We’re living in the age of low-innovation

An article by Nick Hammond in the excellent Digital Filter brought together a few things I’ve been reading recently in a number of places. Namely that there is increasing research supporting the theory that we’re living in an age of very limited innovation. Obviously we’re also living in an age of almost unlimited PR so you’ll be forgiven for not having noticed, and it took me a little by surprise too.

The article and related ones have made me think a little more about what drives innovation and why I hadn’t noticed. The original and best driver is necessity (AKA ‘the mother of all invention’), and there’s a pyramid reminiscent of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs from Nicholas Carr below which I thought was an interesting way of looking at it and builds up from this foundation (and some further thoughtful comment from Neil Perkins here).

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What was nagging me about this low innovation age was that I really don’t seem to be living in it. It struck me that because my colleagues and I have been heavily involved in Digital innovation for the last ten years we’ve been a little insulated – and that I’ve had the good fortune to work in the one area of the world, “Digital” that really can lay claim to be innovating like nothing else. The Digital revolution we’re in the midst of is every bit as exciting and transformative as the Industrial one which preceded it. But maybe all this focus on Digital has gone a little too far at the expense of real world innovation?

As an example we seem to be doing a great job of lionising and rewarding the digital innovators (heroes such as Sir Jony Ive take a bow), but maybe we’re forgetting the physical innovators. For example Graphene is a new wonder material in which the UK leads the world with the best brains and deepest expertise. Wonder seems to be a little bit over-used these days but this stuff is stronger and has better electrical and thermal conductivity and optical purity than any other material. We’ve still got no real idea how or where we’re going to use it but money is ‘pouring in’ to research on a global scale.

And exactly how much money pouring are we talking about? The National Graphene Institute in Manchester has just received combined funding of £61m from the UK and EU. That’s roughly the same amount as Apple made in profits during any one day of Q4 last year ($89m per day). So it’s not surprising that innovaton in digital is going a lot faster (ironically Grapheme is exactly the sort of material set to revolutionise computing hardware).

Maybe we’ve swung a little too far to the digital side in the search for the fast buck? We’re not really living in a world of low innovation, but we are living in an incredibly polarised world where it seems most of the innovation is happening in a very limited sphere. Perhaps companies should look to better harness the innovative abilities of the Digital sector across the full range of their products and services? Good businesses understand that innovation across the whole business is a necessity, to continue to be successful companies must continue to innovate. You’ve only got to wander past the vacant lot of Jessops/HMV etc to see how easy it is to slide into obscurity from what seemed like a great position. Occasionally innovation happens by accident, but great companies ‘build it in’. A very effective way to do this is to be continuously experimenting around your products and services and understanding evolving customer needs and technology trends (something Digital teams tend to do quite well). If you’re wondering exactly how to do that we’d love to help.