Innovation or increments?
We know we are a creature of habits. We like a routine, with its well defined days and we like to be able to predict the output of the actions we perform. It has to do with the way our brain works, which inherently tries to minimize surprise.
But what about innovation, which by definition is the search for something new and not predictable, something that leaps out of the noise, of the common routine [foot note 1]? Think of a new energy source that can power houses, cars and planes without burning anything. Think of repairing the body, making our old years more enjoyable. Or making people with a damaged spine walk again. Think of prolonging life, while it is meaningful, and give peaceful sleep when it is not. Think of connecting minds together, like reading thoughts. Think of wings that can take you many miles away. Think of closet-sized transporters that can move you around the globe. A DNA recipe to build life, better life, longer life. Think of all those childhood dreams that you and I had, and were lost to a long list of “no you cannot do that”, or “is impossible”.
This article wants to remind you that we live in a world where technology is not seeking innovations, rather incremental change and responses to crisis at the most. And we want to put forward some guidelines on how to create a culture of innovation, in technical areas where it is important to do so.
Every year we know it is coming: the latest phone, the latest TV, the latest laptop. All pretty much identical to the previous’ years, but yet still as desirable as those presents at Christmas when we were kids. Why did we succumb to the lithany of incremental change? My phone had one camera, then 2, then 3. Mockups of the new phone coming up show it with 4. The laptop is basically identical in shape and function to the ones I had 10 years ago? Faster? Maybe barely. We live in a material world where even function is forgotten, in a sea of overcrowded marketing covering up mediocre products. The neighbor just got a 65 inch TV, we need to think about going to 70 or more now! We wanted faster planes, more enjoyable rides, less smog, robots in the house, instead we got text messages and spreading ignorance on social channels. Because we did not try. We are not trying hard enough.
And at the most we respond to situations and crises. 1- The website that makes people chat now has an issue of fake news. 2- wildfires that spread because we have forgotten how to maintain reliable power delivery to a waste electric grid. 3- a virus hit the planet, let us now quickly develop a vaccine that usually takes 10 years to make in an incremental world. 4- more planes that squeeze people more, so airlines can make thin profits while everyone is shipped around the world, mostly for reasons that can be avoided. 5- let us employ millions of people to deny insurance coverage for healthcare. Yes, let us put brilliant minds to combat these immense problem, while we forget how to really make a difference.
Why do we need a concerted push for innovation? Because as human beings, we are shortsighted by nature to focus on short-term goals and gains, because it better to have something soon than in an uncertain future. Think of having a house in Hawaii during a pandemic, where it is not possible to visit! But fighting a pandemic, or being prepared for a cosmic collision, or a global catastrophe requires focus and innovation over long periods of time, to build technology that break the barrier of the commonplace.
I am an engineer and always incredibly proud. I do not think I am the most intelligent or creative, but I know many of my peers are. Why are we sacrificing their creativity to a world of incremental change? Why we waste their intellect creating websites for people to chat, for promoting advertisement. Whenever I lead a group my everyday obsession is to make sure they are all on a path to great innovation and a meaningful life. Never do I want to waste a single second of their lives. And as a teacher, I always try to give them the experience that I was able to collect to improve their values.
On the other hands, as society and companies and organizations, we have forgotten about the real problems. The problems of humanity that concerns us all. What are those?
- At the core: along life of happiness. Feeling happy every day, waking up on Monday with a purpose, not dread. A life worth living is a life where we innovate, not follow small incremental change because that new phone has to come up every year, while we know it makes no difference the workd. A life of making innovation happen, one life that knows at the end of a working day, that its fruits are for the entire humanity.
- A healthy planet. Clean energy. Fresh waters. Uncontaminated landscapes. Do you really think making more phones and laptops that are identical to the last ones help the planet? We are only here because there is an ecosystem that supports our exhistance. If our lifes keeps on eroding that ecosystem, we will cause our extinction — the exact opposite of our purpose in life, which is to prosper and proliferate. We have to take care of our planet just as if it was an extension of our own body, and think of it as a projection of our soul.
- Better biology, better health. There can be no life in sickness and diseases, and the pursuit of happiness will be a remote target. We need to invest more resources in improving life, not just patching it with pills, but creating habits and routines that promote health. Technology alone has extended our lives by 2x in the last 100 years. Can we repeat this feat in the next 100 years? And in the next 500 years?
- More time with friends and loved ones. We can spend entire days in an office talking about how we can make that new phone and that new TV. But deep inside we just want the day to be over, so we can go be with our loved ones. The only time that that is not the case is when we are doing something new we believe in, that innovative work that steals precious time away from your family, in a delicate balance from feeling fullfilled and keeping all round us happy and supportive.
- Time not money. When time never ends it is usually a bad sign. We either need a break or more commonly we are stuck doing work we care little about, and that will lead to no change. Time is precious when we can enjoy it, either doing fun activities or by doing work we truly believe on, that can really make a difference. And often time is wasted chasing money we do not need. More time also means better and longer health, a system that promotes long life and free us from a decaying body.
- Money to make a difference. If you come out of middle class, earning 1M$ sounds amazing. If you are a lucky one and reach 100M$, 1B$, more, then what? Are you using this to create innovation and help everyone reach a happy and long life? Or are you just using your time to make more money you do not need, eventually supporting a government that can help you make more money at the expense of everyone else? It is better to know your richness contributed to a good cause, than generate more cash and leave you with again the problem of what to do with it. A meaningful life is one that pushes the most people up with you.
- Leaders not incremental selfishness. If you are a leader, you need to care for the time and value of your people. You need to make sure they are fullfilled and what better way that to direct them to true innovation. There is time for incremental change to support business and work, but that should not be the only goal. The goal is to create value for the entire world, not just a business. Because when you have true innovation you will be valued and rewarded. But when you live for increments, then life is ough for you and all your team.
- Teaching innovation: as parents, teachers, mentors, we need to multiply the abilities of our people and amplify their potential. We can teach the the tool of the trade, and it is a good start, but then we need to also show them than making a new phone every year is good starting point to learn technology, but at some point we need to refocus those abilities into real innovation: products that do not exist today, that people do not even know they want, but that make a great difference, just as a mobile phone did in the 90’s and 00’s. Teaching also means cultivating dreams, ensuring students and colleagues know that it is a larger risk to lose life in the oblivion of incremental change, than to start something new that nobody has tried. The courage really is to live like anyone else, rather than try a new way, and try to innovate, as we can always fall back where we started, only to find another new path. Teaching motivation and tenacity is important, maybe more than the tools of the trade. This I will teach my son.
To my colleague engineers and scientists, I want to remind you that much of the incremental culture in technology comes from business roots. Why do we have Business School detauched from innovation and scientific leadership? Why do we let people that know how to talk, but not do lead us to a common life of boredom and stifled innovation? Why do we train people to do business but not create the very products they are to sell? And why do we follow fake leaders, just to fall for a path that will soon be forgotten? My colleagues: question everything! Ask yourself: will my life have meaning if I follow this person, this path?
And in order to gain control of our lives and our capabilities, we need to promote the brilliant engineers and scientists amongst us and let them lead us, with business and team guidance, to the true innovation and the true scientific advancement we deserve. They are the ones that can start new businesses, entice others to join a true cause, build the world of tomorrow, ultimately realizing our dreams and giving lives true purpose.
Creating and nurturing innovation starts from a dream and desire to realize it. It takes nothing more, it is a fragile idea that needs to be planted and support. An idea may be fragile but has tremendous power in the mind of those who believe it and willing to give part of their lives for it. An idea also requires responsibility because as it is easy to follow dream, it also easy to create nighmares.
There ought to be a culture of promoting innovation by celebrating the people that create leaps and also valuing all the supporting team that make it possible. For every extraordinary creation there is a huge team of people that supported and contributed, and the success belongs to the entire organization. But if the organization goal is to make a little better phone, it may not be enough. Not if not coupled with innovating software, sensors, technology that can really do more for the users. Not just an opportunity to disappear from this world into a void of spineless social interaction and unreal digital environments.
And if you happen to make it, to create huge innovation, and if you make money and fame, remember that is a superb opportunity to amplify innovation, to make it propagate exponentially. It is not just to create a venture fund and give peanuts to a few entrepreneurs, it is the possibility of partnering with dreamers, empowering them, teaching them to realize common dreams, not make more money for the people that do not know what do with it — a black hole of greed. Power and leadership is in channeling resources to change the world, not empty words that anyone can utter, but a true life mission.
Some of us refuse to give in to bounding the intellect, some of us are still dreamers to the day they will die. And that refuse to teach their children to follow a common path, one chosen by people not more intelligent that us.
Innovation not increments! How big is your dream?
Let us put brilliant minds to combat this immense problem. We are a mere speck of dust in an almost infinite universe, it is only what we decide to be for the other specks of dust that will make a difference for our soul, conscience and life.
1- Not that routine and predictability are bad for innovation. They are in fact one of its foundations. A well-defined routine teaches us to study and never give up. Predictability gives us the knowledge we need to model the world and predict the foundation of innovations and giant leaps.
2- if you think these innovations are too hard to achieve or technologically unfeasible: they will remain unfeasible if we do not tackle them with passion and intensity
Final note: these are personal thoughts and commentary, and does not reflect the views of my employer.