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Innovation Diffusion

Last word: for better and for worse, today’s technological innovations spread faster than ever.
December 1, 2004

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.

The challenge for policymakers and populations alike is how to cope with the pervasive – and perverse – consequences of ever more people gaining ever greater access to ever more innovations that offer ever greater impact for ever lower costs. Why? Because diffusion is inherently messy and unpredictable, and because the ingenuity of a technology’s adopters more than rivals the creativity of its original innovators. We ignore this at our peril.

This new millennium’s most excruciating irony is that the rising democratization of innovation disproportionately empowers the most totalitarian and fundamentalist of ideologies. As economist cum nuclear strategist Thomas Schelling has so chillingly documented, the ability of tiny groups of fanatics to kill large groups of innocents has grown by orders of magnitude over the past fifty years. Using home-brewed technologies, reasonably well-funded sociopaths would today find it easier than ever to kill hundreds of thousands of people at a time. Oppenheimer’s lament upon witnessing the first nuclear explosion in Alamogordo – “I am become death, shatterer of worlds” – now seems the quaintest of anachronisms. Truly, we ain’t seen nothing yet. The monopolies on destruction held by states and sovereigns are rapidly devolving into entrepreneurial opportunities for cults and causes.

Yet at the same time, it’s easier than ever for a successful medical device or video game devised in Karachi, Kampala, or Caracas to catch fire and spread swiftly around the world. There has never been a better time to appreciate, explore, adopt, and adapt the ideas and innovations of others. Even in economies constricted by regulation and corruption, enormous gray markets in innovation somehow take root and prosper.

The accelerating spread of innovation ultimately amounts to the greatest revolution in choice the world has ever known. The diffusion of innovation is about the diffusion of choice – both good and bad. The more choices you have, the more your values matter.

Politics aside, the values of this column demand that I end by acknowledging the readers and editors who’ve taken the time to share their concerns with me over the past two and a half years. It’s been gratifying to get responses from so many smart people who care about what I’ve been saying. Thank you.

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