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Posts Tagged ‘ideas’

The Economist “Ideas Economy” Conference at UC Berkeley

March 25th, 2011

This week the Economist sponsored The IDEAS ECONOMY Conference at the Haas School of Business on the Berkeley campus.  I attended both days and enjoyed meeting many innovation experts from around the world.

A  look at Twitter:#ideaseconomy provides some short insights from the conference and here are a few of my favorite tweets:

  • H Chesbrough – Opening up processes to include the customer is even more important with services #ideaseconomy
  • Paul Kedrosky (Kauffman Foundation): We think of ourselves as economic virus hunters #ideaseconomy
  • Elon Musk: Success = talent x drive x opportunity. If any of those goes to zero, success is impossible #ideaseconomy
  • RT @govlab: Aneesh Chopra on stage showing that govt, innovation, and entrepreneurship can go together. #ideaseconomy
  • Fun at Economist Innovation Summit! IRS asking question of Scott Cook (Intuit) then NASA asking Elon Musk (SpaceX) #ideaseconom

What were the “big ideas” from the event?  Here are my top four:

1) The World is turning into an Idea Economy- we have entered a period where the Democratization of Ideas seems more potent in many ways than technology, leadership, and geography.  In this new economy, one’s location (Silicon Valley, New York City,  Cambridge UK, Beijing, or Finland) is not so important as the way in which ideas are shared and collaborated on.  The concept of  Open Service Innovation is taking hold (see my Haas colleague, Henry Chesbrough’s new book on this topic,) – and innovative companies are getting their ideas, as well as their execution from all corners of the world.

2) Education will be radically transformed in the next 10 years – lots of examples were presented at this conference that indicate that the global education system is about to be transformed by technologies such as cloud computing, virtual classrooms, video conferencing, and distance learning tools.  This transformation will bring affordable teaching to third world and developing countries, but also represents an opportunity for major “brands” like Harvard, Brown, Cal, Stanford to take a leadership in creating the “virtual” campus to extend their brand.

3) Government programs for entrepreneurship seem to be a priority of the current administration – for example, entrepreneurs have a tax break and angel investors have a break as well (through the end of 2012) for angel investing (perhaps partially explains the rush of angel capital investments moving into start-ups these days). Other programs like Start-up America (this is a good video – done YouTube style)…. Aneesh Chopra, CTO of the United States was interviewed at this conference.  He was praised for how worn out his shoes seem to be. Point of fact, he seems to intimately know many of the entrepreneurs, angels and VCs here in the Silicon Valley.  A good sign.

4) Think nimbly, make mistakes, fail often – this theme was stressed at the conference in many different forms and seems to capture the mindset of today’s most successful entrepreneurs.  Marc Zuckerberg , CEO of Facebook has been said (in an interview in 2010) “move fast and break things”.   This is a radical departure from 15 years ago, when companies carefully thought out and planned software development.  Given costs associated with cloud computing, open source programming, and other technologies, companies can afford to experiment and fail often – as long as they are tracking the results on their customers and changing course to reflect customer needs quickly

In contrast to TED, The Economist conference is smaller and more intimate.  So, it’s easier to talk with leading experts. Unlike TED, the conference was attended largely by a group of corporate executives and writers who are all intrigued by notions of

I’ve enjoyed attending both TED and The Economist events this Spring, but I still miss the intimacy and power of the early TED events in Monterey, when only 400 people attended and one could more easily kibitz with founders from Yahoo, Google, Amazon, MIT Media Labs, Microsoft and more.

Evolution and Innovation – where do Ideas come from?

September 17th, 2010

I’ve recently been giving thought to the evolution of  ideas …and how they lead to innovation.

Peter Drucker, in his book Innovation and Entrepreneurship, points to 7 “sources” of  organizational innovation – seven PLACEs where organizational ideas come from:

1) Unexpected consequences - there are many examples of this through history, but one well-known example was the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming in 1928 is a classic.

2) Incongruities – Drucker points out that whenever an industry has a steadily growing market, but falling profit margins for its participants an “incongruity” exits – and some company will eventually exploit this incongruity by inventing a lower cost or more efficient way to compete – for example, process innovations in the steel industry.

3) Process needs -the excample of the Guttenberg press, is to me a major change in process.  It was borne out of the need for mass-producing the Bible and other valued writings, and it allowed for a major shift in the process of putting these writings to paper.

4) Industry & market changes – often innovation is born out of competitive necessity – your company either comes up with a more innovative business model, product, marketing campaign…or you die.  A great example of this is Salesforce.com – its cloud-based SaaS business model was more efficient for many customers than the competitors and it stole customers away from other players as it grew.

5) Demographic changes – in the mid 1990′s many first-time users were coming onto the web, causing a demographic shift to the Internet, which companies like Yahoo, Excite, AltaVista and Google created innovations around

6) Changes in Perception – we are living through a period in time right now, best described by Richard Florida as The Great Reset, in which Americans and Europeans are dramatically changing their perceptions of spending, real estate ownership, needs vs wants – and there are a variety of innovations that will likely be born out of this shift.

7) New Knowledge – many an invention has come from new knowledge of the materials, processes, or changing needs of the customer. For example, the computer chip invented by   Walk through the Computer History Museum in Santa Clara, CA and you can see many, many examples of how technology has progressed over the past 60 years as new knowledge of tubes, transistors, microprocessor became available through research labs.

One of the students in my UC Berkeley class claims an 8th source might be “male hormones” or pro-creation as he pointed out that the male species can be extremely CREATIVE in ways of approaching the opposite sex.

While this one seems a bit far-fetched to me, I personally believe that the Collective Conscience could be considered an 8th source of Innovation.  Jung first coined this term in pychoanalysis to refer to conscious thoughts and ideas that are not personal, but are a shared part of our culture or of being human. He called common ideas shared by humans “archetypes” and he claimed to find examples in his psychoanalysis of behaviors resulting from the “collective conscience” (a form of sub-conscience).   Ever wonder why several scientists seem to simultaneously come to a similar conclusion; or several entrepreneurs are working on a similar new product/service at the same moment in time?  My guess is that there is an element of our genetic make-up, that is embedded in the connections in our brains,  which is triggered by external/environmental factors.  When some change in our world occurs, or some challenge presents itself to the human species, a pre-destined response is elicited and the result is that a sort of “collective conscious” is released – several people in the right time, at the right place have the same epiphany.

How do Ideas Come About?
Whereas Drucker answes the question “From Where do Ideas Arise?,” he  does not quite answer the question of HOW ideas arise.  For example, one common view of new ideas is that they come about by some  sort of epiphany, stroke of luck, or being in the “right place at the right time.”  Newton was hit on the head with an Apple, Archimedes sat in his bathtub noticing how it overflowed, and the Reeses Peanut-butter cup came together when two people holding chocolate and peanut-butter collided :)

Perhaps it’s more Evolutionary than we think?

The invention of the world wide web is a good example to look at:  Tim Berners-Lee is credited with the creation of the world-wide web, and the general public views this as a major break-through innovation of the 20th Century.  But Berners-Lee seem to me to be the final/missing piece of a mosaic that included many other prior smaller discoveries. For example, the notion of “hyperlinking to other locations” had already been explored by teams at Apple, and researchers (Andy Van Dam and Norman Meyrowitz) at Brown University, well before it became a component of the WWW.  And the internet under-structure behind the WWW was long in place an used by ARPA and universities before it was exploited by Berners-Lee. The initial prototype website in 1991 and  The standards proposed by Berners-Lee in 1994 and beyond where the missing piece to the puzzle or mosaic of inventions that allowed for this “innovation” to take off.

And, all this was incremental and evolutionary.

Many major innovations in history seem to take this evolutionary path: electricity, the light-bulb, radio, television, the micro-computer, the Internet – all seem evolutionary and a product of several great minds.  There were a set of small discoveries made over time until such point that all the key pieces were in place for an “innovation” to occur.  A good example I like to use at UC Berkeley is the emergence of the PDA .

Many prior innovations added up to the innovation of hand-held devices or PDAs.  The Apple Newton device with its hand-writing recognition, the EO device (a start-up by industry veterans), and early prototypes at Xerox Parc.  But it was Jeff Hawkins and his team at Palm who put the final pieces of the puzzle together – using unique (Graffiti) software and the right combination of features – that lit the consumer market on fire with a new “innovation.”  Lots of smaller discoveries led to the success/launch of the PDA market.

I’d like to hear from others whether they believe innovation comes from serendipity, from epiphany, or from some series of evolutionary discoveries…

The History of Innovation…and where ideas come from

March 30th, 2010

Once in a while, I like to get an historical perspective on Creativity and Innovation.  I found four websites that are very helpful in doing this:

1) my favorite site is The Great Idea Finder - this site looks like it was created in 1996 and in serious need of  a web 2.0 programmer, but it’s full of great research, ideas and history.  Check out It’s About Time for a day-by-day history timeline, or Invention and Inventor Lists for interesting lists of patents, inventors, entrepreneurs and more.

2) About.com Inventors - this community is full of great insights on the history of inventors (a subset of creators and innovators in my mind).  Wonderful information on the history of many famous inventions and inventors -or search by your favorite invention

–> an added bonus to the site is “Today in History” - pick any date and the site has a wiki-list of famous inventions, patent filings, and note-worthy “aha-moments” that occurred on that date.   For example, this day, on March 30th, the following happened: “1956 Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land Is Your Land” was copyrighted.” Click on “Birthdays” and you find:

  • 1842 – Dr. Crawford Long was the first physician to use ether as anesthetic
  • 1865 – German physicist, Heinrich Rubens
  • 1876 – Clifford Whittingham Beers was a mental hygiene pioneer
  • 1892 – Polish mathematician, Stefan Banach
  • 1894 – Russian airplane builder, Sergei Ilyushin
  • 1912 – Andrew Rodger Waterson was a noted naturalist

3) the Inventors Timeline – takes you back to the Paleolithic Era then forward to present time, identifying all key inventions known to the world…a very interesting way to see how the pace of technology is quickening.  

4) the Timeline Index – a nice visual timelime of Inventors through the recent ages – also an interesting timeline for other areas such as artists, philosophers, actors, etc).  Click on any person’s name and it gives you a detailed page on their biography, related links, etc.

Where do all these ideas come from?

The big question that people often ask me about my work with entrepreneurs and innovators is “So, where do ideas come from? Conventional wisdom is that ideas come from an “AHA” moment that an inventor has – for example, the moment that Art Fry at 3M Corp realized he had inadvertently created a sticky substance that could be used on paper to create the “post-it” note,  or the moment that Archimedes sat in his bath tub and realized that the water he had displaced held an important clue to measuring density of matter.
But in looking HISTORICALLY at actual inventions that have made produced the most profound changes in human history —   the wheel, electricity, the automobile, the light bulb, the small-pox vaccination, the computer chip, the television,  the Worldwide Web — we find that there was no “AHA” moment…there were a myriad of smaller progressive discoveries leading to a key discover from one person or group that seems to solidify

I was speaking at the Computer History Museum this past week and arriving early, took the time to look at the work of Charles Babbage, who is regarded as the “Father of Computing.”  In 1822 he created an entirely mechanical “Difference Engine” (see photo I took to right, owned by Nathan Myrvold) which was meant to calculate mathematics (polynomials) and he later created a “Analytics Engine” that used punch cards. Babbage’s inventions resulted from a hundreds of years of European discoveries of how machines work, including work dating back to the time of Leonardo Davinci and the abacus dating back to Mesopotamia, Egypt and China.  It was Babbage who lived in a time where the “technology” (small metal parts) and mathematical understanding enabled him to implement the first working prototype.  Babbage worked through his lifetime to complete these designs.  The engine was a creation born from a series of historical baby steps.

Take a more recent invention – the PDA…Palm gets much of the credit for it, but its birth was due to a number of companies all working the overall product from various angles.   Psion, Apple,Xerox, others …a visit to the Computer History Museum in Sunnyvale shows the tale. There was no “aha” moment of innovation in the discovery of the PDA – it too seems to be more Evolutionary rather than Revolutionary.

In his book, The Myths of Innovation, author/entrepreneur/blogger/professor Scott Berkun makes a pretty good case for the fact that innovations never seem to evolve in a straight line.  Ideas are formed, tested out, failures occur, competitors emerge in an area of great “hope” and eventually some lucky company emerges as the one to popularize the new innovation.

According to Berkun, ideas come from either hard work in a specific direction, or the combination of two or more (heretofore separate) ideas, or curiosity, or wealth, or necessity or luck — or some combination of all of these.

In his book The Medici Effect, my friend Frans Johansson points out that some of the most prolific bursts of new ideas (such as those found in 15th Century Italy, banked by the Medici Family in Florence) come from a confluence of different disciplines or cultures, combined in new and unusual ways.  Johansson delineates “directional” and “intersectional” innovation.  Directional innovation – like the light bulb which  Thomas Edison found through years of testing, is evolutionary with a focused linear path.  Intersectional innovation – for example the Googles combination of new search algorithms with an approach to listing advertising as words -  is ALSO evolutionary.  The research the Google founders did at Stanford was  descendant  from previous work at Yahoo and Infoseek, and the advertising approach they used was borrowed from goto.com (later became Overture).  It was the fortuitous combination of these two ideas (intersection) that led to the most innovative company of all time.   Serendipity certainly played a role for both Edison and Google founders – more on that in a future blog post.

I’m challenged to think of an example of innovation which was not in some way evolutionary – building upon prior ideas, research or thought.

I’m curious if any of my readers can think of examples…