The Innovation Plateau: Redefining Progress
Today’s mobile devices have come to define a generation that began the 21st century with a unique gadget for everything, and ten years in, presented a single gadget that can do anything.
Despite our obvious evolution in many industries, we’re seeing development plateau in a way that has some noteworthy entrepreneurs worried that innovation is crumbling under the weight of endless unsustainable startups, and although we may have wanted floating cities, what we got instead was immeasurable data amassing in The Cloud.
The Founder’s Manifesto: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”
Paypal founder and Facebook investor Peter Thiel’s VC firm, the Founder’s Fund, recently released a statement titled “What Happened to the Future?” that denounces the current rate of innovation in the industrialized world. The dissertation cites negative returns in the last decade as a primary example of this lack of growth, but curiously, goes on to compare the explosive development rates from the mid-20th century — a period centered around process mechanization and convenience — to today’s less audible race towards efficiency and consolidation. But because the things being paralleled aren’t addressing the same needs and initiatives, their rates of change simply aren’t comparable, and Thiel’s claim that American innovation lies “somewhere between dire straits and dead” is more pessimistic than it is prophetic.
Innovation isn’t dying — it’s evolving.
It’s Not About Invention: The Toilet Paradigm
Historically, for something to be deemed innovative, we’ve required it to meet two criteria: it must be unique, and it should be universally useful. Take the toilet, for example. It’s commonly said that nothing so pragmatic has been invented since the modern commode, which if we’re talking about necessity and accessibility, is definitely possible. But invention and innovation are not mutually exclusive, and it’s short-sighted to apply the same principles of previously unknown industrialization to the betterment of pre-existing tools. While it’s true that strictly adhering to the old ‘if it ain’t broke’ adage might have us stuck with multiple one-trick devices, reinventing them entirely would be an utter waste of time (remember how Google Wave replaced email? Neither do we.).
These days, development is focused much less on the mechanization of processes and more on streamlining them — we want things fast, consolidated, sustainable and, above all, mobile. The invention of cutting-edge technology is slowing, yes, but it’s in tandem with current industry ambitions that prize resource optimization over the breaking of well-made molds. If we take a look at the data, it becomes clear that growth in overall economic welfare and in output has been lethargic and even clumsy throughout recent decades, and is reflective of similar patterns throughout history.
Picking Up the Pieces: Driving Creativity in the Face of Technological Slowdown
According to a study by the Hay Group that identified companies with superior management practices, it’s up to team leaders to pave the way for clear communication and confluence. Companies that made the cut shared one thing in common — their leaders stress flexibility, new ideas, and most importantly, collaboration. United environments naturally lead to brainstorming, and subsequently, to more inventive thinking.
Data and popular opinion suggest that, at least for now, it’s invention, not innovation, that’s stagnating. The real danger is not encouraging creativity in the right areas, or failing to acknowledge the value of unique perspective. Companies that focus on improving solutions, effective leadership and symbiotic teamwork will find that keeping innovation alive is a choice, not a challenge.