This is my last column for Technology Review. Really. It’s all over. Why? New editorial directions, new opportunities. Perhaps it’s time for a different take on the evolving politics, culture, and economics of innovation.
But I’d be foolish to pass up this final chance to discuss what I’ve learned – and unlearned – about innovation since this column first appeared in Technology Review’s January/February 2002 issue. My convictions about what innovation can and should mean have changed dramatically. I’ve wanted this column to be a forum for exploring the real guts and viscera of the innovation process – not the polite entrepreneurial fictions about how brilliant ideas ultimately charm reluctant marketplaces.
Simply put: innovation isn’t what innovators do; it’s what customers, clients, and people adopt. Innovation isn’t about crafting brilliant ideas that change minds; it’s about the distribution of usable artifacts that change behavior. Innovators – their optimistic arrogance notwithstanding – don’t change the world; the users of their innovations do. That’s not a subtle distinction.
That’s also why I now believe that the dominant global issue of our time is the accelerating diffusion of innovation. Period. Full stop. The diffusion of innovation – not the “spread of ideas” or the “clash of civilizations” or even “globalization” – is the dynamic driving today’s world and tomorrow’s. Whether you care about nuclear-weapons proliferation, the specter of bioterrorism, global warming, the “digital divide,” or the prospect that new sources of potable water and cheap energy will better the lives of billions, you are – in the first and final analysis – concerned about the risk/reward rivalry that drives the diffusion of innovation.
Every significant issue of our time – energy crises, environmental degradation, economic development, public health, HIV/AIDS, educational opportunity, child care – is increasingly shaped by the ebb and flow of technical innovation. In fact, the quality of global life and the standard of local living have come to be defined by the diffusion of technology. We’re not going to escape this essential truth; it’s dishonest to try.
The Big Lie of the Information Age is that “Nothing is more powerful than an idea whose time has come.” What nonsense. In reality, nothing in this world is more powerful than an innovation that has diffused to the point where it enjoys both global reach and global impact. Ready access to ideas promotes awareness, but ready access to innovation promotes empowerment and opportunity.