The subject of innovation has always been of a great interest for me.Competition and innovation might be the main drivers of the western civilization. Without the constant flow of new ideas and technologies, the humanity would face a devastating crisis. While the rate of innovation is accelerating, we should work harder to contribute. For more information check out here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.
Greatness vs success
Many people think that if only they had a great idea, they would be able to build a company and make millions out of that idea. In my professional life, I have seen many people with great ideas. They tried to build an operation and failed. And I have seen many successful people who were too stupid to generate great ideas. So they hired smart people and listened to what they had to say. We admire greatness because it is so damn hard, and we admire success because it is something any of us can achieve.
Once when Einstein was in Hollywood on a visit Chaplin drove him through the town. As the people on the sidewalks recognized two of their greatest, if very different, contemporaries, they gave them a tremendous reception which greatly astonished Einstein. “They’re cheering us both,” said Chaplin: “you because nobody understands you, and me because everybody understands me.” There was a good-humored pride in his remark and at the same time a certain humility as at a recognition of the difference between ready popularity and lasting greatness.
Bad decisions kill good innovation
The story goes that Kodak’s R&D team invented the first digital camera way back in 1974, then moth-balled it before building the first modern digital SLR camera in 1989. The company saw the device as a direct threat to its core film and developing business.
In 1973, Xerox PARC developed the Alto personal computer. It had a bitmapped screen and was the first computer to demonstrate the desktop metaphor and graphical user interface (GUI). It was not a commercial product, but several thousand units were built and were heavily used at PARC, as well as other XEROX offices, and at several universities for many years. Xerox did not recognize the value of the technology that sparked the personal computer revolution. I quote: “It is unlikely that a person outside of the computer-science research community will ever be able to buy an Alto. They are not intended for commercial sale, but rather as development tools for Xerox, and so will not be mass-produced.”
Do they even mean what they say?
When I worked in a research laboratory for a large Korean company, one of the teams had a very interesting project that used lasers for some new applications. The project looked very promising, and the original results could revolutionize some of the applications. Then we had a visit from a big boss. The boss was a smoker, and the laser project was the last project on his route. One of the guys present reported that the boss joked: “I hate lasers, they keep me from smoking.” The next day the budget of the lasers project evaporated.
The technological projects often are very hard to grasp and to explain properly. It is very easy to misinterpret the communication about the projects. The risks are very high, and it is often easier to kill a good project than try to understand how to use it.
The patent strategy of a company can guide the innovation process. If the company pushes too hard for patents, people will try to register idiotic ideas. If the company does not allow easy submission of patents, there is no real incentive for the employees to share their ideas and breakthroughs with the management. Building a great patent portfolio is hard, and not only because it is hard to generate true innovation. Openness and moderation are very hard to maintain when the egos combine with long-term investments.
Patents are expensive and revealing. Many companies prefer to keep trade secrets at all levels. This culture results in poor communication and reduces many of the company’s abilities, like teaching new employees, learning from mistakes and supporting old products.
The opposite approach, of sharing knowledge with the community for free and guiding the resulting ecosystem has been very beneficial for many big companies. The size matters, because a smaller company will have a very hard time managing its ecosystem.
Tech is maturing, crypto is very wild
We live in interesting times. The classical technology is consolidating and maturing. The new crypto technology is very wild and poorly regulated. Sometimes it feels like 19th century with English imperialism and American wild west. Both scenes offer multiple innovation opportunities, for very different kinds of innovation. Currently, the cryptocurrency community hopes to change the world in a technological revolution, while the SEC-regulated and VC-funded community provide new products and services in the trendy technologies and financial sound business environments.
Some form of innovation comes from talking to the customers and finding out what makes them happy. A totally different form of innovation comes from envisioning the future and making it happen now.
As the small businesses are disappearing everywhere, we see more and more entrepreneurs and startups working on specific needs of niche groups and communities.
How relevant are the Universities?
While many aspects of the modern life were brought by big corporations working with big universities and big research grants, the accelerating rate of innovations makes Universities less relevant. Do not get me wrong, most entrepreneurs have University degrees, and many prolific mentors are University professors. The Universities usually incubate the ideas before they become commercial. Some of the next technological revolutions, like quantum computing, still belong to the universities and research laboratories of the huge companies.
The real practical innovation is usually brought by small startup companies, which are nurtured and bought by the huge corporation or (in case of ICO) funded by enthusiastic crowds. In this scenario, Universities do not play an important role and are often ignored.
Why is the science so slow?
The science is painfully slow. It takes many months for researchers to generate useful publications, and YEARS till the publication passes peer review and appears in a scientific journal. There is a faster route to our awareness: the codes that win official benchmarks and the scientific papers discussing these codes are distributed almost immediately. The deep neural networks revolution happened within a year from the publication of the Alexnet code and paper.
Scientists actually make more mistakes than the general public, because scientists are less likely to admit their ignorance. The scientific method includes multiple tests by independent authorities to ensure the validity of each scientific statement. This testing and discussions take years. Unless the benchmarks are so clear, that simply passing the benchmark ensures the attention of the scietific community.
Investing in innovation
Probably all of us participate in innovation one way or another.
Some of us are writing patents and building ground-breaking projects, contributing our time and knowledge. This is the most direct contribution, but is it the most effective contribution?
If we want to help innovators, we can simply beta-test and adopt new technologies faster than most people. By testing new technologies and providing a valuable feedback, we drive the cycle of innovation.
Being a student or professor at a University, we contribute to the long-term research. While there is no guarantee that any research will spawn practical innovation, the discipline of scientific inquiry generates the next generation of innovators and groundbreaking ideas.
We can also invest our money into innovation, buying assets of the most innovative and growth-oriented companies.
We might prefer to approach innovation as a portfolio, combining various approaches, contributing time and money, having fun and generating personal wealth.
Strike the balance
Companies that allocated about 70% of their innovation activity to core initiatives, 20% to adjacent ones and 10% to transformational ones outperformed their peers, are often most successful. In a similar way, we should neither ignore innovation nor submit to it completely. Innovation is a major part of our life, but sustainability is even more important.
Quite often innovation and even basic research come from analyzing the needs and building a solution. Quite often innovation comes from reevaluating old ideas with a new mindset. We do not need to have an exceptional talent or invent something from scratch. Simple curiosity and proactive approach can generate wonderful results.
The four kinds of creativity
I quote the four kinds of creativity first identified by James C. Kaufman and Ron Beghetto:
- mini-c or experiential creativity – this is the creativity that occurs as part of the process of learning and developing new concepts. Kaufman and Beghetto describe it as the novel and personally meaningful interpretation of experiences, actions, and events. As we construct personal knowledge and gain understanding, we also find ourselves growing and changing as our awareness of the world around us shifts. This is a form of creative potential that is often neglected in grade school and high school students but which can make children more prone to make the jump to other types of creativity.
- little-c or everyday creativity – this is the creativity that everyone engages in on a day-to-day basis. Not everyone is going to be an Einstein or a Picasso, but we are are all capable of coming up with new and innovative ideas or experiences. Though little-c creative acts may not transform the world, they can be important to us or the people around us.
- pro-c or professional creativity – this is the kind of creativity shown by people who have gained expertise and skills through time and effort allowing them to make real contributions to their field of interest. Professional musicians, writers, performers, and scientists all personify professional creativity.
- big-c or eminent creativity – when you consider people making revolutionary or immortal contributions to arts or sciences, you are thinking of big-c creativity. Beethoven, Michelangelo, Darwin, Newton, and Dickens are all examples of big-c creativity and how they can transform the world.