Innovation


http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2008/05/12/080512fa_fact_gladwell

Malcolm Gladwell is clever.  Anyone who has read his books can quickly deduce this.  However, perhaps what is most clever about Malcolm Gladwell is that he recognizes that cleverness is not necessarily all about being smart.  In fact, most of the truly great things that people get credit for were not really invented by them.  Henry Ford did not invent much truly new, he just was exceptional at making it work together.  Andrew Hargadon had a recent post on his blog about this issue as well, but for every great invention / business / whatever you can name, I can find three people who could probably lay claim at the idea first. It’s not that ideas are not precious, or necessary, it’s just that they are not enough.  Malcolm Gladwell is best known for several books (Tipping Point, Blink, etc.) that take well established ideas from many domains, repackage and add new insights, and make him into an icon.  The fact that most of these ideas are not original Gladwell creations does not diminish his contribution, and he’d be the first to tell you it was not all him.  It’s about putting things together in the right context, with the right people, and sometimes the right business model.

This simple insight could be pretty influential for those who seek big ideas.  Be an idea harvester, not just an idea creator.

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For many people, the biggest issue in politics today is jobs. To me, it seems that America could learn a lot from Mr. Jobs about creating jobs.

From the beginning, Steve Jobs was an imaginative and farsighted thinker.  He built Apple into one of the most valuable companies in the world by focusing on two things: 1.) Creating value for people with innovative products that simplified people’s lives and 2.) Constructing new markets from scratch for these products.

Apple is really just a tremendously successful construction company. [Market Construction]

Think of all of Apple’s biggest revenue drivers: iPod, iPad, iPhone, iTunes ß each of these constructed a new market from scratch. Apple has excelled because they construct new markets that create value in people’s lives.

Why is it so great to be in the [market] construction business? There are big advantages to this approach: Better margins, less competition, more job growth, and first mover advantages.  When you pioneer, you set the standards – just ask Mark Zuckerberg at Facebook!

The market construction business is not easy, but it’s worth it. Market construction requires a different frame of thinking. The questions revolve around what could be rather than what is. Leaders think about how customers might re-imagine their experience of a product (think Apple’s mouse for computer interaction; mobile music libraries; a person’s entire life in their pocket command center). Market construction also requires a different approach to marketing / development. Questions become: Who is the customer? (You must find them because they don’t know they need you yet). What do they want from the product? (They don’t know yet.  You have to educate them). What is the right price point? (You decide, based on the value you create for customers).

For America, real and substantial job growth will come from innovative market construction. Simply, America needs to get back into the construction business

America has struggled to truly transition from ‘old industries’ where we had strong capabilities (for example, the auto industry, textile industry, and most manufacturing industries) into ‘new economy’ markets that are only beginning to emerge.

The good news is that America is exceptionally well prepared to lead in this century, but we will need to follow Apple’s example of leading on new frontiers.

The biggest areas for growth in the next 20 years, essentially the real estate with the largest “green fields” ready for market construction, will likely be in the areas of: Life sciences (personalized medicine), technical services, green technology, new sources of power generation, nanotech, pharma / medical devices.

The government can play an important role in four key ways:

  1. Fund basic science (in areas too expensive for industry to drive cost effectively)
  2. Aid fast growing companies however they can (particularly in ‘targeted’ industries)
  3. Support business-enabling infrastructure (infrastructure bank, high speed rail)
  4. Get out of the way (avoid regulatory interference)

Essentially, the government can double down on [market] construction.

Steve Jobs was a visionary. America could use a new generation of visionaries that put on their hard hats as market construction engineers and deliver the jobs of the future.

For more, I was part of a panel on “To the Point with Warren Olney” on PRI/NPR talking about these issues: click here for a link to the broadcast of the show.

 

Is everything a Remix?

Kirby Ferguson has put together a fantastic short video series that nicely describes an idea I’ve been trying to highlight in my research for a long time – that very few “breakthroughs” are really about creating something truly new, but instead are more about copying, slightly transforming, and combining other people’s ideas.

Simply: breakthroughs are a myth, and copying is king.

In the series of 3 videos linked to below, he shows how even masterful / novel contributions to music (video 1, highlighting Led Zeppelin), movies (video 2, highlighting Star Wars), and technology (video 3, highlighting Xerox before the Mac) are really remixes. Very powerful ideas that run counter to society’s views on creativity!

 

Everything is a Remix Part 1 from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

For most of recorded history, God was the only one who created life.US-SCIENCE-GENETICS-VENTER

Although I’m largely a huge fan of Craig Venter‘s work and approach to science (he is the guy who won the race to code the human genome), his new project creeps me out.  He and his colleagues are setting out to conquor the next great genetics challenge, synthesizing life from scratch. The technology is largely in place, and they have now succeeded in their primary efforts.  The team chose an ‘easy’ target for their first attempts, trying to create a simple bacteria called mycoplasma genitalium. It worked. Technically, it is not alive, as it lacks the biological machinery of a cell.  However, the genome is basically all there.

The good news is that by doing this, they will be able to probe a ton of very fundamental questions about the functioning of different parts of the genome directly. This type of work will help to really move our understanding of genetics into the 21st century.  The implications of the work are huge for pharma, biotech, and others who can use this info to build better drugs, and solve medical mysteries. Still, they are basically creating frankenstein. The logical extension of this work is to move to more complex organisms.  Where will that lead?  Design-your-own pet / friend / child / husband laboratories?  Hmmm.  Science is moving ahead at full steam.  I’m not sure the world is ready.

Creepy fact # 1: To make sure that their frankenstein did not escape captivity from their lab, Venter and company made it dependent on an antibiotic so that if it escaped it could not survive. The fact that they were worried about this worries me.  What would happen if it was let loose to run around with God’s other creatures?

Creepy fact # 2: To make sure that frankenstein was clearly identifiable to anyone through a genetic test, the scientists wrote the name of their institute and their individual names into its DNA code. Creepy!

There are a lot of stereotypes about smart people.  Most of these stereotypes are well supported with the geeks and freaks that occupy the top of the intellectual spectrum.  However, a few of the absolute intellectual elite break the mold.  Nathan Myhrvold is one of these.  He is as one-of-a-kind as people come, and he is amazing.

Let’s start with some of his geek cred.  It’s pretty good.  He started college at age 14 (ala Doogie Howser).  He graduated from UCLA having studied math and physics with bachelors and masters degrees.  Then on to Princeton, where he recieved his PhD in theoretical and mathematical physics by age 23 (now I’m thinking of the “Charlie” character from the TV show Numbers).  What does a wunderkind do with a Princeton PhD by 23?  He went to study cosmology and quantum field theory with Stephen Hawking at Cambridge.  Like most super-geniuses this was just the beginning.  He left Hawking to start a computer start-up in California, which was soon snapped up by Microsoft.  He then worked at Microsoft for 13 years, launching many of their best selling products, the Microsoft research division, and running a bunch of the company as the Chief Technology Officer (also getting filthy rich).  After leaving Microsoft he has broadened into a variety of scientific and technical ventures, and is currently wrapped up in running an ‘invention company’ called Intellectual Ventures that is shaking some of the foundations of invention with its approach to brainstorming the future of everything from semiconductors to lasers that shoot mosquitos out of the air and biotechnology (there will be a future post on their methods). He holds many patents and has published widely in the top echelons of science.

That is the geek cred, which is pretty A+ stuff.  Along the way, however, he has demonstrated an amazingly diverse and rounded taste for life.  He is a master French chef (once an assistant chef in a top Seattle French restaurant).  He is a paleontologist.  Not just a museum-dwelling paleontologist, but a get-your-hands-in-the-dirt digging up dinosaur bones in Montana every year paleotologist.  He has a complete t-rex skeleton in his living room.  He is a world champion barbecue master (winning 1st and 2nd in Memphis, TN world championships).  He is an award winning nature and wildlife  photographer.  He is an avid searcher for alien life with SETI.  He is a dad, husband, and family man.

Malcolm Gladwell once famously described him as “gregarious, enthusiastic, and nerdy on an epic scale.”  I agree.

A few years ago, when my daughter was getting ready for her heart surgery her Yale-educated doctor and I were talking about everything from obscure rock bands to the latest in medical innovations with sonic technology.  When I commented on his broad knowledge base, he laughed and said that you never want a doctor whose brain power is fully maxed out with the medical knowledge, instead opting for the doc with enough bandwidth for other pursuits as well.  Nathan Myhrvold is an example of breadth on steroids.

What is he doing now?  In addition to shooting mosquitos out of the sky to help with the malaria crisis and solving global warming (by building a shield of sulfer in the atmosphere), he has another project he is hot and passionate about.  What, you might ask?   Working on a cookbook, of course.

Solving world hunger with vertical indoor farming makes for a pretty good headline.  Add saving the atmosphere from carbon emissions and reducing U.S. dependence on foreign oil and you will get people downright giddy.

Valcent, Inc. is one of several companies pursuing new technologies that basically super-size the idea of indoor farming into a scalable solution that may well change the landscape of agriculture in the future.  Their basic idea is to use hydroponic vertical farming to build farms on small footprints that stretch high up into the air using very-low water usage farming methods.  In trials Valcent has increased some crop yields by up to 20 times the normal production volume and only required 5% of the average water used in conventional growing conditions.  Further, due to the scalability and portability of their technology, they can build enormous farming operations very close to urban centers to make the product available fresher than ever before.  In addition, the technology is self-contained and thus can be constructed almost anywhere, including in barren landscapes that do not support traditional farming methods.  The implications for the developing world are huge, where the threats of hunger are very real.  These technologies have the potential to transform the agriculture industry (more than 50% of the economy in many countries).  Finally, the technology is also being developed to create huge algae growths that produce vegetable oils in huge quantities for bio-fuel.  Thus, in addition to solving world hunger, they may also save the planet from carbon emissions and eliminate the U.S.’s dependancy on foreign oil.  Not bad.  Its always good to have high aspirations and big goals.  Go big or go home!

One part of all this that continues to make me laugh every time I read it is the frequent references to contrast vertical farming methods with what the industry calls ‘field farming’.  Oh yeah, ‘field farming’ — the kind with miles of corn popping up in rows?  Rice paddies and potato farms?  The way that humanity has produced almost 100% of our food for 10,000 years?  Yes, that antiquated method is now referred to as ‘field farming’.  How old school.

Nate Silver is the man.

A 31-year old 1996 East Lansing high school graduate was recently named one of Time’s 100 most influential people.  Pretty good stuff.  How did he pull it off?  Pretty simply, he believes in data.

To be honest, lots of people believe in data.  Silver’s angle is that he uses data endlessly to build statistical projections that are about as good as any you can find anywhere.  So, logically, what does he use these projections to forecast?  Baseball.  Well, he started off in baseball, but now he is branching out.  Based on his early success creating PECOTA, a statistical system for evaluating baseball players based on comparable players, he moved on to other contexts using similar methodologies.  His most famous achievement is correctly predicting electoral voting outcomes in 49 / 50 states in the most recent presidential elections (he missed on Indiana) and every single senate race.  Not bad!  Considering how many people do professional political polling, his accuracy is unbelievable.  At the heart of his approach is just pounding the data, using as much data as he can possibly devour, and weighting the data by its own past accuracy.

Embracing the fame that has come with his incredible penchant for accuracy, he spent last year’s election cycle on every national news show in the world, from the Colbert Report to CNN and the like.  So, what is next?  He recently tried his hand at predicting another hotly debated contest —- the Oscars.   How did he do?  Not so good.  Taking stock of his performance, he has decided to hold off on projecting new contexts until he has his models better tuned.   Turns out even Nate needs a little time to make the data talk, and rushing too quickly into the Oscars didn’t work.

I wonder what he has planned next?  He already uses this stuff to play online poker.  Maybe next he will go for predicting hurricanes and stock market shifts.  One thing I’m sure of…. I’ll bet he gets rich!

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