Here are a few other general rules: (5) Innovation flourishes when organizations allow third-party experimentation with their products. Astonishingly, the fruitfulness of an open society is still unappreciated by some commercial technologists: “To this day, there are few technologies that are open,” says Paul Rademacher of Google, a 2006 TR35 winner. Before joining Google, Rademacher hacked the code behind Google Maps so that other computer programs could work with it, transforming the search firm’s application into a blank canvas for software developers and a social network for users. Also, (6) fragility is the enemy of innovation: systems should boast broad applications and be unbreakable. “Everything is about resiliency and robustness,” says Ben Zhao of the University of California, Santa Barbara, one of 2006’s TR35. Zhao builds overlay networks, peer-to-peer networks that are less specialized than Napster and the like–and also stronger, because there are strict rules about which machines can talk to which.
(7) Real innovators delight in giving us what we want: solutions to our difficulties and expansive alternatives to our established ways. (8) They are, it is true, sometimes perplexed by our ignorance of our own needs. “You have to solve a problem that people actually have,” says Joshua Schachter, the founder of del.icio.us (now a division of Yahoo) and the popularizer of Internet “tags.” “But it’s not always a problem that they know they have, so that’s tricky.” There is, however, an escape from this conundrum. (9) Successful innovators do not depend on what economists call “network externalities” (where a system, like a fax machine, has little use to its first user, but becomes increasingly valuable as more people use it): “Ideally, the system should be useful for user number one,” says Schachter, our 2006 Innovator of the Year. Hence, innovators can divine needs by applying a utilitarian imperative: they ask, Would the innovation help someone now?
This suggests a last point: (10) many innovators become technologists because they want to better the world. Shiladitya Sengupta, an assistant professor in the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology and one of 2005’s TR35, who has built nanoscale drug-delivery devices for the treatment of cancer, says, “You can do top-notch research, but at the end of the day, it should actually benefit mankind.” Christina Galitsky, a research associate at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and this year’s Humanitarian of the Year, would agree. She has demonstrated how an efficient stove can mitigate the danger that Sudanese refugee women face collecting firewood, and she has designed a cheap filter material that could remove arsenic from the drinking water of Bangladesh. “At least now I’m doing something,” she says.