Forget Big Bang innovation; it’s all built on islands of invention

We’re looking for interesting innovation in the wrong places. Single, big, transformative innovations are so rare as to be worth ignoring. The interesting stuff happens at smaller scales.

It’s been interesting watching the reaction to Apple’s stumble on profit growth. First of all, Apple is still immensely - unimaginably - profitably. It's just not growing like it has for much of the past decade. But that’s understandable. The iPhone was a major, transformational product - and we’re not likely to see one of those again for a while.

That put me in mind of a recent piece by Anna Johansson for Next Web, here she explored the reasons that 2018’s tech predictions were pretty dire:

Now, innovations are still common, but we’ve come to expect a breakneck developmental pace that just isn’t feasible anymore. These lofty expectations make their way into our prediction articles, and journalists and readers alike are astonished when those guesses don’t come true.

I’d take issue with one element of that: a breakneck developmental pace has never been feasible. It only feels that way, because we don’t pay attention to all the hard work that gets us to the “revolutionary disruption”.

We’re all making the same mistake: we’re all looking for the next big thing. And, for most of our adult lives, there have only really been two really big things: computers and the internet.

Everything we’ve got excited about stems from those two basic innovations. The web? Facilitated by the internet and digital devices. Apps? Ditto. Smartphones? Digital devices connected to the internet in a different form factor. The iPod? Making a music player into a digital device.

In fact, for all its success, Apple is really a two-trick pony. It creates beautifully designed computers (iPad, Mac) or it turns other things into beautifully designed computers (watches, phones, headphones…. It's a company exploring how many objects can be usefully turned into computers.

The progressive digitisation of everything

In essence, we are going through an extended period of exploring what it means to take objects, make them into computers and connect them. Some of those processes have been (relatively) fast. The transition of music into a predominantly digital form took well under a decade. Others are progressing more slowly. The digitisation of the home via the internet of things is on a rocky path. It will almost certainly happen, but the bumps in the road — cheap, insecure devices getting hacked, the clash between the physical control systems (like light switches) and the digital — are slowing things down.

Whatever the really big next things are, they are happening somewhere we aren’t looking right now. A company somewhere, building a product that everyone dismisses. An academic who comes up with something to make their own life easier — much like Sir Tim Berners-Lee did with the web — and finds it growing faster than they expected.

Things like that are all but impossible to predict. And may be decades away.

So, perhaps rather than reaching for the new thing, we should be making more reasonable predictions based on what we already know.

Suspicious of scale

The slow-motion backlash against the VC-funded, growth at all costs version of the startup scene is underway. Lifestyle digital businesses — those that are designed to make a comfortable living for a reasonable group of people, rather than being a huge multinational product that makes billionaires, can exist, and can be worthwhile. Just because every business can, theoretically, scale worldwide via the internet doesn’t mean that every business should scale like that.

After all, just because the same logistics infrastructure is available to a local business as to a multinational supermarket chain, it doesn't mean that ever business has to default towards the largest.

If you travel enough, you will start to discover that already we live in a slightly different app world. In Singapore or Malaysia you reach for the Grab app, not Uber if you want a car quickly. Not everything need to be Facebook. And after the last year, and even the last 24 hours, we might quite useful ask ourselves: does Facebook need to be Facebook?

The web started small. It was an internal communication tool at CERN. Small, fragmented innovation that grows (or fails) as it deserves is in the natured progress. Even an apparent “Big Bang”, like the smartphone, is in of itself, the results of hundreds of smaller innovations that allow it to be built.

A more relaxed view of tech

Maybe we should allow ourselves the luxury of not obsessing over the next big thing, but instead be content to allow progress to unfold naturally. There’s a danger in rushing places too soon - both autonomous cars and blockchain and crypto currencies have showed that over the last couple of years. I’m sure we’ll get both of them in time, and in a way that is transformative.

But t doesn’t need to be now. In fact, it’s probably better if it isn’t now. We’re still busy dealing with the consequences of the last wave of technologies. Let’s have a little space to enjoy what we have, to make it better, and to deal with some of the consequences. And maybe, just maybe, if we do that, we’ll be better placed to assimilate the next big thing when it comes along.


Photo by Guillaume Briard on Unsplash