Tuesday, August 09, 2011

Failing to innovate while surrounded by ideas

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote the Rime of the Ancient Mariner, with the couplet

Water, water everywhere and all the boards did shrink;
 Water, water everywhere and not a drop to drink.

He wrote this imagining a sailor, adrift at sea, who is driven mad by thirst.  It's ironic that the sailor is floating in a sea of water, literally surrounded by water, but none that he can drink.

I wonder what Coleridge would have thought of our political and business climate today, which seems shackled, stagnant and stalled, while there are literally thousands of ideas available.  Following a 600 point drop in the stock market, a political system that seems deadlocked and an economy that seems very uncertain, it would appear that we are heading for 70s style stagflation, only without the inflation.  So just stagnation.  Yet we are literally awash in ideas, if only we have the foresight, courage and energy to start adopting them.

Yesterday I wrote a post that suggested that of all the critical resources or inputs that have propelled our economy (land, labor,oil, ideas) only ideas were truly inexhaustible.  We have, or will, exhaust all of the arable land available for agriculture.  We will exhaust our ability to add value with labor.  We will exhaust our oil supplies.  But the exhaustion of those inputs does not have to stymie our economy or growth.  We have an inexhaustible source of creativity, ideas and innovation, which if applied correctly can create solutions to these and many other challenges.

To see just one example of human-kind's ability to innovate, consider the Simon-Erlich wager.  In 1980 two economists made a public wager about a basket of commodities.  Erlich, who was concerned about increasing populations and uncontrollable demand, bet the basket of commodities would rise.  Simon bet that human ingenuity and innovation would keep the prices of the commodities low.  In 1990 Erlich conceded the bet.  Although population grew and demand for the commodities increased, the price of every commodity but one in the basket fell.  Over a much longer period of time, all of these commodities are exhaustible but the ingenuity and creativity that kept prices low for a decade remains, and will discover alternatives or replacements as the original commodities are exhausted.

Our generation is the most interconnected, well educated generation on the planet.  We have access to information unsurpassed in human history - in fact we generate more information on a daily basis than was collected in the first 10,000 years of human history.  We can spot trends, generate ideas and test those ideas with greater speed than ever before.  We have access to a diverse pool of knowledge - from the Middle East, Africa, India, China and Europe.  We are literally awash in ideas, yet stagnant in opportunity.

Further, we have the possibility of a network effect.  The benefit of the network effect is that as the number of nodes in a network increases, the value of the network increases.  As we have far more people who are well-educated, creative and innovative who are connected to the internet and other communication devices, we have a virtuous worldwide circle of innovators who can generate ideas, validate ideas and test ideas with ever increasing speed and accuracy.  We stand on the threshold of innovation capabilities unlike any ever seen on our planet.  It's as if we have thousands of Edisons or Marconis or Einsteins waiting, with pens poised, to lavish our markets with ideas.  Yet we are told our economies, our markets and our governments are stagnant.  Little to no growth is forecast.  The hopelessness and apathy are palpable.  Markets are unsettled, many experts uncertain which way to turn.

This reality is absurd.  It is time for innovators to push aside those with tired, outdated viewpoints and to introduce completely new concepts and ideas.  I am convinced that there are thousands of good ideas available to our businesses, governments and economies.  Perhaps no one idea is a game-changer, but many ideas and many experiments conducted now will lead us out of this malaise far faster than replaying the same old exercises.

Like the Ancient Mariner we are adrift in the calms in a boat, convinced that our position is stagnant, when all around are ideas full of motive power that can literally change our businesses, economies and governments.  We only need to face stagnation if we choose to remain stagnant, because ideas are inexhaustible, innovation accelerates in the interconnected networks and new products, services, business models and governance will rapidly change our settings, course and speed.

So, innovators, what's your choice?  Apathy, dejection, stagnation and wasted decades of inactivity, or innovation, new concepts and ideas, new products, new services, new governance?  If ever the power of innovation was more necessary, and the capabilities more relevant, we'd be hard-pressed to name that occasion.  For too long the static ways of the past have stood as barriers to better ideas in all facets of life.  Innovators of the world, unite and innovate, you have nothing to lose but the stagnation, apathy and fear of those who will not.
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posted by Jeffrey Phillips at 5:59 AM


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