture, cloud file storage systems, etc have been fundamental to the creation, adoption and growth of networks – they therefore represent fundamental innovations critical to creating a social and economic behavior that will allow for increased speed of innovation in other areas
  • A healthy tech ecosystem cannot just focus on producing black swan innovators or social entrepreneurs. It requires a broad group of folks building a broad group of companies leading to general economic prosperity

To make it short: we live in a day and age where the most fundamental innovation is that established and – maybe more importantly – new networks of computers and people will improve close to everything. We are at the 0.1% stage of seeing the impact of these networks on hardware, medicine, nutrition, fight on poverty, human rights, etc.

But why have a lot of folks raised concerns that we aren’t innovating anymore in a fundamental way? Because it’s very tricky to spot it short to mid-term and even more so when you are in the middle of it:

1) Innovation is not evenly distributed at any point and time

Computing power has increased exponentially over the last decades. An iPhone has more computing power than many spacecraft had. Over the same period cancer treatment seems to have developed at a much slower rate. Yet there was a time in history when medicine was arguably witnessing more innovation than computing or even wider mathematics.

I can continue with countless examples of some areas moving quicker than others over a certain period of time. Not everything moves at the same speed over the same period of time.

Innovation does not align itself across sectors and spaces. Although I would point out that the exponential growth of computing power (and wait for quantum computers – and networks thereof – to join the foray) probably brings innovation cycles closers across industries as it impacts close to every area of innovation.

2) Innovation comes in step functions

The Gutenberg book press. Penicillin. The semiconductor. The internet. When these innovations came they – in historic terms – changed things over night. Individually these were not smooth lines where you could sit at the sidelines and watch innovation do it’s magic year over year. Innovation largely comes in extreme surges over historically speaking short periods of time.

3) Only when you zoom out over a reasonable time period, do a bunch of step functions at different times and gradients give a smooth, exponential growth curve of human innovation

Now we can argue what is the right time period to figure out if our ‘overall innovation curve’ is still exponential – but my guess is it is not 10 years, but rather several decades future historians will be looking at. My strong guess is our time will be considered as being on a steep, exponential innovation curve.

4) We are really bad at recognizing fundamental innovations short-term

Semmelweis was the laughing-stock of the medical community for suggesting that washing hands could boost hygiene and decrease mortality rates in hospitals. Most ground breaking mathematical advances took decades if not longer to trickle through to having an impact on our lives. When the first www sites went up – who really knew where we would be just a few years later?

There is crushing evidence we can’t recognize significant innovations while they are staring right at us. What makes us think we are so much better at recognizing innovation now?

5) We think too much of tangible technical solutions vs. social and economic solutions

As Brad Burnham put it in one of our recent discussions (not quoting exactly) – the internet first was a technical engineering challenge to create networks of computers. Now it’s a social and economic model engineering challenge to harness the power of consumers and enterprises engaging on the internet – creating and growing networks.

Without the social and economic engineering part, the technological innovation is pointless.

The social engineering part may be one of those fundamental innovations that has just reached 0.1% of its potential. And it’s very easy and tempting to say that this is not ‘real’ innovation because it, you know, it doesn’t involve flying objects or immediate health benefits.

Networks of people and companies are cutting down on information asymmetries and inefficiencies; and are creating more efficient economies and new markets on the way.  This is essential to continued economic prosperity, which fundamentally is a key driver – or better breeding ground – for innovation.

There are so many obvious spill overs into so-called ‘real problems’: what can networks of highly connected and sharing scientists achieve?, what can connected computer networks with machine learning algorithms do for cancer research in DNA sequencing?, how has a connected world changed how something like charity: water got of the ground? Etc etc – the list could go on and on.

6) We struggle to see the butterfly effect / cross-pollination

At f.ounders there was a panel where Ben Rooney kicked off the innovation discussion by giving an example of a new app allowing teens to take pictures of their skin impurities and get feedback from the app when they can expect things to clear up again – is this innovation or not? Alexia Tsotsis was quick to point out that their next iteration could be to add skin specialists on the other side and all of a sudden you have a network of patients and doctors solving dermatology problems that can be applied to other skin diseases.

Today’s silly sounding app or photo sharing technology (and don’t forget the social engineering part – the learned sharing behavior) may empower tomorrow’s exponential improvements in skin cancer survivability.

It’s not obvious, so again we are very bad at factoring these things in. But the internet is firing off these butterfly effects at an astonishing rate.

7) We look for black swans, but rely on bread and butter innovations too

Of course SpaceX is cooler than an AirBnB for pets (ok stretching it here to make a point). But a healthy entrepreneurial culture / ecosystem will see different personalities pursue different entrepreneurial challenges. We really need folks also to go after what they think will be a ‘good business’ even if it does not involve an underlying fundamental innovation.  Only such a culture will ensure wider economic prosperity, which in turn fuels our capability to fund fundamental innovations.

8) There are more invisible innovators than visible

White LEDs? Carbon fiber composites? The researcher who discovered that Helicobacter pylori causes stomach ulcers and that thus antibiotics will work better than cutting out people’s guts? In the tech scene / press we are obsessed with the obvious, big players close to our ecosystem. But for everyone one of those there must be hundreds, if not thousands of quiet innovators who’s impact we will only get to see much later and who’s heroes remain unsung. The same applies to internet based innovations. It is naïve to assume we have a complete picture.

Nobel Peace Prize for the Internet

There’s another thing. It may be the biggest. The internet and it’s networks (and low-cost air travel, to be fair) have broken down cultural barriers and are chipping away hard at information asymmetries. My generation but much more so the generations below will be living in a world where it is very difficult for governments / organisations to paint the picture of other states or cultures being enemies – we can educate ourselves, we are connected to friends around the world, information spreads like wildfire. Surely this must set us up for a more peaceful world? How have social networks already helped to create real change in countries around the world?

And if I look at the list of historic Nobel peace prize winners, I would make a strong case that there couldn’t be a more deserving bunch than all the people who have helped make the internet what it is.

P.S.: This post was inspired by recent panel I had with a few folks over at Dublin Web Summit. If you want to watch the full discussion you can go check it out here


2 Comments on “What is innovation? Why jetpacks and flying cars are overrated and the internet deserves a Nobel peace prize.”

  1. Joel Dietz (@fractastical) says:

    Innovation is a tricky subject. You have the possibility of measuring in terms of economic benefit (fairly easy), social benefit (harder but possible), and coolness (works for nerds/hipsters albeit in different ways).

    The problem is that we intuitively use a bit of all of these in our internal calculations, which in many works well because this resonates with our users, who know that something can have value in multiple categories at the same time. But this works rather poorly when we try to compare, since the different metrics aren’t directly comparable with each other.

    There are ways to combine these metrics (i.e. DARPA’s original “does it help win the war?” ), but these only work in certain contexts. Usually I think it is better to embrace the full complexity of life.

  2. Innovation does not come easy because we are all a bunch of sceptics – even or especially the ones on the front line, they have seen it all. It is easy to say ‘that’ll never work’ then to leave it with a ‘maybe it would’. This is the secret of the tinsel town infused over-optimism of California that makes the wildest business ideas come to life. We need that a bit more in Europe and a common focal point for the extremes of business and technology to join forces: a mutual definition for future success. Innovation is incremental – and was more so before the internet – because for the Eureka spark to fire, people from two different fields of practice (or even planets) need to meet eye to eye and start talking common goals. The internet has flattened the field (and the planet) but the algorithms are incomplete and people cannot see each other yet from across the room because of all the noise created on the web. But we are working on it. Good start though Ciaran. Drop me a line if you are in Barcelona end of November for a chat.


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