Has Innovation Reached Its Breaking Point?
With the Tesla 3 hitting the markets, innovation is on everybody’s minds. However, an electric car is hardly revolutionary: It’s at best an evolution of what already exists. While Elon Musk’s venture is touted as innovative, it can be seen as a symptom of the very condition that many have observed lately: innovation inactivity.
In Tyler Cowen’s “The Great Stagnation,” he argues that we’ve already picked all the low-hanging fruit available as far as innovation goes. PayPal co-founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel has a similar outlook, famously stating, “We wanted flying cars; instead, we got 140 characters.”
Thiel is right: We certainly don’t have flying cars. We don’t even have self-driving cars, even though it looks like we’ll soon get there. And we have flying drones, though they are still used more for our personal entertainment than transportation.
While things haven’t turned out as we had hoped, it doesn’t mean we have run out of innovation. “Stagnation” is probably a poor word choice for what we’ll see in the near future. Here are three ways to prove the innovation skeptics wrong:
1. Focus on incremental change.
Augmenting rather than redoing can be more effective and revolutionary than it may seem. As Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates recently noted, “The process of innovation tends to take longer than many people expect, but it also tends to be more revolutionary than they imagine.”
Rather than reinventing the wheel, put entrepreneurial energy toward the next logical step from what exists today. Apple’s iPad, for instance, was an evolution of the iPhone, itself an evolution of the iPod. Their revolutionary impact was not technology, but behavior: People of today lead much more mobile lives because of smartphones and tablets.
Adapting to people’s behavior was the driving force behind Nest’s incremental change, applying algorithms and intelligent sensors to items as basic as thermostats and smoke alarms. Where touch screens and programmable cycles once innovated before them, Nest devices can sense when someone is home, learn user preferences or adjust for weather patterns.
Incremental doesn’t imply boring; it means upgrading what’s familiar. Find ways to reconfigure pieces of our daily lives, combining and compounding small changes to create big impacts.
2. Don’t be blinded by hardware.
We tend to think of technology in terms of hardware, and while it may be fun to compare the gigas and megas, what matters is usability. To borrow Marc Andreessen’s now world-famous phrase, “Software is eating the world.”
Embrace software’s carnivorous tendencies, setting aside goals for impressive technical specifications and focusing instead on the needs of consumers. Just as Uber’s app created an entirely new model of business, tomorrow’s great new thing also doesn’t have to be a physical object. Despite the revolutionary impact of the internet on our lives, we’re still used to measuring progress in terms of the tangible.
But software liberates hardware from its tangible, physical limitations -- and takes us beyond simple mechanics. Innovation in software can make the hardware we already own much more usable. For instance, Microsoft’s Windows 10 is not simply a new look for your PC; it aims to transcend hardware boundaries and move the user into the cloud.
The cloud is full of intangibles to consider and new ways to do everyday things. Spotify, the SaaS music streaming provider, recently decided to close its data centers across Europe and the U.S. and house its infrastructure on Google’s cloud. Google’s platform gives Spotify access to listener data to fine-tune its music recommendations. Spotify innovated simply by changing its mechanics -- and in turn changed the way consumers find new music.
3. Stop prognosticating.
In 1943, IBM Chairman Thomas J. Watson purportedly predicted, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” That probably seemed like a reasonable prediction, considering computers’ limited uses at the time, just as we imagine flying cars to be a great innovation for our automobile-dependent and rush hour-suffering suburban society.
Don’t treat innovation like peering into crystal balls to extrapolate from visions of a far-flung future. All we know about the future is that it’s unknown and unknowable -- because accidents and mistakes can change everything, like how Sir Alexander Fleming happened to invent penicillin. (Then again, Gates’ crystal ball seemed to work well in 1999, foretelling smartphones, social media and targeted advertising, among other innovations.)
Instead of philosophizing about the future to design it or meet it halfway, build it by solving real problems that are right in front of us. Leonardo da Vinci’s helicopter drawings didn’t do much to solve 15th-century problems, but the impact of mundane innovations such as ball bearings was immediate and lasting.
An innovation’s impact can be measured only in hindsight. The next big thing may not appear big at first, seeming like a minor improvement, a crazy advancement possible only in theory or a change that’s slow to catch on. Then, like Uber, it explodes in popularity and changes the structure of society.
After it has existed a while, it will seem both obvious and like low-hanging fruit.
But nothing is obvious about the future. Twitter’s 140 characters might not be what ends up changing the world, but perhaps the next short-message service will. After all, we cannot know what will affect behavior and society. We can only imagine.