The World Economic Forum, innovation, invention and tough times
I can’t get no innovation,
I can’t get no innovation.
‘Cause I try and I try and I try and I try.
I can’t get no… (with apologies to the Rolling Stones)
I went to the Latin American edition of the World Economic Forum (April 14-16, Rio de Janeiro). I had hoped to get a better feeling for the crisis and how technology might help push and pull us out of it.
Well, the only technology-related session was a no-press-allowed event. There were some good people speaking at the session and I am sure those listening welcomed their opinions. The subject – in an hour and fifteen minutes – was, “How can innovation create growth and opportunity while simultaneously supporting improvements in operations and cost reductions that contribute to recovery in the long term?” WOW! That innovation stuff will make a great product.
I do not understand why they closed the session to the press. Surely no one there was about to talk about their company’s latest, not yet announced, discovery, so it must have been a secret ceremony, some arcane rite, where they paid homage to the gods of innovation.
I hear a lot of talk about innovation nowadays – the great cure and great saviour of the corporate world. It reminds me of the brainstorming methodology that was, once upon a time, a corporate fad. Brainstorming was a method designed to stimulate group to produce great quantities of new ideas; – it produced many – unfortunately, most were rubbish. Although brainstorming – like anything else – occasionally produces a good idea, most of the ideas are just ineffective bits of groupthink.
Innovation is today’s life-raft buzzword – when all else fails, innovate to keep from sinking. Maybe, but innovation is a continuing process that needs a corporate culture that accepts it and facilitates the adoption of novelties. A locker room pep talk push for innovation – Hit the ground running! Innovate the competition to death! Save the economy! – only works by luck or accident or in the movies. Innovation is not a product one can package, take off the shelf and use when needed.
There is a sort of philosophical disconnect today. We are led to believe that innovation is something one starts by flipping a switch or turning a key. Innovate, sit around come up with good ideas, have business people turn them into products, earn a lot of money and save the world – or at least the market. There are big companies that have been very successful at the innovation game; these are mostly the ones that know a bit about the care and coddling of their creative types. The Bell Labs of old is the best example of the sort of culture that fosters innovation that I can think of. In truth, the companies that are best at innovation are really the best at invention.
Among the legends of the modern world are garage start-ups like HP, Microsoft and Apple. Google, Skype, Amazon and many other start-ups, at least in the mythified versions that float about, remind one of an old romantic movie. Sure, they started with some great ideas, but it took a lot of un-romantic sweat, and day-to-day nitty gritty, nuts and bolts, innovation, to turn their ideas, their disruptive inventions, into the successful businesses they have become.
At the World Economic Forum, I picked up a booklet called, Talent for innovation: Getting noticed in a global market. It presented the 34 companies selected as the World Economic Forum’s Technology Pioneers for 2009. The World Economic Forum has run this competition for ten years. Google is probably the best known of the past winners. Accel Partners, BT, KPMG and the Kudelski Group supported the Forum’s search for this year’s technology innovators.
The preface to the booklet prepared by the BT Group with help from the Economist Intelligence unit, states: “Innovation is no longer the work of one individual toiling in a workshop. In today’s interconnected world, innovation is the work of teams…” Maybe that’s the corporate definition of innovation, and I am sure this works to some extent for products, but this is not my idea of what innovation really is.
Innovation, means doing something a new way – doing something ‘old’ a new way. This is fine; this is a great group activity. If you want something significantly new, though, you need individuals. Innovation is not invention. Radical new ideas are not innovation. Innovation is the work of the artisan, the craftsman; invention is a creative work of a different order – it calls for a visionary, someone with a different way of seeing problems, with a different way of understanding the world. Corporations, with some notable exceptions, are not safe havens for visionaries.
It is interesting to examine the winners: eight from the biotechnology/health sector; eleven from the energy/ environmental technology sector; and fifteen from the information technology sector. Most of the winners in the biotechnology/health group, six in all were entrepreneurial start-ups and two were spin-offs from academic research centres. In the energy/environmental group ten of the eleven companies were start-ups and one was an “alliance of NGO’s, research institutes and organisations”. In the information technology sector, all but three were start-ups – one a spin-off from a technology incubator, another was spun-off from a healthcare subsidiary of a major industrial group and the last a small subsidiary of an energy and technology group.
Some large corporations were ineligible because they were members of the World Technology Forum. Still, given the large number of major companies with hoards of highly skilled, highly educated and highly motivated workers that are not members of the World Economic Forum, it is surprising (perhaps not) that not one major corporation, or one major division of a big company is a winner.
All big companies strive for innovation; it’s corporate fashion. The big guys get the small stuff right; they put out ever-better products and services that find their market. I wonder, though, how many of the bigger companies – even those that make a fetish of innovation – really protect and nurture the true innovators, the creative inventors, the discoverers of new principles.
I suspect there are very, very few, large companies specialised in the care and feeding of the inventor. That is why almost all the winners of the talent search are small start-ups (staffed by fugitives from big companies?) or were born and bred in an academic setting. The creative force in all the winning companies probably came from one person, or a small handful of close collaborators.
Given the financial crunch, many companies will cut expenses and, as in past downturns, future oriented creative projects, speculative research, the projects with long-term payoffs and such will be among the first programmes cut. The real inventors and the great innovators will not be lost, just delayed. They will come back as start-ups – some with truly disruptive ideas. New markets will appear and some old companies that saved a few cents, favouring superficial innovation over deep changes and invention, will disappear. Many of yesterday’s great names have fallen this way.
The next issue of Connect-World Europe will be published later this month. This edition of Connect-World will be widely distributed to our reader base and, as well, at shows such as: Sviaz/Expo Comm, Moscow (May 12-15, 2009) and WiMAX World EMEA, Prague, (November 3-5, 2009)
The theme of this issue of Connect-World Europe will be – ICT and the EU Innovation Agenda.
The EU has actively promoted innovation of all types through a series of programmes and conferences. The EU has committed over €2 billion to its plans for “Inventing the Future” by promoting research and development in ICT, including its use in such leading edge fields as ICT-bio, photonics, robotics and cognition. The far-reaching EU development programmes promise to open new markets, new sectors, and bring new players. This issue of Connect-World Europe will track the progress and the promise of these important EU initiatives.
Europe II 2009 Media Pack; Click here