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Innovation Needs To Shift From Disrupting Markets To Tackling Grand Challenges


by Greg Satell

When Steve Jobs was trying to lure John Sculley to be Apple’s CEO in the early 1980’s, he asked him, “Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?” Sculley would achieve little at Apple, but Jobs would later make it the most valuable company on the planet.

But did Jobs actually change the world? Sure, he was amazingly successful, but would the world have been so different with a PC and no Macintosh? Android and no iPhone? Dreamworks and no Pixar? Something less, maybe. Still, it’s hard to argue that things would be profoundly different.

That’s not to diminish Jobs’ accomplishments, but they do seem to be more on the order of Starbucks’ Howard Schultz or Nike’s Phil Knight than they are of Einstein, Pasteur or even Edison. The truth is that what has passed for innovation over the last 20 or 30 years has been more focused on disrupting markets than changing the world. We need to do more.

A Zero Carbon Economy

Bill Gates believes that the central challenge of our time is climate change. To avoid a catastrophe, he says that we need to reduce global emissions 80% by 2050 and to zero by the end of the century. Given that we release 36 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere each year, that’s a very tall order.

Still, we are making important progress. Solar energy is expected to hit global grid parity by 2020 and reduce costs beyond that by about 20% for every doubling of capacity. New materials, such as perovskites, will keep progress going for the foreseeable future. Electric cars are set to outperform gas vehicles within the next ten years.

Yet even with the advances that have been made and others that are already underway, we still have some profound challenges. First is energy storage. The current technology, lithium-ion batteries, is nearing its theoretical limits. Some form of nuclear energy, either fusion or a much safer form of nuclear fission, will also be key to a clean energy future.

Most likely, we will need a combination of both to help make up for the times when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. How do we do that? For the moment, nobody really knows. We need fundamental new discoveries to make it all work.

A Cure For Cancer

When Vice President Biden called for a Moonshot for Cancer last year, it was vastly more than the grieving of a powerful man mourning his recently deceased son. Biden had been consulting with top people in the oncology world and became convinced that a cure for cancer is truly within reach.

The new possibilities can be traced back to two long-term efforts supported by the federal government. The first was the Human Genome Project, which created a map of our DNA. The second, The Cancer Genome Atlas, began in 2005 and is creating a similar map for tumors, which will allows us to classify cancers based on their genetic makeup.

Advances like these have led to new treatments with enormous potential. One is targeted cancer therapy, which allows doctors to treat tumors based on DNA markers, rather than the organs in which they are found, like the breast or the prostate. Another, perhaps even more promising, is immunotherapy, which helps our body’s own defenses to fight cancer cells.

Yet despite the enormous progress, there is still much work to do. Immunotherapies, for example, have demonstrated amazing results in some patients, but little effect in others. Also, our newfound knowledge of genes has helped reveal just how little we know about the proteins they code for. A true cure for cancer remains a grand challenge.

Moving Past Moore’s Law

As Robert Gordon explains in The Rise and Fall of American Growth, since 1970 productivity has been fairly stagnant outside of computer technology. Those advances, in turn, have been highly dependent on Moore’s law — the regular doubling of chip performance every 18 months or so.

Now, however, Moore’s famous law is coming to an end and is unlikely to advance past 2020. Researchers are working hard to squeeze more life out of the old technology by coming up with new designs, like 3D stacking and FPGA chips, but that will only take us so far. We need to develop fundamentally new computing architectures.

Two such architectures are in advanced stages of development. The first, quantum computing uses quantum effects, such as superpositioning and entanglement, to create computers that have the potential to be millions of times more powerful than those of today. The second, neuromorphic chips, mimics the design of the human brain, which is a billion times more efficient than current computing technology.

Still, while these show enormous promise, they are still far away from being ready for commercial applications. First, while workable neuromorphic chips exist, quantum computers are still under development, albeit in a fairly advanced stage. Second, because these are fundamentally new architectures, nobody really knows how to design applications for them.

Collaboration Is The New Competitive Advantage

Agility has been the mantra for the digital age. Yet the “iterate, adapt and pivot” model will only take us so far. It’s great for progressing within well known paradigms, but absolutely useless for making the fundamental new discoveries that, as Vannevar Bush put it, “turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.

“The ever increasing capabilities of digital technology has empowered individuals like never before in history ” Dr. Angel Diaz, IBM’s VP of Cloud Technology Architecture, told me. “A relatively bright teenager today, connected to the cloud, has vastly more resources and information at his disposal than an engineer working at a major corporation a decade ago.”

“That process will continue,” he went on. “But to truly change the world today we need more than just clever code. We need computer scientists working with cancer scientists, with climate scientists and with experts in many other fields to tackle grand challenges and make large impacts on the world.”

The truth is that we are entering a new era of innovation. Rather than looking for markets to disrupt, we need to look for human endeavors that we can empower. That can’t be done through solely rapid prototyping, new business models or even products that are “insanely great.” The challenges we face today require us to reimagine the realm of the possible.

Wait! Before you go…

Greg Satell is a popular speaker and consultant. His first book, Mapping Innovation: A Playbook for Navigating a Disruptive Age, is coming out in 2017. Follow his blog at Digital Tonto or on Twitter @Digital Tonto.


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