Are We Living in a Low Innovation Age?

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I gave a keynote last week at the rather wonderful Google Squared programme on the subject of technological disruption and chose to dedicate my latest column in New Media Age to the subject:

“With so much written about digital and technological disruption we take it as read that we are living in an age of unprecedented innovation. But are we? Working in the communications industry it’s hard to believe anything other than that the Internet has completely rewired a multitude of markets and succeeded in bringing forth an unparalleled level of product and service innovation…Yet there are some persistent voices making the case that…in years to come we could well look back on the late 20th and early 21st centuries as a time distinctly lacking in groundbreaking inventions that truly impacted the way in which we live our lives.”

I’m rather intrigued by the thought that we might be living in a ‘low innovation age’. It’s so antithetical to so much that we hear and read. Yet as I say in the column it is a persistently argued thesis, notably by the likes of Justin Fox earlier this year in Wired, author Neal Stephenson, and Tyler Cowen, who (in the The Great Stagnation) has compared advances in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century such as the internal combustion engine, aircraft, electrical engineering, television, the telephone, cameras and so on, with those of the digital age and suggested that we’re on a “technological plateau”.

It’s an interesting question, but I’m less convinced by these arguments. One of the points I make in the column is that digital has the potential to disrupt so many different markets so fundamentally that the sheer breadth of change is impossible to anticipate. And that (like electricity) it is only when new structures and models are built from the bottom up with the new technology at their heart that we really see the full potential of what it can bring. Mary Meeker, in her latest Internet Trends deck, talked about the ‘re-imagination of nearly everything’ but some of these disruptions will take longer than others, and I’m quite sure there are many we have no sight of at all. Andrew Grill recently linked to an interesting report by the Australian arm of Deloitte (Digital Disruption – Short Fuse, Big Bang) which makes a similar point about variably paced disruption with some sectors experiencing immediate and explosive transformation whilst others see more incremental change. But they make the point:

 “The digital economy isn’t just about speeding up communication across borders or changing the skills workers need; it’s about changing the very nature of consumption, competition and how markets work. More profoundly, it is also driving a significant shift in the balance of power between organisations and individuals.”

When I was reading around the NMA piece I happened across Nicholas Carr’s rather fascinating concept of a ‘Hierarchy of Innovation’, which runs parallel to Maslow’s famous hierarchy of needs.

Image courtesy

Carr argues that whilst the borders between layers in the hierarchy are inevitably blurry, we have over time shifted from innovating around technologies of survival (at the bottom of the pyramid) to technologies of the self (self-expression, leisure related, identity management, personalisation, self improvement and so on, at the top). These innovations have a tendency toward producing smaller-scale, less visible breakthroughs and so rather than seeing a decline in innovation, we have witnessed a shift in its focus.

I’m left wondering if the type of innovation we’ve seen in the digital age has indeed been less tangible, but whether some of the interesting early stage developments that blur virtual and real-world (data and quantified self, wearable tech, internet of things) may be where it all starts to become far more tangible.

I’m interested to know what you think. Are we really living in a low innovation age? 

“Slow’ Image courtesy

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