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Innovation: A Look Back

November 1, 2000

This is my last book review column for TR. The nearly 60 volumes I’ve discussed over the past three years cluster around a mere handful of themes that capture how experts are thinking about technology, science, business, computing, the Internet and innovation at the turn of the millennium. As a way of wrapping up, I thought I’d describe the six most significant themes here.

Intellectual property (IP) will be one of the coming decade’s bloodiest legal and economic battlegrounds.

Who’s got IP, who’s trying to get it, and how it’s being used both as a wedge and a club-those are the concerns of writers like Seth Shulman (Owning the Future) and Kevin Rivette and David Kline (Rembrandts in the Attic). Arguing that a high-tech company is only as valuable as its patent portfolio, Rivette and Kline urge CEOs to be more systematic about their IP, locking up as many related ideas as possible. Shulman, meanwhile, decries all this acquisitiveness, especially the trend toward patenting general ideas (such as “one-click” Internet purchasing), genes and other items that arguably belong to everyone. At times, Shulman argues, the quest for legitimate profits from a patented idea may actually impede innovation and impoverish our cultural heritage. Expect to see many more books and articles about this tension.

Computers should be ubiquitous but invisible, emulating everyday objects that already work well.

In The Social Life of Information, Xerox’s John Seely Brown underscores how much wisdom is built into traditional objects and practices, and rails against “tunnel design” that values information processing power over usability. In The Invisible Computer, behavioral designer Donald Norman looks forward to the extinction of the PC and previews a world of dedicated information appliances that are more powerful and reliable because they are built for a single task. MIT physicist Neil Gershenfeld develops that idea in When Things Start to Think, showing how much easier life could be if we embedded a bit of machine intelligence in ordinary artifacts such as paper, cash or clothing.

The Internet has changed commerce irrevocably, and businesses must adapt or die.

Sense & Respond, edited by Stephen P. Bradley and Richard L. Nolan, and Unleashing the Killer App by Larry Downes and Chunka Mui show that what the Internet giveth-the ability to constantly monitor customer demand, then quickly and cheaply fulfill it-the Internet also taketh away, especially when your bricks-and-mortar business is the one that’s being ravaged by an e-commerce startup. And as The Cluetrain Manifesto by Rick Levine, Christopher Locke,Doc Searle and David Weinberger teaches, only the companies that abandon traditional marketing and recognize Internetenabled conversations as an opportunity rather than a threat have a chance of staying relevant to their customers.

In the new economy, applications-driven research and entrepreneurship are more important than ever.

Companies with lean, product-oriented research divisions consistently lead their industries, TR Editor at Large Robert Buderi concludes in Engines of Tomorrow. But even in giant firms with full and focused R&D commitments, innovation hinges on resourceful, entrepreneurial individuals rather than teams or policies (see Radical Innovation, reviewed above).This is true even in supposedly group-think-dominated countries like Japan: That country’s lead in areas such as metal oxide semiconductors and liquid crystal displays can be attributed to just a handful of Edison types, according to journalist Bob Johnstone’s We Were Burning.

Scientists and engineers still have a lot to learn, notably in the areas of biology and computing.

In What Remains to Be Discovered, former Nature editor John Maddox highlights a raft of unanswered questions about the origins of life and the universe, thoroughly repudiating suggestions that the “end of science” is at hand.Despite the discovery of genes “for” traits such as novelty-seeking, for example,we’re farther than ever from understanding the full relationship between genes and behavior, according to Jonathan Weiner in Time, Love,Memory and Richard Lewontin in It Ain’t Necessarily So. And judging from Gerard Milburn’s The Feynman Processor and Julian Brown’s Minds, Machines, and the Multiverse, we still don’t know whether it is possible to build a practical quantum computer-perhaps the only avenue toward big future increases in computing speed.

True innovation requires passion and a dash of madness.

Books like Geeks by Jon Katz and The Monk and the Riddle by Randy Komisar confirm that those who lack the courage to follow their own path are doomed to obscurity.The most famous, successful innovators are also a little strange: Sometimes they’re harddriving perfectionists like Edwin Land (Insisting on the Impossible by Victor McElheny). Sometimes they have a phobia of inactivity like Jim Clark (The New New Thing by Michael Lewis) or feel driven by circumstance to take outrageous risks (The Leap by Tom Ashbrook). And not infrequently, their creativity shades over into extreme eccentricity, as in the case of mathematician Paul Erds (The Man Who Loved Only Numbers by Paul Hoffman), or even mental illness, as in the case of economist and game theorist John Nash (A Beautiful Mind by Sylvia Nasar).

But no book or author, thankfully, will ever discover the exact ingredients of innovation. And therein lies the grist for another century of Technology Review.

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