Blog post

The Death of Innovation

By Andrew White | November 29, 2022 | 0 Comments

ProductivityInnovationEconomic ProductivityEconomic HistoryEconomic Growth

I browsed my copy of the Wall Street Journey the other day and I stopped on the Personal Journal section.  The front page of that section heralded, “Best Tech Gifts 2022“.  I had little choice; My well trained shopping senses became excited and I had to read the page.  After all, there is plenty of time to prepare some holiday shopping (for myself).

I browsed the list of gadgets:

  •      Portable monitor
  •      Game console
  •      Portable projector
  •      Smart boxing gloves (?)
  •      A new personal fitness device
  •      Fancy bike helmet
  •      A new smartwatch
  •      Yet another smartwatch
  •      New earbuds
  •      Another set of earbuds
  •      A music maker(?)
  •      A new MacBook
  •      An upgraded Echo Dot with clock(?)

That was it.  As I browsed the list my heart sank.  I realized I was not going to spend some of my hard earned dollars on any of these new gadgets this holiday season.  In fact I became unexcited very quickly.  Is this it?  Is this the limit of new things I never knew I needed?

Yesterday’s Tomorrow

To be fair I have been so motivated in years past to place an online order right away, after reading such pages.  But the range of ideas here seemed remarkably limited even boring.  Other than the wacky smart boxing gloves, the rest is all very so and so.  I don’t need more smart watches, or earbuds, or health monitors, or laptops, or Echo’s.  I have enough game consoles and PC games.  I refuse to carry a portable projector – and I am not a sales person (who might need one of those).  With the level of stress I feel, I suspect the new smart boxing gloves might be it.  Then again, real boxing gloves and an unsmart boxing dummy would be more than enough.

PS I still love my Oura.

As I put the paper down I felt like writing a blog about the death of innovation.  This thought then connected right away with research I have been doing in this area.  We have a team focused on innovation at Gartner.  They focus on best practices for developing innovation through effective processes and activities.  Here is a recent note of interest: Distributed Innovation: Technology Innovation Leaders Can Help Business Technologists to Innovate More Independently.  My focus is not there, but is instead focused on the relationship between technology investment and associated ideas, and how they interplay and combine to drive innovation and economic growth.

If In Doubt, Invest In R&D

I also have read widely on the relationship between R&D spending and its impact on innovation.  It turns out that on Friday (November 18th, 2022), the WSJ sported a related article: To Boost Growth, Rethink Science Funding. The online version was printed as Stagnant Scientific Productivity Holding Back Growth.  This article pushed my buttons since it talks about investment, innovation and productivity.  In a nutshell, investment has NOT recently created the return (productivity) on those investments as we might have wanted or needed.  This compares to past historical periods where similar levels of investment as a % of GDP have created more notable innovations.

The article also explores the fact that some firms do invest more than the average firm on innovation, and even then there is no guarantee that market-winning innovation will be developed.  The article reports on several papers that explore tactics to change the game.  Maybe R&D funding should not be focused on projects, but perhaps on people who have a track record with successful innovation?  Maybe investment models today should not force projects to completion and organizations need to be more flexible by re-allocating funds more easily between initiatives?  Maybe investment should be left to the entrepreneur, and taken out of the hands of the politicians?  There are no easy or quick fixes.

Where Did All The Ideas Go?

But then my mind went array.  I am part-way through reading, “Where is My Flying Car?” by J. Storrs Hall.

Where Is My Flying Car?

The book explores how ideas and innovation has blossomed, and sometimes not, over time.  The author explores how vision plays a role, and a knack for visions that actually solve real problems, versus visions that don’t.  He also asks great questions about why our ability to innovate seems to have slowed down somewhere around 1977.  It seems politics, past investments, and inertia get in the way.  This is a serious criticism of ourselves – since the ability to innovate drives growth and or entire species forward.  If we lose this ability, we are quite literally doomed.

I think most of the gadgets in the WSJ paper mentioned above demonstrate that we have mostly run out of visions for the future that truly make a difference to our world.  We are surrounded by visions that are incremental.  We are all surrounded by others who tell us they know more about what we all need than we do.   I am reminded of the way in which Elon Musk responds to questions about his ideas and visions of the future.  Whatever you think of him, his mind is a marvelous thing for the ideas he has, and the way in which he can emotively draw you into that vision.  That is the capability of leaders, inventors, innovators, discoverers, who go off and chart new courses where none have gone before.  These ideas make a difference.

The Innovation We Need, Not What We Have

I didn’t write the blog the day I read the WSJ article, but I did write the blog a week later.  So I am back looking at the data that suggests we do spend quite a bit on innovation, but maybe we don’t spend on the right kind of innovation, or in the right places where the right kind of innovation should take place.  After all, most press talks about how central governments drive such spending, even though since that ramped up, our productive innovation has fallen.  What is needed to drive the kind of innovative ideas and products that drive real progress?  Unfortunately since we can’t even agree what progress is, I suspect these enables will fall on deaf ears.

  • To help drive economic growth investment in primary R&D is certainly needed.
  • Entrepreneurial spirit we so desperately need to create new solutions to problems that are real needs to be liberated.
  • Reward systems (and penalties) need to be made available and enforced.
  • An ability to recognize real problems is also needed

These enablers used to exist widely and often.  Nowadays they are all regulated and controlled by others, who may or may not share the same skills or goals. We need individuals, private citizens, to drive this conversation.   Perhaps the first item – primary investment in R&D – is about the one thing that many societies agree.  But it is failing.

Who To Blame?

We don’t have flying cars today, but as J. Storrs Hall attests, we have had the technology for such for many years.  Why is it that air travel has not really innovated in terms of speed and return on investment per mile travelled since Concorde was politicked out of the air?  I encourage you to read, “Where is my flying car”.  I will leave you with what is quite a fascinating quote from the book:

“If you didn’t know better, you would think that the Department of Energy was established, on August 4, 1977, with the intent to prevent energy use.”  Go read the book to find out what this means, or wait for my follow-up blog:).

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