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Trendy vs. real innovation

In the Financial Times on the weekend, Gillian Tett wrote about her attendance at a meeting called "Reboot America!", organized by Daily Beast editor Tina Brown. The event was full of big names, among them economist Joseph Stiglitz, venture capitalist Vinod Khosla and regulator Sheila Bair. Tett reports that a major theme was "reverence for the idea of innovation".

She casts a skeptical eye on the apparent enthusiasm for innovation. "These days," Tett writes, "policy-makers and politicians often like to sprinkle the 'I' word around, mindful that innovation is not just a popular idea, but almost a quasi noble concept in America." However, the idea of innovation conceals a contradiction: that innovation implies upheaval, and "many ordinary voters currently appear terrified of other forms of radical change." The word "innovation" is bandied about without addressing those contradictions:  "In a world where politicians are beset by seemingly intractable problems, [innovation] seems like a magical cure for ills." She concludes that innovation "will require a long, hard slog from politicians and voters alike; it won't be glamorous".

To put it another way, Tett is describing how today's culture contains pessimism and fear about the possible outcomes from social and technological change. This is an important, big-picture barrier that often goes overlooked: it is this downbeat culture that needs to be turned around.

Many politicians mouth off about innovation, but do not put their policies and money behind it. But that doesn't mean that the entire concept of innovation should be discarded as just a trendy, consultant-type idea. BS innovation exists, but the need, and potential, for real innovation also exists. We shouldn't let the fact that some use the term "innovation" glibly distract us from pursuing a new culture that fosters real innovation.

For a brilliant account of what's needed to get real innovation off the ground, read Big Potatoes: The London Manifesto for Innovation, now in a second edition: the manifesto's site is here, and my take on it is here.

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