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In the “innovation economy,” it was only a matter of time before experts and commentators started asking whether or not innovation is dead. It’s an important question, to be sure. But does the debate over innovation’s possible demise need to be that grave?
The question is probably based more on consumer adjustment to market spaces than real trepidation about the future. Currently, our social and economic construct seems dominated by an endless stream of new tablet and smartphone iterations. All the major innovators don’t appear as innovative anymore because everyone is doing the same thing. We’re watching a game of who can outsmart the other with the latest smartphone marketing drop or tablet configuration. Or: Whose app is worth a billion dollars more than the last app?
The Wall Street Journal’s Tim Aeppel questions “Did We Hit Our Innovation Peak in 1970?” Argues Aeppel: “Some people think so—although how innovation is measured can be very subjective, if not downright idiosyncratic. Some experts count patents. That can be misleading, though, since many things patented today represent only tiny advances—not major breakthroughs.” Jill Lapore in the New Yorker seems to mock the innovation fad capturing the American dream, along with the “disruption” concept she clearly detests: “[E]veryone is either disrupting or being disrupted. There are disruption consultants, disruption conferences, and disruption seminars.”
So “innovation” is no longer a broad term defining true genius—it’s just a buzzword now defining a trend. Like apps, for example. Apps have become so ubiquitous and cemented into social behavior that the Financial Times’ Tim Bradshaw finds that once booming industry has pretty much deflated. “Independent developers fret that only the biggest companies can get noticed on the app store now. What was once a thriving cottage industry has been industrialized, with most apps receiving few if any downloads.” Instead, the app has nearly evolved into a biological reflex, at least according to Forrester’s Nicole Dvorak: “Want to track how many calories you burned on your lunch run? There’s an app for that. Want to turn your face into an Emoji? There’s an app for that. Want to kill time by making patterns out of different colors of candy? There’s an app for that, and it’s quite popular, in fact.”
Since they’ve already been invented, the devices and developments mentioned above are probably not breakthroughs. In some respects, one could make the argument that Nexus of Forces elements like mobile, cloud, social and Big Data are no longer breakthroughs either. But what else is there to add to the NoF? Frequent space flight? Planetary travel and communication? Terra forming?
Physics Center’s blog wonders out loud when technology will be better than the technology in Star Trek. “What about the technology we currently have in widespread use that's equal to or better than what's aboard the starship Enterprise?” the blog poses. “The fast answer: we don't have a lot that's leaps and bounds above what either Star Trek: The Original Series or Star Trek: The Next Generation imagined, but there are a few things that stick out.”
Still, industry analyst firms like Gartner continue to look for the next big thing on the horizon. A recent Gartner Hype Cycle contends “3D printing is evolving rapidly, although many technologies are still five to 10 years away from mainstream adoption.” Gartner Research Vice President Pete Basiliere notes “approximately 40 manufacturers sell the 3D printers most commonly used in businesses, and over 200 startups worldwide are developing and selling consumer-oriented 3D printers, priced from just a few hundred dollars.” In the meantime, Gartner analyst Michael Maoz is anxious for the robotic age to begin: “We have made a good start at transitioning from carbon-based (humans) to silicon-based (computers), yet there is still 75% of the savings and improvements ahead of us. Are you inventorying everything that you can digitize? Move to the Cloud? Move to self-service? Are you measuring the benefit versus the threat? Are you sharing it from the CEO and board all of the way to your line-workers? Automation will happen at a faster pace, and you don’t want pie in your face when you are questioned about how you have readied the enterprise.”
It’s not clear yet if any new breakthroughs or market disruptors reshaping society will get here fast enough to alleviate the concerns of skeptics. What is clear is innovation can’t happen without the expertise and raw skill driving it. In the end, those who stand to gain the most from the expected ups and downs of the innovation economy are those prepared to meet the needs of public and private sector institutions in critical need of the talent and thought leadership to make it happen.
Interested in reading more about IT innovation? Read my recent post, Uber steps up political game in war of tradition versus innovation.
Charles Ellison is a senior analyst relations strategist for TEKsystems. He keeps close tabs on changes and public policy shaping the innovation space. He is also a former congressional staffer, senior aide to state and local elected officials and an expert advocacy strategist. You can reach him with questions and comments @twoARguys via Twitter.