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Innovation Needs To Shift From Disrupting Markets To Tackling Grand Challenges

2016 September 4
by Greg Satell

When Steve Jobs was trying to lure John Sculley to be Apple’s CEO in the early 1980’s, he asked him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Sculley would achieve little at Apple, but Jobs would later make it the most valuable company on the planet.

But did Jobs actually change the world? Sure, he was amazingly successful, but would the world have been so different with a PC and no Macintosh? Android and no iPhone? Dreamworks and no Pixar? Something less, maybe. Still, it’s hard to argue that things would be profoundly different.

That’s not to diminish Jobs’ accomplishments, but they do seem to be more on the order of Starbucks’ Howard Schultz or Nike’s Phil Knight than they are of Einstein, Pasteur or even Edison. The truth is that what has passed for innovation over the last 20 or 30 years has been more focused on disrupting markets than changing the world. We need to do more.

A Zero Carbon Economy

Bill Gates believes that the central challenge of our time is climate change. To avoid a catastrophe, he says that we need to reduce global emissions 80% by 2050 and to zero by the end of the century. Given that we release 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, that’s a very tall order.

Still, we are making important progress. Solar energy is expected to hit global grid parity by 2020 and reduce costs beyond that by about 20% for every doubling of capacity. New materials, such as perovskites, will keep progress going for the foreseeable future. Electric cars are set to outperform gas vehicles within the next ten years.

Yet even with the advances that have been made and others that are already underway, we still have some profound challenges. First is energy storage. The current technology, lithium-ion batteries, is nearing its theoretical limits. Some form of nuclear energy, either fusion or a much safer form of nuclear fission, will also be key to a clean energy future.

Most likely, we will need a combination of both to help make up for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. How do we do that? For the moment, nobody really knows. We need fundamental new discoveries to make it all work.

A Cure For Cancer

When Vice President Biden called for a Moonshot for Cancer last year, it was vastly more than the grieving of a powerful man mourning his recently deceased son. Biden had been consulting with top people in the oncology world and became convinced that a cure for cancer is truly within reach.

The new possibilities can be traced back to two long-term efforts supported by the federal government. The first was the Human Genome Project, which created a map of our DNA. The second, The Cancer Genome Atlas, began in 2005 and is creating a similar map for tumors, which will allows us to classify cancers based on their genetic makeup.

Advances like these have led to new treatments with enormous potential. One is targeted cancer therapy, which allows doctors to treat tumors based on DNA markers, rather than the organs in which they are found, like the breast or the prostate. Another, perhaps even more promising, is immunotherapy, which helps our body’s own defenses to fight cancer cells.

Yet despite the enormous progress, there is still much work to do. Immunotherapies, for example, have demonstrated amazing results in some patients, but little effect in others. Also, our newfound knowledge of genes has helped reveal just how little we know about the proteins they code for. A true cure for cancer remains a grand challenge.

Moving Past Moore’s Law

As Robert Gordon explains in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, since 1970 productivity has been fairly stagnant outside of computer technology. Those advances, in turn, have been highly dependent on Moore’s law — the regular doubling of chip performance every 18 months or so.

Now, however, Moore’s famous law is coming to an end and is unlikely to advance past 2020. Researchers are working hard to squeeze more life out of the old technology by coming up with new designs, like 3D stacking and FPGA chips, but that will only take us so far. We need to develop fundamentally new computing architectures.

Two such architectures are in advanced stages of development. The first, quantum computing uses quantum effects, such as superpositioning and entanglement, to create computers that have the potential to be millions of times more powerful than those of today. The second, neuromorphic chips, mimics the design of the human brain, which is a billion times more efficient than current computing technology.

Still, while these show enormous promise, they are still far away from being ready for commercial applications. First, while workable neuromorphic chips exist, quantum computers are still under development, albeit in a fairly advanced stage. Second, because these are fundamentally new architectures, nobody really knows how to design applications for them.

Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage

Agility has been the mantra for the digital age. Yet the “iterate, adapt and pivot” model will only take us so far. It’s great for progressing within well known paradigms, but absolutely useless for making the fundamental new discoveries that, as Vannevar Bush put it, “turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.

“The ever increasing capabilities of digital technology has empowered individuals like never before in history ” Dr. Angel Diaz, IBM’s VP of Cloud Technology & Architecture, told me. “A relatively bright teenager today, connected to the cloud, has vastly more resources and information at his disposal than an engineer working at a major corporation a decade ago.”

“That process will continue,” he went on. “But to truly change the world today we need more than just clever code. We need computer scientists working with cancer scientists, with climate scientists and with experts in many other fields to tackle grand challenges and make large impacts on the world.”

The truth is that we are entering a new era of innovation. Rather than looking for markets to disrupt, we need to look for human endeavors that we can empower. That can’t be done through solely rapid prototyping, new business models or even products that are “insanely great.” The challenges we face today require us to reimagine the realm of the possible.

– Greg

12 Responses leave one →
  1. September 4, 2016

    Hi Greg, Nice article on a topic dear to me the last couple of years. That is that creative people with systems thinking and critical thinking skills can indeed solve more of the larger challenges we have. I think Meg Wheatley said that a while ago but even Russell Ackoff and Charles Deming had initial insights to systems thinking. The work I did in HP between 1990 and 2000 applied it and shocked a dominating engineering culture when the impact was 10X or higher than their best expectations. Brian Solis made a nice case for understanding the impact of change in What’s the future of business. He was the one who called me to confirm the value in my approach as timely, vital and rare. But it’s not about me. It’s about enabling people and aligning how we change to values that are reshaping the conscience of companies and nations. I saw a conference on solving wicked problems but the challenges they selected were moderate so not a strong enough reach the first time out. But as markets define the criteria companies have to meet to be considered as viable, I see that growing and the elimination of barriers as one highway to innovation. Imagine politics, education, corporate revitalization and stronger alliances across value systems. That’s where my head is at of late but what else do you see as positive signs that companies are getting it and serious change can find a way when folks with the skills surface and folks with the financial means help as well. Or it goes the people-powered path. Love to hear more of your thoughts on this as it is an important topic begging a better ecosystem.

  2. September 4, 2016

    I don’t think it’s a sign of companies “getting it” or not. R&D budgets have traditionally been fairly high in the US and they are a bit above average lately. The bigger problem recently is on the public side, where funding has been diminished and there has been real hostility toward basic science.

    One encouraging trend has been a fairly recent return to the SEMATECH model that was so successful in the 80’s, JCESR and the manufacturing hubs being two really good examples. the “Moonshot” for cancer will hopefully be another one. Another trend is that relatively new firms like Google and Facebook are taking research very seriously. Microsoft and IBM have long been very good about research. Apple has never been a heavy investor in research and it’s starting to show.

    On the disappointing side, there really are no major firms active in exploratory biotech or energy research. I already mentioned above the problems with government funding (where traditionally most important discoveries have come from).

    – Greg

  3. September 4, 2016

    With all due respect, all of the ‘innovation’ in the world, regardless of the spectacular things that it will undoubtedly produce, won’t be of much use to a society that isn’t in any position to take full advantage of it. Until the ‘scourge’ of the illegal/immoral power of national/global politics is abolished–assuming that we can survive that long–the benefits from all future ‘innovation’ will only produce a small fraction of their true potential.

  4. mikko permalink
    September 4, 2016

    Fortunately there are some high profile entrepreneurs hell bent on tackling grand challenges. Elon Musk comes naturally to mind but I’m sure there are others worth mentioning.

    Regarding Steve Jobs, IMO his greatest accomplishment or contribution was not the success of his products or businesses per se but the demonstration of success through maniacal focus on user/customer experience – the cumulative effect and improvement for consumers of all kinds of products and services is enormous.

  5. September 5, 2016

    You want to change the world? Your pantheon of technological solutions are nothing compared to the power of the force. If you want to change the world, you must change yourself. Amongst all your corporate and tech speculations Bill commented “It’s about enabling people and aligning how we change to values that are reshaping the conscience of companies and nations. ” … and how about individuals? You failed to mention that… Bill almost failed to mention that. If you solved every problem you list – energy, computing power, cancer – I find the brevity of your list disturbing, but if you solved all those and some other basic technical questions tomorrow, that would still then leave you with the difficult problems that you can barely express, as Bill tried. There are problems you know, but you hide them in the back of your mind, because not only do you know that you have no answers, but you believe there are no good answers and you absolutely know they are needed. Who is asking those questions and who can answer or do we shy away from them and claim that our technical successes represent enough true progress that we can just ignore the festering social, political, racial, individual, philosophical and moral problems that technical success will then leave revealed? Do we know the right questions even? How can we even find them? Right now, do we need more research money for scientists or is it time we asked some serious questions of philosophers, but what questions? When you reach the end of what science can answer, you must resort to philosophy. When you reach the end of what philosophy can answer, well then, you will have to ask me.
    Remember Mikey’s rule – the more nonsensical I sound, the more likely I am to be seriously telling the truth.
    Always yours in the abuse of the English language and the propagation of headaches, Michael
    (Could you imagine being a technical manager for me?)

  6. September 5, 2016

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts Frederick.

    – Greg

  7. September 5, 2016

    Thanks for your input Michael.

    – Greg

  8. September 5, 2016

    Great comments all. Michael, nice to see another with a passion to help folks get above the fray that defines an ecology and culture in decline. I have long felt this time of change is enormously personal with some on the side of resistance and others embracing it. Thanks to Greg, as usual, for opening up a huge topic. I wish there was one place to go to carry this forward and amass support for real change. Bill.

  9. September 6, 2016

    You present a false dichotomy here. There is no doubt we have big problems to face that require “moon shot” innovation. And, if I’m an entrepreneur seeking financial support, then my best bet is to target being disruptive, because by definition, the disruptive companies are the successful ones that end up dominating markets and generating the big returns that investors want.

    Consider that you can’t be disruptive unless you are useful, well-priced, convenient, easy-to-use; similarly, you won’t be successful at innovating big ideas unless you achieve the same qualities. In other words, what we need is the companies that aim for the intersection of big ideas and disruptive innovation — not one or the other.

    Energy, healthcare, education, transportation, how cities are designed, reducing carbon footprint, reinventing our political systems so they work for the people they represent, cleaning up the environment, enabling all of us to become our own mass customizers (just to sample a handful of domains) — there are many big things to tackle, and every one of them requires disruptive re-imagining of how we do things.

    Disruptive innovations are not inherently “smallish”. However, we are just emerging from a period when it was extraordinarily easy and cost-effective for anyone to start a company with minimal capital investment, and get global users at scales that were historically impossible — millions of users in weeks or months. That naturally attracted a lot of attention, but many of the easy-to-do things have been done, and what’s left is taking the new tech ecosystem that’s been evolving and starting to tackle the really big ideas.

    I don’t think you’ll get any argument from people conceptually that we need to start attacking these big things head on. And today’s youth seem poised to take on that challenge. However, don’t suggest that it’s wrong to pursue being disruptive. That will always be the best way to achieve the goal (assuming you are defining disruptive correctly, and not the way it is thrown around colloquially by the popular press, pundits and marketers).

    One other thing that I’d caution: Apple/Steve Jobs’ accomplishments seem minor in the real view mirror because we’ve seen them happen in real time and experienced the change. However, if you place yourself 10 years back in 2006 (just before the iPhone introduction), I think very few imagined that 1/3 of the planet would be carrying supercomputers in their pockets that each had more computing power than the systems that put man on the moon, and that within the next 10 years, that penetration will likely reach 75-80%. Distributing that computing power affordably to everyone is part of what is going to enable the really big changes we’d all like to see, including the potential to raise 1/2 the world population out of poverty. We’d have something today, but not likely the elegant, powerful, simple, networked and inexpensive devices that have enabled the explosive growth if not for Steve’s vision.

    Similarly, most of the things we take for granted, from the electrical grid, to access to inexpensive food, to antibiotics, to computers, to tv and radio, air travel, capture of photographic images, refrigerated food, and even microwave ovens all seem insignificant to kids emerging into the workforce today. That is always the case — once we’ve solved a problem it no longer seems hard or like a big idea. But all of these were game-changing in the not too distant past.

    Big disruptive ideas are what we need to be targeting. What we need though is more than one or two companies doing it. In the 1900s, most companies and inventors viewed big ideas as their mission, and there’s no reason we can’t return to that.

  10. September 6, 2016

    I see what you’re trying to say and I agree that creating disruptive applications will continue to be important. However, I think where your argument runs into trouble when you compare Steve jobs’ accomplishments to more general purpose technologies, like antibiotics. This is especially so considering that Apple didn’t create very much in the way of significant technology (look at an iPhone and almost every major component arose out of government funded research.)

    The point I was trying to make (obviously unsuccessfully in your case) is that many of the enabling technologies of today’s “disruptive”applications” are reaching theoretical limits. So that’s a pretty big shift. We have probably about 5 years of additional advancement 5 years for microchips and 10 for lithium ion batteries, to take just two of the most important examples.

    To return to your Steve Jobs example, could he have created an iPhone if batteries were 6 times bigger and a tenth as efficient? Or if microprocessors were 1000 times slower? The answer is clearly no and those are exactly the kind of challenges we have ahead.

    At the same time, the biggest opportunities are in nascent areas such as genomics, nanotechnology and robotics, fields that are relatively poorly understood and require fundamental advances.

    – Greg

  11. September 7, 2016

    Hi again Greg,

    Very few innovations are cut from whole cloth, and all successful ones stand on the shoulders of others’ prior work. You aren’t the first to say Apple didn’t create much that was significant, but my answer is by whose definition? Innovation is always about re-configuring what exists in novel ways, a bit of original design, and targeting the right application.

    Those who build special purpose cancer-killing nanobots will not be creating very much in the way of significant technology — we can already assemble special purpose machines at the atomic level. The trick will be giving the bots the right properties, making them safe and reliable, reducing the cost to make it viable, and being able to create processes that allow it to be done at scale, rather than one of. Same in the field of genomics, robotics, space exploration, or any of the moon shot possibilities. It’s not the person who is first to conceive of an idea, but the first to get it right and make it practical that wins the day and makes things widely available to all of us. The latter is the disruptor.

    Thought experiment: if there was so little extraordinary and new about the iPhone, why was Blackberry caught flat-footed and unable to respond with anything comparable for nearly 5 years? Or, go back and consider the iPod — it was the 13th digital music player on the market, and prior to its arrival, the biggest seller was the Diamond Rio with about 200K units. Of course, for the average guy on the street the Rio was almost unusable, had no easy way to get (legal) music on it, and had laughable capacity of about 1 CD worth of music. In technological terms, the differences between the Rio and the iPod were small — in practical terms, they were worlds different, and just like the iPhone, no one else was able to create a comparable device before Apple had better than 90% market share and was shipping 100 million of them in a year.

    I think the difference is perspective, and how significant you think the innovation is. We can envision the idea of an iPhone, particularly if you worked in the tech space — that doesn’t mean we could create it. I can’t conceive of the technology that would be needed to reverse climate change, but I’m pretty sure those who can will assemble it from lots of things that already exist tweaked into a viable systemic approach. It seems like a bigger and more innovative project because I can’t get my head around it, and it probably involves a few intermediate steps we can’t do yet. When we do figure it out, will that be a bigger deal because it has greater social importance? (That’s a rhetorical question — I suspect most would say yes. However, it’s entirely possible that the person who figures it out is one of the billions of previously impoverished people given access to globally networked supercomputer technology in their pocket at an affordable price by Steve Jobs.)

    My argument is that Steve is one of the very few of that last few decades imagining innovation on that large a scale, and yes, I believe his work was every bit as big and significant as Edison’s or Pasteur’s. Rather than diminish Steve’s contributions, it’s better to ask how future innovators could learn from them to create products that are useful, inexpensive, thoughtfully designed, create new categories and which can be produced at global scale — that’s a potent combo that Apple did repeatedly that almost no one in history was able to do once previously.

    Regardless of reaching the theoretical limits of how many transistors can be crammed on a chip, it doesn’t make the next generation of computing technology more significant. Back in the 1960s, we were reaching theoretical limits of how much data you could store on a tape and how fast you could access it. Then, we figured out how to make disk drives, which began the cycle again, then flash memory. Each of these is a radical departure, yet to the user, mostly invisible. And no, I don’t think creating smaller batteries or a new generation of computing engine that can emulate what Moore’s Law has done for us for the last 4 decades is any more important. And the fields you describe as poorly understood are poorly understood to you, not to the people working in them, just as when I started working in the software field, most people’s eyes glazed over if I tried to tell them what we did.

    My point is, disruption is what creates these new markets, and without it, you won’t get the dramatic moon shot innovations that you seek in all these other areas.

  12. September 7, 2016

    I don’t know who you’re talking about when you say “we”.

    As a society, we should neither be targeting disruptive ideas nor “grand challenges.” Especially when these efforts are already underway and have plenty of rewards awaiting.

    Instead, we should be targeting a desired future. For instance, a zero-carbon economy isn’t very exciting. But creating a healthy climate is. Details:


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