On September 13 and 14 an Innovation Jam was held in Italy to involve around 3000 people in discussing several aspects of innovation, from how to support start ups to how to develop a digital agenda for a country, from open data to cloud computing, from open source to smart cities, and more.
I have been following some of the discussions and they struck me for being both “deja vu” and slightly unfocused.
The former impression might be due to the fact that I have the privilege of being in touch with organizations across the globe where the pace of progress and innovation is often faster than in Italy (and in Europe in general). Still I would find discussions about the application of open data or cloud to the specific market conditions quite refreshing, but I could not find those.
The second impression is what worries me most. People seem to pursue their ideas and convictions irrespective of the problems that need to be solved and the context around them. Today, more than ever before, one needs to justify every single dollar or euro that goes into innovation in the public sector. And yet I read dismissive comments about the importance of “value for money” to support cloud computing choices, or rather theoretical dissertations about the value of open data that do not build on the solid experience built by many over the last three years.
As a young engineer engaged in innovation projects throughout Europe, as a government official monitoring innovation spending, and as an analyst crossing the path with some innovation projects, I have consistently noticed that many of these efforts are inward looking, focused on proving a point rather than solving a problem, being an end in themselves rather than a means to get to something.
I would argue that today’s challenges, from financial crises to slow economic growth (or worse), from rapidly aging population to the depletion of non-renewable resources, from multiple social divides to technology-enabled social disruptions, create an ideal environment to focus innovation on solving both medium and longer-term problems.
However this requires a new breed of innovators. No longer people who seek public subsidies or private equity, or people who just aim at strengthening their reputation, but people who are motivated by a real, selfless passion for making the world a better place, who are ready to challenge their own beliefs and to spend time understanding problems more than devising solutions. I know there are many of these people, but they need the right context to emerge and to shine.
I’d love to see Innovation Jams, hackatons and the likes being driven by people like these, rather than the usual suspects.