A View from Michael Schrage

Innovation Pandemics

The virus of innovation may or may not make you sick, but it will ultimately determine the fate of the earth.

  • September 5, 2007

In my very last column for the dead-tree Technology Review, I wrote, “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.”

I still stand by that. That’s why the innovation cliché “The best way to predict the future is to invent it” is rubbish. The future isn’t “invented” by superbly educated cognitive elites; it’s interactively shaped by the individuals, institutions, and communities that actually adopt and use the innovations–in their own time and in their own way. Users–not inventors–determine value in the innovation marketplace. Diffusion defines innovation success.

Bob Metcalf’s bon mot that “Invention is a flower; innovation is a weed” remains bon. But as with “viral” marketing, the bio-metaphor doesn’t go far enough. I prefer evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins’s insights about the “extended phenotype”: the notion that our tools, technologies, and artifacts may enhance our evolutionary fitness. Much as bird’s nests–rather a clever bit of vernacular technology–may enhance avian reproductive fitness by better sheltering fragile eggs, might not clever technologies like Lasik surgery, hybrid automobiles, implants and–yes–even Google enhance our own by making us more attractive, effective, and desirable?

The question is rhetorical; its implications are not. Innovations that make us more attractive, more effective, and more desirable are more likely to diffuse than those that don’t. Just as significant, innovations we think will make us more attractive, more effective, and more desirable are likely to be disproportionately diffusive.

Want to predict the future of innovation? Simply predict the future of attractiveness, effectiveness, and desirability. Then act accordingly.

Actions always speak louder than words. Thinking about a particular innovation isn’t innovating any more than thinking about a particular diet or bariatric surgery means losing weight. Immunity or resistance to a virus–or a viral innovation–shapes the future health and wealth of people as surely as susceptibility. Both literally and figuratively, innovation is a global public-health issue that more than rivals AIDS, malaria, avian flu, or climate change.

Media and mechanisms like the Internet and desktop fabrication virtually guarantee futures filled with potential innovation pandemics. I’m less interested in how they’ll start than in how they’ll spread. It’s not a global innovation unless it’s catching.

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