Emerging Technologies: The Innovators’ View

author: Padmasree Warrior, Cisco Systems, Inc.
author: Yair Goldfinger, Dotomi
author: Phillip A. Sharp, Department of Biology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
author: Jay Walker, Walker digital
author: Iqbal Quadir, MIT Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, MIT
published: Aug. 26, 2011,   recorded: September 2006,   views: 3049

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Innovators are like jazz musicians... or like permanent teenagers. These and other analogies flowed, as top-flight tech inventors tried to put their fingers on the precise nature of innovation and how it can best be coaxed into existence.

Yair Goldfinger draws on his Israeli background to back up his notion that everyone has a creative bent, which awaits some catalyst to emerge. The Israeli Army, he says, is very small, “and they teach you from day one how to improvise.” If the rope is too short, you find the alternative. The culture of this small country, “surrounded by enemies” and short of investment money, forces collaboration among groups from different disciplines, with one innovation leading to the next. “Innovation is tied to time and place,” he says.

Like pornography, innovation is hard to define, says Philip Sharp, but when we see it, we recognize it. Not only is it part of the fabric of our culture, so much so that we in the West “take it for granted like air in the room,” but innovation is “the defining mode of the future.” Fifteen years from now, all we perceive as ordinary today “will be completely different.” And opportunities are greater now than at any other time in human history, Sharp believes. MIT, where “innovation is part of the drinking water,” can teach students how to master certain problems and “increase the probability enormously that they will be involved in innovation.” Sharp, reflecting on the complex, seven-plus year process involved in bringing pharmaceuticals to market, sees innovation as the product of an individual mind, but harnessed within teams.

When Jay Walker looks in the mirror, he sees a “serial innovator.” While serendipity sometimes operates, the “vast majority of innovation occurs where opportunity meets preparation….The harder innovators work, the luckier they get.” Innovation is “the unexpected effective solution to a problem,” not “an artistic dimension or personality trait.” Walker embraces innovation in politics and the arts, where profitability may be besides the point. But he sees among all innovators unhappiness with the status quo. Innovators especially require mentoring. “If you’re young, you need someone who gives you comfort that rule-breaking won’t take you to a dead end.” The biggest challenge for inventors involves storytelling -- communicating to others why their product solves a problem better. Good innovations require effective “propagation mechanisms.”

One recipe for innovation, says Iqbal Quadir, involves blending two different things that come together to create a third thing. Qadir “didn’t invent cellphones, and someone else invented microcredit,” yet he brought these elements together ingeniously in Bangladesh to create low-cost phone access for a hundred million people. So for him, “innovation is the difference that makes a difference.” Don’t mistake his work for social entrepreneurism, though: “If you solve a problem…society is happy to pay you for the difference that you’ve made.” In many countries, entrenched powers resent bold thinking, and try to quash it. “You see a bird pecking grains. Put a glass in between and after a while, the bird stops pecking. Human beings in difficult countries give up.” Such countries “need disruption, to get things moving again.” Newcomers bring fresh blood, and “once an innovation succeeds, they may have more resources to take bigger risks and try something more crazy.”

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