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Are We Sabotaging Our Innovation Efforts?

Writer Neal Stephenson questions why our ability to develop 'big innovation' is on the decline, if science fiction can provide insight - and if we...

Paloma M. Vazquez
Paloma M. Vazquez on October 5, 2011. @pmvazquez

A thought-provoking piece by author Neal Stephenson for the World Policy Institute ponders the question of whether our inability to match the new-ground-breaking achievements of past generations– the 1960s space program, the invention of the automobile and computer, and the discovery of nuclear energy–might be symptomatic of a broader failure within our society to realize big ideas. Stephenson cites, as an example of this syndrome, our decades-long desire to decrease our dependence on oil in favour of solar energy, wind energy, domestically-produced synthetic oils or other oil alternatives, and yet our seeming inability to do so.

Whether you agree or disagree with Stephenson’s belief that innovation in the form of ‘big things’ is not at par to decades past (you might consider the iPhone 4s, or iPad a ‘big thing,’ or social media to be truly revolutionary), he makes some though-provoking observations and hypotheses for why we have systematically become risk-averse, and made it significantly more challenging for ‘big ideas’ to alter the course of our status quo. Curiously, Stephenson challenges us to observe in science fiction (which he pens):

  • Science fiction can be useful to us in driving innovation by inspiring more people to pursue scientific and engineering careers.
  • Scifi presents the Hieroglyph Theory: coherent icons and recognizable symbols like Asimov’s robots and Heinlein’s rocket ships, on whose significance everyone agrees. In our increasingly complex and more narrowly-focused and structured organizations, we lack these guiding, over-arching hieroglyphs (visions) for groups within organizations to collectively work towards realizing. We need to rethink how we’re structured.
  • A closer look at how the evolving tone of scifi writing indicates how we’re feeling about science and technology. According to Stephenson:

Speaking broadly, the techno-optimism of the Golden Age of SF has given way to fiction written in a generally darker, more skeptical and ambiguous tone…Believing we have all the technology we’ll ever need, we seek to draw attention to its destructive side effects…The imperative to develop new technologies and implement them on a heroic scale no longer seems like the childish preoccupation of a few nerds with slide rules. It’s the only way for the human race to escape from its current predicaments. Too bad we’ve forgotten how to do it.

  • Stephenson therefore proposes the Hieroglyph Project: a call to science fiction writers to dream up these outstanding, amazing icons that will again inspire scientists and technologists to make them a reality.
  • Innovation can’t happen without accepting the risk that it may just fail. Stephenson cites the space race between the US and Russia of decades past to demonstrate how the possibility of failure during a very challenging, unstable and dangerous time – and installation of a ‘safety net’ should far-fetched efforts fail – generated one of the most ground-breaking innovations of the first man on the moon.
  • We may benefit from instilling a sense of ‘Galapagan Isolation’ (read Stephenson’s full piece for more background on this), vs. the ‘nervous corporate hierarchy’ that paralyzes us today. At an over-simplified level, this notion challenges us to make decisions with limited information and recognized risks (as if were living on a small, isolated island – where vast arrays of distinct species still evolve and live). Our nervousness at living in a wider, larger and more complicated system cannot paralyze us to wait to make a decision or put a stake in the ground until every bit of information or data has been scoured, and until every risk has been mitigated. To this author, it sounds like a reminder to ‘live in beta,’ and a cross-disciplinary opportunity for agile planning.
  • In conclusion, Stephenson cites it best:

Today’s belief in ineluctable certainty is the true innovation-killer of our age. In this environment, the best an audacious manager can do is to develop small improvements to existing systems—climbing the hill, as it were, toward a local maximum, trimming fat, eking out the occasional tiny innovation—like city planners painting bicycle lanes on the streets as a gesture toward solving our energy problems. Any strategy that involves crossing a valley—accepting short-term losses to reach a higher hill in the distance—will soon be brought to a halt by the demands of a system that celebrates short-term gains and tolerates stagnation, but condemns anything else as failure. In short, a world where big stuff can never get done.

We were highly inspired by Stephenson’s provocation, and feel there are implications for every type of business. We must revisit both our internal structures and processes – and overall cultures – to encourage the kind of ‘big thinking’ and risk-taking that will benefit the business (and humanity) long-term. Additionally, this is not without opportunity to our educational system and entire approach to science and technology in the US (i.e., why are there so few women programmers and engineers, vs. the percentages seen in other nations)? It goes without saying that changing a complex system is not an easy task – but recognizing where we can start (internal culture and processes/procedures, which are controlled internally) will help trigger the larger network effect we need to spark big innovation.

World Policy Journal: Innovation Starvation

Thinking...