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Why we need to talk about innovation now: the Big Potatoes manifesto

A new manifesto "thinks big" with the aim of kick-starting a debate over innovation.

In these times of financial crisis and severe economic downturn, we are constantly told by the powers that be that now is not the time for long-term investments. Our energies need to focused on putting out the fires: stop the banks from falling apart, and shore up short-term consumption. Only a third of the US stimulus package, for instance, went towards infrastructure-related projects, and even that consisted mainly of “shovel-ready” projects that seek to repair what already exists. Very little went towards the development of new technologies and industries.  The reason given is the recession – now is not the time, we just have to get by until the economy stabilizes.

But as the authors of the excellent Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation remind us, earlier periods of economic downturn – most notably the Great Depression of the 1930s – led to the creation of pioneering companies that proved durable. In this, they echo the findings of a June 2009 OECD report (“Policy responses to the economic crisis: investing in innovation for long-term growth”), which highlighted, for example, how Finland and Korea responded to crisis in the 1990s by restructuring their economies. The message from the authors of Big Potatoes is that now is precisely the time that a new emphasis on innovation is needed.

The problem, however, is that not only has the current crisis failed to spur major innovations, but “worse, there is no public debate on innovation.” The six contributors to Big Potatoes seek to rectify that with their manifesto, which consists of 14 points (listed at the bottom of this post) developed over 42 pages. Although the writers are based in the UK, their perspective is trans-Atlantic and international, with plenty of relevance for an American reader.

The first point is “Think big!”, and it sets the tone for the rest of the document. The authors replace EF Schumacher’s “small is beautiful” - an ideal which has only become more widespread since the book’s publication in 1973 – with “scale is beautiful”. They explain why small-scale initiatives cannot address major problems:

In mobile telephony and electronics, miniaturization has its place; but to lower the cost of handsets enough for the world’s poor to be able to afford them, still larger, more automated production lines are needed. To make the most of sources of renewable energy, which are very diffuse, demands scale undertakings, not David Cameron’s kind of roof-mounted home windmill. Even without attacking the world’s deteriorated and substandard housing, UN estimates suggest the world must build no fewer than 4,000 houses an hour – if its increasing population is to be housed and its slums replaced.

The “think big!” message also carries through a discussion about the potential for a new global division of labor, and the need for new industries. The document notes that there have been many technological advances in recent decades, but “there is little to compare with the sweeping grandeur of earlier revolutions” in industry. “Innovation has come to mean not step-changes in the making of wealth, but something vaguely akin to the continuous improvement programs developed in post-war Japanese car factories.”

The authors stress “principles, not models”, and suggest that the priority today is to get the big picture issues about innovation right, rather than argue about the details of particular technologies or other types of innovation. Their calls to re-orient the discussion include: putting the case for basic research; asserting that the current fad for non-technical innovation is insufficient, technical innovation is necessary; encouraging an atmosphere of experimentation and failure throughout society; and placing a renewed focus on actually producing innovation, rather than just circulating old ideas.

Reading Big Potatoes, I was struck how a number of the trends that the authors consider negative are in play with President Obama’s latest shift in the NASA space program (discussed here). These include the outsourcing of innovation and the assumption that only the private sector is potentially innovative (seen in Obama’s plans for NASA to hand over much of the program to private companies); how the emphasis is on sharing ideas in “open” networks rather than creating original advancements (seen in the emphasis on working with other nations rather than have NASA at the forefront); and how leaders need “to set aspirations, create goals that people can believe in, and take responsibility for failures” but rarely do today (seen in Obama’s lack of vision for the space program, as his plans seem to be more about cost-cutting than a JFK-like aspiration to send a man to the moon).

The document has a humanistic streak running through it: “Innovation is, first, a means to a better life; but it also dignifies human beings, and sets them apart from animals.” In the final section, “By, with and for humanity”, the authors quote Francis Bacon, who in his 1625 essay On Superstition described the era as “barbarous times, especially joined with calamities and disasters.” The authors of Big Potatoes say they issued their manifesto because we face similar times today: “it’s a moment to catch one’s breath, soberly reflect on what has been achieved by innovators in the past, and uphold what innovation could do in the future.”

I look forward to what emerges next from this group of thinkers. Hopefully their manifesto will get a wide hearing and spark more discussion among those who want to, as they say, “stand up and be counted.”

Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation is by Norman Lewis, Nico Macdonald, Alan Patrick, Martyn Perks, Mitchell Sava and James Woudhuysen, and is available via www.bigpotatoes.org.

The London Manifesto for Innovation Principles

  1. Think big!
  2. Go beyond the post-war legacy of innovation
  3. Principles, not models!
  4. In praise of “useless” research
  5. Innovation is hard work
  6. For success, expect lots of failures
  7. Regard chance and surprise as allies
  8. Take risks
  9. Innovation demands leadership
  10. Innovation is everybody’s responsibility
  11. Trust the people, not regulation
  12. Think global, act global
  13. The spirit of innovation knows no limits
  14. By, with and for humanity

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