“An unlimited pool of ideas lost to a sea of short sighted goals”
Innovation in the twenty first century has a very narrow definition that centers on the purpose of creating immediate monetary value. This term can take several shapes, such as creating a new product that people want to buy, finding new ways of marketing an old idea or applying new processes that will save money. While these are all good definitions for the concept of innovation, the narrow framework for the purpose of employing such resources is severely limiting the potential for true human advancement while posing a serious threat to our future. In a world of shrinking distances and quickly disappearing resources, the idea that innovation should be primarily focused on gaining market share is dangerously headed towards collapsing the very system that has fueled it. The notion of increasing profits does not take in consideration negative externalities created by such a narrow definition of innovation, i.e pollution, waste of resources and growing inequality. What happens to the “free market” concept when there is no more drinking water, no clean air left, no more resources to extract from the planet, and when all the wealth is concentrated on a tiny percentage of the world’s population? Can there be a free market in such circumstances? These simple questions begin to reveal a small glimpse of where innovation should be headed.
Is “innovation” as we know it today a good use of the brainpower of those who are in a position to drive humanity forward? By focusing on creating wealth there are very important issues being excluded from the “innovation” formula; issues from which the creation of wealth itself depends upon. The consequences of these unresolved questions will only become more evident as our planet’s resources become more strained. Some of the questions left out are: How will we help our planet sustain the lives of 7 billion human beings during the next century? How can we use innovation to enhance human security to avoid intrastate and interstate wars? And how can full employment be achieved in an economy based mostly on recycling the majority of what we use?
The dire situation of the scarce resources left in our planet combined with over population point towards a social structure that will soon regress to a survival of the fittest state. The tables will not turn naturally in our favor unless we do something about it. So in order to maintain what we know as a civilized social structure, it is necessary to go beyond thinking outside the box and begin wondering if the concept of a “box” still applies. We need to focus innovation on solving bigger problems. On this note I would like to invite the reader to pause for a few minutes and think of improvements to human quality of life that could be created outside the narrow framework used today to define innovation. For example, if creating wealth was not a requirement, what new ideas could you think about? Now, in order to calculate the loss to society of the current definition of “innovation”, you can take your ideas and multiply them by 7 billion, and that would come close to reflecting our loss in the balance sheet of wealth of ideas.
A simple analysis of products considered as innovative can help quantify the gains to society and the environment in the long run. Some examples are:
- The development of electric vehicles, when burning coal or nuclear plants are still generating the majority of electricity.
- The creation of millions of microchips that avoid the use of paper but create longer-term pollution for the environment.
- Replacing coal based electric plants for nuclear power that has more impactful environmental consequences.
- Replacing oil dependence for natural gas generation that produces water contamination.
After conducting a simple analysis it is easy to see that the current definition of “innovation” creates more loses to society than gains. What is worse, the current definition of innovation does not address any long-term challenges that are faced by humanity as a whole.
But where to do we begin looking for the right direction for innovation? And, how would this shift affect the creation of wealth itself?
To answer those questions we can consider one example: Inventions such as contraceptives may never be as publicized as the smart phone business; However, without the reduction in family size brought about by this innovation, the market for such an expensive item may have never existed. More importantly, solving a real life problem led to a perpetual business cycle. Smart phones may not be trendy tomorrow, but different forms of contraceptives will always be needed. Therefore, it could be argued that true “innovation” solves a real life problem in a sustainable manner, thus making it a perpetual business model that can create wealth for businesses and society in the short and long term. We could cite many such innovations that have not resulted in explosive sales revenue but have contributed to moving society forward while creating a perpetual market niche for this product. However, I think it is more relevant to focus on opportunities that are still open for the taking, such as; sea water filtration systems, artificial carbon emissions converter, bio fuel from organic waste, anti pollution recycling systems, and the list can go on and on. It can even be argued that by focusing innovation on simply bringing a new product to market, companies are missing out billions of dollars in long-term revenue due to not exploring real market opportunities. The latent issues described at the beginning of this article are real world problems; they will not go away, and sooner or later they will have to be addressed. Therefore, there are companies out there, that will create a perpetual stream of revenue for themselves by tackling these open issues. Does your company have what it takes to seize these opportunities? Is your team capable of making the leap to a broader definition of “innovation”? How much more wealth can be created by the use of this new model? I think it is clear that innovation should be headed towards solving real world problems, not only because it is the right thing to do, but also because it is a lot more profitable in the long run.
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