The Problem With “Innovation”

Last week while prodding a pitching entrepreneur on his competitive landscape I rattled off potential competitor after potential competitor in order to gauge his reaction. After appeasing me for a few of them he paused, mid-sentence, a little befuddled. Then he stopped altogether.

A little exasperated, he said something along the lines of:

Startups don’t compete with airlines by purchasing a bunch of planes, hiring a bunch of pilots and locking up a bunch of terminals at airports. Startups compete with airlines by inventing videoconferencing.

It’s as though he was channeling Buckminster Fuller who said:

You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model that makes the existing model obsolete.

The problem with building these new models is they often look silly and inconsequential in light of their larger, more established contemporary. Or, as some might describe, like Sugar Water:

Almost none of the stuff on the radar of the Silicon Valley echo-chamber is innovative or solves any real human needs. They won’t cure anyone of disease, feed a child, improve the environment, or radically improve manufacturing…

Pinterest? Quora? Other social apps. It’s all a big distraction, it’s entertainment…

Shouldn’t we care more about game-changing, world-changing, and real innovation? And shouldn’t we care less about sites and services that don’t have any real prospect of any of the above?

Yes, we should.

But we also need to remember what innovation really looks like. Because it looks different, it looks silly and often, it looks more like sugar water than space ships.

And then, suddenly, one day in casual conversation my wife, an early Pinterest user, turned to me and said “Pinterest is my Google”.

What?

What on the surface can been seen as a silly little distraction of a site built for and by naval gazing tech insiders suddenly looks- innovative.

And there’s the innovation cycle. New models create new markets, but they’re often misunderstood at the outset. Stupid checkins reshape how we explore and experience the real world. Prepaying for tick tock watches reshapes financial markets. Silly status updates spark revolutions. And grainy glitchy video calls cut into the commercial air travel.

Innovation, like sugar water, tastes pretty sweet to me.