Monday, January 3, 2011

One Decade into the 21st Century: An Innovation & Entrepreneurship Retrospective

When I was a young boy growing-up in New York City, in the middle of the 20th century, we knew, as an article of faith, that all problems would be solved by the 21st century. All of our science fiction stories were about the 21st century; it was very much a utopian future that we had ahead of us. Alas, so far, a decade into the “promised land,” the record is not what we had been led to expect. It is, in fact, as the French poet and philosopher Paul ValĂ©ry so wisely opined: “The trouble with our times is that the future is not what it used to be.”

In fact, the accelerating rise of fundamentalism of all sorts; terrorist acts in many communities; seemingly ubiquitous military engagements around the planet; increasing gaps between rich and poor and little amelioration of poverty and injustice; a reckless disregard for the planet’s well-being (climate); and the continued mass-migration of the desperate; all suggest that we have learned little and have moved backwards as a species, despite the proliferation of new technologies and new knowledge. It is hard to dismiss the notion that we as human beings should be ashamed of how little we have truly accomplished in the past decade.

Nonetheless, there have been significant accomplishments, especially in innovation and entrepreneurship, that we should recognize and be proud of. It is abundantly clear that as we enter the world of the future, we live in a world characterized by continuous change and that technology is not only one of the major forces creating such change, it is also a principle expression of this change. It’s true whether we’re speaking of social networking, or e-readers, or iPods/iPads, or new aircraft, faster trains, 3D television, new pharmaceutical products, digital imaging, and the like -- much of what we see as an increasing pace of change in our lives is directly ascribable to technology. However, I think that if we are thoughtful and sober in our reflection, one of the lessons of the past decade is that it is has been evolution, not revolution, that has truly characterized the changes that we saw in the last 10 years. The technologies that I have mentioned just now are all “extensions” of prior technologies. The past has indeed been a good predictor of the future! Unforeseen, out-of-our-imagination, step-function/discontinuous change is not anywhere near being abundantly evident; black swans are truly rare when it comes to technological innovation!

Just because the past decade has been largely “evolutionary” does not, however, mean that there weren’t some historic movements taking place along the way. There are four major themes that achieved maturity as social factors influencing technology and innovation in the last decade that come to mind immediately:

  1. The ubiquity of information. We now take abundant and instantaneous information for granted in decision-making, innovating and in nearly every aspect of our lives. New devices are not only changing our ability to make better informed choices, but they are also changing the way in which we arrive at those choices, or go beyond traditional choice-making. Today, we have the ability to be smarter/better-informed in every aspect of our lives;
  2. The community-building nature of web 2.0. Facebook, RenRen, Twitter, and entire legions of on-line communities are allowing us to stay connected, express ourselves differently and to larger communities and --again -- to learn more from others. Inclusiveness is a term that can be applied to an entire generation of mostly young people who spend a considerable part of their productive time working with others via on-line communities. The Open Innovation movement is one of the most profound expressions of how on-line communities can harness the collective intellect of many bright people to yield real advances in a variety of innovation opportunities.
  3. Green. The failure of the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit was a vivid exception to the more globally pervasive recognition of the cataclysmic possibilities associated with climate change and the need to address this issue in many different ways. Ironically, we will most likely have to rely upon entrepreneurs to drive such change in the future, as governments cannot bring themselves to put politics aside in the face of such a broad challenge to our species, but we do see signs of innovation across a wide spectrum of endeavors that offer us some hope of altering the present course towards widespread disasters.
  4. Globalization. Clearly the emerging markets are no longer the “future” but have become “the present.” There has been a pronounced migration of traditional industries [and attendant current account difficulties] from Europe and North America to the emerging markets; there has been the emergence of new emerging market contenders, although not as many yet as might have been expected; there is a widespread reliance upon dispersed work-teams, many of which are located in the emerging markets, and the wealth of ideas that are associated with such diverse teams; and, since the global workday has now become a 24-hour day, there is a definite quickening of the cadence of work-life in general. It is not as clear, however, that the world has flattened to any great extent. Invention, particularly, and innovation, continue to be disproportionately located in the traditional centers for such activity (e.g., Silicon Valley). The multinationals, with their brands, talent, market presence, and distribution channels continue to lead in value-capture, despite some slight erosion in their leadership in value-creation.

So far, the 21st century has not turned out to be the century that we had so long fantasized about, but it contains elements that will shape all of our lives for the foreseeable future. Clearly, we need new organizational types to take advantage of new technologies and the quickening pace of work. Entrepreneurs, with their imagination, boundless energy, and absence of legacy constraints, should prove to be even more important to national economic growth agendas than they were in the 20th century - and there entrepreneurs’ contributions were central to that century’s growth experience! What we need, however, is a different way of thinking about our collective future than that which was so-long driven by the 20th century’s guiding principles of wealth-accumulation. My sense is that all entrepreneurial activity in the future should be inspired by the question: “Are we building the type of world that we wish to leave for our grandchildren?” This is the critical question! What else could be as important? If our commercial activities continue to be undertaken in the pursuit of greed then the legacy it will leave behind will be rightfully trivial and short-lived.

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