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Innovation Should Serve People, Not The Other Way Around

2023 June 11
by Greg Satell

The global activist Srdja Popović once told me that the goal of a revolution should be to become mainstream, to be mundane and ordinary. If you are successful it should be difficult to explain what was won because the previous order seems so unbelievable. That’s what true transformation looks like.

Yet many leaders approach innovation and change as if they were swashbuckling heroes in their own action movie. Companies like Theranos, WeWork and Uber squandered billions of dollars on business models that never made any sense. People post their latest ChatGPT prompts on social media while Elon Musk trolls Twitter.

These days, innovation has become, far too often, solipsistic and self-referential, pursued for the glory of the innovators themselves rather than for the benefit of everyone else and there is increasing evidence the venture-funded entrepreneurship model is crowding out more productive investments. We need to move away from hype and focus on impact.

The Eureka Moment Myth

In 1928, Alexander Fleming, a brilliant but sometimes careless scientist, arrived at his lab after a summer holiday to find that a mysterious mold had contaminated his Petri dishes and was eradicating the bacteria colonies he was trying to grow. Intrigued, he decided to study the mold. That’s how Fleming came to be known as the discoverer of penicillin.

Fleming’s story is one that is told and retold because it reinforces so much about what we love about innovation. A brilliant mind meets a pivotal moment of epiphany and—Eureka!— the world is forever changed. Unfortunately, that’s not really how things work. It wasn’t true in Fleming’s case and it won’t work for you.

The truth is that when Fleming published his results in 1929, few took notice. It wasn’t until 1939, a decade later, that Howard Florey and Ernst Chain came across Fleming’s long forgotten paper, understood its significance and undertook the hard work to transform it into a viable treatment that could actually help people.

Yet even then, to make a significant impact on the world, penicillin had to be produced in massive quantities, something that was far out of the reach of two research chemists. Florey reached out to the Rockefeller Foundation for help and moved to the US to work with American labs. In 1943 the U.S.’s War Production Board enlisted 21 companies to produce supplies for the war effort, saving countless lives and ushering in the new age of antibiotics.

The truth is that innovation is never a single event and is rarely achieved by a single person or organization. Rather, it is a process of discovery, engineering and transformation that typically takes decades to complete.

The Rise Of So-So Innovations

It’s been clear for some time now that we’ve been in the midst of a second productivity paradox. The first one, which lasted from the early 1970s to the mid 1990s, saw diminished productivity gains amid increased investment in information technology and prompted economist Robert Solow to note, “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

In 1996, with the rise of the Internet, productivity growth began to boom again but then disappeared just as abruptly in 2004 and hasn’t returned since. Despite the hype surrounding things such as Web 2.0, the mobile Internet and, most recently, artificial intelligence, productivity growth continues to slump.

Part of the answer may have to do with what economists Daron Acemoglu and Pascual Restrepo refer to as so-so technologies, such as automated customer service, which produce meager productivity gains but displace workers nonetheless. In effect, they give the appearance of progress but don’t really improve our lives.

Consider an airport bar where ordering has been automated through the use of touchscreens. It’s hard to see how, given the high rent, food preparation and other costs, this technology would have a dramatic effect on productivity akin to, say, replacing a horse with a tractor in an agricultural economy. In fact, given that the technology hasn’t been widely deployed outside airports, the major effect seems to be inconveniencing patrons.

Acemoglu and Restrepo argue that a large-scale version of this phenomenon has been occurring since the late 80s. Digital technologies, to a large extent, have displaced labor, but have not had the same offsetting productivity impact as earlier technologies so the overall effect is to decrease wages rather than to raise living standards.

What Innovation Really Looks Like

Katalin Karikó, published her first paper on mRNA-based therapy way back in 1990. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to win grants to fund her work and, by 1995, things came to a head. She was told that she could either direct her energies in a different way, or be demoted. Katalan chose to stick with it and, if the Covid pandemic had never hit, her name might very well be lost to history.

This type of thing is not unusual. Jim Allison, who won the Nobel Prize for his work on cancer immunotherapy, had a very similar experience when he had his breakthrough, despite having already become a prominent leader in the field. “It was depressing,” he told me. “I knew this discovery could make a difference, but nobody wanted to invest in it.”

The truth is that the next big thing always starts out looking like nothing at all. Things that really change the world always arrive out of context for the simple reason that the world hasn’t changed yet. Kevin Ashton, who himself first came up with the idea for RFID chips, wrote in his book, How to Fly A Horse, “Creation is a long journey, where most turns are wrong and most ends are dead.”

Because digital technology has become so pervasive, offering a substantial architecture that lends itself to tweaking, we’ve lost the plot. Innovation isn’t about Silicon Valley billionaires peacocking around on social media, but solving important problems. We need to shift our focus from disrupting industries to tackling grand challenges.

Building Collaborative Networks And To Tackle Grand Challenges

While researching my book Mapping Innovation, I had the opportunity to interview dozens of great innovators, from world-class scientists to super-successful entrepreneurs and top executives at some of the world’s largest corporations. I was surprised to find that, in almost every case, they were some of the most thoughtful, generous people I’d ever met.

The truth is that, for innovation, generosity is often a competitive advantage. By actively sharing their ideas, innovators build up larger networks of people willing to share with them. That makes it that much more likely that they will come across that random piece of information and insight that will help them crack a really tough problem.

The digital revolution has been, if anything, a huge disappointment and Silicon Valley’s tendency to be solipsistic and self-referential probably has a lot to do with that. The simple fact is that the developers banging away at their laptops can achieve little on their own. To tackle our most significant challenges, such as curing cancer, climate change and global hunger, they need to work effectively with specialists with different skills and perspectives.

What we need today is to build collaborative networks to solve grand challenges. The recent CHIPS Bill is a good start. It not only significantly increases our investment in basic research and development, but also allocates billions of dollars of investments into building regional ecosystems and advanced manufacturing.

Yet the most important thing we need to change is our mindset. We need to focus less on disruption and more on creation and, to create for the world we need to focus on what it means to live in it. We can no longer measure progress in terms of how many billionaires a technology creates. We need to focus on making a meaningful impact on people’s lives.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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