Innovation is not about making something different or even better. It is about fundamentally changing our behavior. It is about creating a future: envisioning ways of doing things that are so compelling they are pervasively adopted. It is easy to forget how much innovation we have experienced in the last 25 years. Yesterday TED released the pod cast of a talk by Nicholas Negroponte from 1984.
Despite Orwell’s prescient book, 1984 was a time of command lines and green screens. The IBM Selectric ruled the office and producing office communication generally involved a Dictaphone. Negroponte made convincing arguments for interacting with computers using touch screens and breaking from the linear information delivery of books and journals by adopting electronic hyperlinked information techniques.
I watched the lecture while exercising on a Stairmaster and appropriately used my touch screen IPhone to consume the talk. It is hard to imagine that the potential for an HTML information platform or an elegant multi-touch interface would be questioned as preposterous, improbable, or at best way too expensive to develop, produce, and deploy. But we must remember that the computing power required to drive the interface of an IPhone is many orders of magnitude greater than the entire compute capacity of the 68000 processors of that day.
It is impressive how well the I-touch technology from Apple implements the vision the Negroponte articulated so vividly 25 years earlier. And it’s surprising that it took 25 years for it to happen. The year after he delivered the TED lecture Negroponte opened the Media Lab to explore and commercialize these and other innovations.
Watching Negroponte talk provided some perspective on how dramatic the innovation we will likely experience in the coming years can be. Some innovations like the television or the i-touch interface are serendipitous, allowing us to casually adopt new behaviors based on desire and not imperatives. I am suspect the innovation that dominates the coming decades will be more akin to Jonas Salk’s discovery of the Polio vaccine.
The defining characteristic of human beings is adaptation and our times demand adaptation: the resources we use now are scarce and expensive; populations of the developed world are aging with declining birth rates while the exploding economic demands of the young burgeoning populations of the developing world are warping the global economy; the climate is changing rapidly irreversibly altering our ecosystem; and these are just a few of the challenges we face.
We now get to imagine the future that accommodates these realities and improves our lives at the same time. That’s innovation that maters. We get to do anything but stand still.