Rambling thoughts on innovation

"If I left you alone in the woods with a hatchet," comedian Joe Rogan asks, "how long before you could send me an email?"

What, like, 8,000 years?

We didn't go from spears and hatchets to email overnight. Maybe the hatchet people couldn't ever develop email. But maybe the email people wouldn't have figured out anything useful to do with the hatchet and would have died of exposure.

We're a cooperative species, and also one that grows on incremental improvements with occasional breakthroughs. When we figured out metal tips for our spears and arrows, we could suddenly do a lot more damage than we could ever do with wood- or stone-tipped spears and arrows. That was a breakthrough. for sure. But then our spears and arrows got incrementally better with the development of new metals and plastics, and our archery systems today would still be recognizable to someone 8,000 years ago, but the power would seem other-wordly.

Tim Ferriss and Peter Thiel discussed the future of products, and one thing Thiel (author of Zero to One and an entrepreneur himself) says is that he's not looking for products that are incrementally better, but those that are, say, 1,000 times better than what came before.

That's fine, but not everything can be a breakthrough. If it were, we'd be stuck with a rusty old infrastructure waiting on something brilliant to come along.

In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Buckminster Fuller outlines a major innovation that came as a series of incremental improvements: the water wheel. We took the basic concept of a lever, and then we put a bucket on it. Then we put a bunch of them together in a wheel-and-spoke pattern, and then we hooked some gears up to it, so that the bucket lever arms would turn the gears and do some other work.

It took a lot of incremental changes to make that major innovation happen, and if someone hadn't developed one of the incremental steps, we wouldn't have come to the major breakthrough that made powering machines with falling water a viable operation.

The lesson here, I suppose, is not to sit around and wait for breakthroughs. If you see some incremental improvements that need to take place, those are important, too, and can lead to the breakthroughs eventually.

Thought Review: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth by R. Buckminster Fuller

This isn't really a book review. It's more a look at thought and inspiration.

First off, read up on Bucky Fuller. He's best known for the geodesic dome, the architectural style that uses the least amount of material to maximize space.

In Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth (1969), Fuller launches some great ideas as instructions for maximizing human survival. Some of his predictions have not come true, and there's no way he could have predicted the rise of the Internet at that point, but two really inspirational ideas are what brought me back for a second read.

Great Pirates. In the old days, there were kings. They ruled over small kingdoms thanks to their wealth and their guards. But how did they come by this wealth and power?

Pirates. The guys who figured out how to sail around in big boats, bring money, and put these people in power, on promises that if the guys in the boats needed warriors, slaves or whatever else, the kings would cough up some people.


Synergy. This is the big thing I needed to read again. We have become increasingly specialized as we've "progressed" in industrialization. You need your pipes fixed? Call a plumber. You need your wires fixed? Call an electrician. You need a tooth fixed? Don't call an orthopedist.

We have so many people with narrow focuses, we aren't achieving much in the way of innovation because no one is looking at the big picture. To illustrate this, Fuller cites a conference that took place in the 1960s. A biologist and a physicist were among the presenters, and each had written essentially the same paper, tackling the same problem and reaching the same conclusion from entirely different angles.

It was purely by accident they wound up at the same conference – the physicist was accepted by physics reviewers, the biologist by experts in his field. If anybody was studying overlapping disciplines, the problem solved would have been evident a lot earlier.

Fuller's idea is that while it's nice to have people around who know their fields really well, we need more people who can dabble in a variety of industries, and who can bring together specialists if and when needed.

This is how innovation grows. Who wants to talk synergy this summer? Find me on Twitter, and let's kick around some ideas.