Escaping innovation’s go-slow is our next challenge

True, genuine, world-shaping innovation has slowed to a snail's pace. Understanding the reasons why – and correcting for them – may be humanity's next great work.

Innovation. The most innovative phone ever. A hugely innovative startup. Our innovation department. We’re an innovative business. App-based innovation.

My goodness, with all this innovation around, we should be hurtling forward in productivity and progress at an astonishing rate. But, we’re not. We're really not.

In fact, in terms of forward momentum on innovation and productivity, very little matches the 25 years after World War II. Some call that long-ago blossoming of technology the golden quarter:

That true age of innovation – I’ll call it the Golden Quarter – ran from approximately 1945 to 1971. Just about everything that defines the modern world either came about, or had its seeds sown, during this time. The Pill. Electronics. Computers and the birth of the internet. Nuclear power. Television. Antibiotics. Space travel. Civil rights.

And reading that is uncomfortable. For those of us who grew up in the 70s and 80s, looking back at the moon landings, the idea that we have gone backwards in space exploration was unimaginable. Yet, we last went to the moon in 1972. Television is still a dominant media form, even in the delivery and production methodology little has changed.

We’re just making the 20th Century better

Most of our great innovations of the past quarter century have been, essentially, incremental improvements in the computer, born of a mix of decreasing size, with increasing power and connectivity. We’ve spent half a century getting really good at the inventions of the mid-20th Century.

But we’re in diminishing returns on that. As Martin pointed out, the last period of increasing economic efficiency ended in 2004 – 16 years ago.

There are some serious challenges. The more we innovate – the more we progress – the greater the educational burden on the next wave of innovators. They have to learn everything their predecessors learned, and then those things they invented. The standard approaches to countering that – longer periods in education or greater specialisation – both come with significant downsides. Under many current systems longer periods in education mean greater debts, with an accompanied risk-aversion. Equally, greater specialisation makes it harder to make the sort of innovative leaps that happen in cross-disciplinary work.

That seems to be borne out in research that suggests that scientific research is becoming less productive, even as the number of researchers rises. We have more people researching things – but are getting less useful information from it.

Innovation in research models and funding

Perhaps one way forward would be to break the only research models – which, again, were largely carved out during the Golden Quarter – and rethink them. Fund them in different ways – research in different ways.

At the very least, organisations should try different ways of funding research and should use good experimental research designs to find out which ones are most effective for different stages of the R&D process in different industries.

Indeed, one clear problematic area is the ability to translate fundamental research into applied science. The academic and commercial worlds have been pulling apart:

Our research finds that the U.S. innovation ecosystem has splintered since the 1970s, with corporate and academic science pulling apart and making application of basic scientific discoveries more difficult. Our analysis also shows that Venture Capital (VC)-backed scientific entrepreneurship has helped to bridge this gap between corporate science and academia — but only in a couple of sectors. These findings suggest that if we want to see greater productivity growth, we need to explore alternative ways to translate science into invention.

This doesn’t mean that academic research needs to become more corporate – in fact, part of the issue is that corporate R&D has shrunk as a proportion of turnover, while the “D” – development – has outpaced the “R” – research. We’re busy developing the same old stuff to greater levels of refinement, not delivering the new stuff.

Opening the Gates of innovation

And that brings us to Bill Gates, the closest thing the 21st Century has to one of the great mid-20th century philanthropists. He rejects the idea that we’re lacking in innovation:

"I think the idea that innovation is slowing down is one of the stupidest things anybody ever said," he said. "Innovation is moving at a scarily fast pace."

The problem, as he sees it, is that innovation isn’t making its way into our lives:

"Take the potential of how we generate energy, the potential of how we design materials, the potential of how we create medicines, the potential of how we educate people, the way we use virtual reality to make it so you don't have to travel as much or you get fun experiences," he noted.

We have new solutions to all these ideas – but they remain theoretical, and undeployed in society as a whole. The classrooms of the 21st century are recognisable as the same thing as the classrooms of the 19th century.

Once again, we’re butting up against human inertia. We tend to keep on doing the same old things in new ways – until something fundamental changes. Something that upends how we live – something that destroys our sense of safety.

Never let a good crisis go to waste

The one thing that tends to spur major periods of genuine innovation and progress is, of course, a major international crisis, that lasts years. It’s not a co-incidence that the Golden Quarter was born in the ashes of World War II.

A new global crisis could have the same impact. It could break our habits, change our expectations, reshape the relationship between business and status, and remove our illusion of security.

Anyone spotted one of those around anywhere?


Photo by Krzysztof Niewolny on Unsplash