A recent article in Business Week challenges the conventional wisdom that, outside of a few high-profile exceptions, innovation, particularly in the U.S., has failed to meet expectations.
It cites an array of technological breakthroughs from the late 1990’s across a variety of industries that have failed to be successfully commercialized. Some breakthroughs have been eclipsed by time. But most were simply more difficult to realize than anyone ever expected.
The article reminded me of some other recent bellwether signs questioning the state of innovation. The Boston Consulting Group, in their annual Innovation Report noted that investment in R&D is down 14% among the companies it surveyed.
Bruce Nussbaum, Business Week’s innovation and design expert cites the same report and bemoans the fact that the same companies keep appearing on these lists. It’s a big universe out there, where are the new comers, he wonders?
Finally, in the largest and most comprehensive global index of its kind, the U.S. ranked eighth in innovation leadership among 110 countries, according to a new report produced by The National Association of Manufacturers (NAM). Which country topped the list? Singapore. Bet that rolled off your tongue easily. Read the report and review the complete list by clicking HERE.
While some of this makes for good headlines, I’m not buying it. First of all, a few select numbers don’t make a trend. There’s no consensus when it comes to innovation indicators. A growing number of experts argue that patent filings, an often-cited innovation statistic which is actually down 16% so far this year are actually a contra-indicator of innovation as good ideas spawn better ideas and patents remove some of the best ideas from the field of play – severely limiting the ability to stimulate more even greater innovations. I’m a big IP proponent but there’s got to be a better way to protect true IP without stifling organic innovation.
Secondly, innovation is like evolution. Sometimes it crawls, sometimes it takes flight, but it never just sits there like an amorphous blob. Like evolution, innovation is also cyclical. We’ve seen spurts such as the Industrial Revolution during the second half of the 19th century (railroads, electricity, telegraph) and the early-mid 20th century (radio, television, flight, automobiles) both of which led to tremendous societal change. In between has been (relative) calm.
Most importantly, as evolutionary creatures, we’re simply driven to innovate. It’s in our cultural DNA in the U.S. and is increasingly part of other culture’s DNA. This innate urge – this indomitable human spirit - is what powers us forever forward.
Where does that leave us now?
I believe we’re entering a new era of innovation. One defined more by microbursts of activity that will happen more regularly and perhaps be more sustainable over longer periods of time.
We’ll still see the increasingly rare BIG idea, but as the global population expands and technology democratizes knowledge and information, we’re more likely to see greater numbers of innovators tackling the BIG challenges of our times like health, poverty, energy, etc.
Now is the time.
Contributed by John Nawn