A Critical Choice Regarding Innovation

This morning, via twitter, I came across two contrasting blog posts, one from JP Rangaswami (@jobsworth), and one from Martin Varsavsky (@martinvars), that seemed to me to sum up the very essence of the problem I’ve been calling out in my “work on stuff that matters” talks.

In Faster Horses in the Age of Co-Creation, JP argues that Henry Ford’s maxim, “If I’d asked people what they wanted, they’d have said ‘faster horses’ “, is wrong, that the essence of innovation today is giving the customer what he or she wants:

That customer knows that part of what she wants is to be able to figure out what she wants. She is both consumer and producer, a partner in the process of co-creating value. The senior partner in the process of co-creating value.

So today, if she asks for faster horses, we don’t build her a car. We need to find out whether she meant a roan or a piebald or a chestnut or a bay. When she tries the piebald out and decides she wanted the roan, that’s what she gets. Our job is to make it easier for her to buy or rent or lease the horse, to make it safer for her, to make it more convenient for her in terms of where the horse is to be picked up and dropped. To make sure the horse is well, that the riding equipment is securely and safely fastened.

Now, to be sure, JP is making a valid point, namely that in consumer marketing, we need to listen to and empower the customers, not try to ram products down their throat.

But it’s unfortunate that JP used the Henry Ford story to make his point, because in so doing he set up a straw man that ignored what Ford was really saying: that breakthrough innovations don’t come from market research, even from “web 2.0” market research via deep customer engagement. They come from the singular vision of an inventor pursuing his or her own passion, cutting a Gordian knot that others simply accept as “the way things are.”

The Wright brothers would never have gotten to the airplane by listening to customers; Henry Ford would never have sought to put an automobile in every household; Tim Berners-Lee would never have gotten to the World Wide Web; Jimmy Wales wouldn’t have started Wikipedia; and Jack Dorsey wouldn’t have started twitter, where I became part of this particular conversation.

That’s why Martin’s post is so poignant, and so important. Where is the Future We Were Promised? he asks:

Five years into the 20th century, Einstein was living his Annus Mirabilis. Where is our patent office today? Who is our Einstein? Are we the first generation in many years incapable of true innovation? And let’s not just talk about things as complicated as the theory of relativity. I remember complaining about the drill when I was young, and my dentist telling me that when I was grown up he would have to find another job because we would have a vaccine against cavities. Where is this vaccine against cavities? Where are the cures for catarrh and AIDS? Where is that future devoid of poverty in which robots were going to do everything for people and we were going to dedicate ourselves to art and culture?

Unfortunately, when I look around me today, during the end of 2008, I see humanity leading an unsustainable life based on technology that should already be obsolete. I believe that it is time for us to engage in some serious self-criticism and start to invest in science again, because the list of unsolved problems grows longer every day. If we continue on like this, not only are we not going to have a future, but we are going to end up without a present.

Like JP Rangaswami, Martin overstates the case a bit. I believe that there is some truly amazing innovation happening on the net, in alternative energy, and in life sciences, and that we are going to wake up one day and be blown away by the future we’re creating. And oddly enough, many of those innovations will come from harnessing the collective intelligence of all those people that JP says we should be listening to. But it won’t just be to give them what they want; it will be to put them to work in new ways, getting them to contribute to an inventor’s vision, not just to customize it for their better enjoyment. Breakthroughs in speech recognition and automatic translation, for example, are driven by the data we all contribute; similar effects will soon be felt in personalized medicine, robotics, and many other areas.

But I also believe that the choice is stark: just give people want they want, leading us deeper into a consumer culture whose very financial fabric is wearing thin, or seek out big, hard problems that other people take for granted as unsolvable, and remake the world.

In a talk I attended many years ago, Joseph Campbell said that the Knights of the Round Table were the archetypal myth of Western civilization, the idea that each of us, alone, must go off into the deepest, darkest part of the forest, populated by monsters, on a quest to make the world a better place.

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