A novel look a the history of innovation

An Accelerated History of Innovation

“Just as energy is the basis of life itself, so is innovation the vital spark of all human change, improvement and progress”
Ted Levitt, Harvard Business School
 
Innovation is central to human history and many would argue that this evolutionary process is key to what it is to be human. It has undeniably shaped human life over the ages and has brought us to the technically advanced, modern lives we lead today. Were it not for the human ability to innovate, we would likely still be living in caves or would have gone the way of the dinosaurs down the extinction route.
 
Underpinning the development of our society are two fundamental human conditions: curiosity and a desire for ‘more’. When it comes to curiosity, it is this insatiable thirst for new knowledge and experiences that has led to some of the most significant innovations of our time. English conductor Sir Thomas Beecham is quoted as saying, “you should try everything once except Morris (folk) dancing” and whilst this broad approach may not appeal to everyone, it is the kind of attitude that only needs to be adopted by a few for the benefit to be felt across society as a whole.
 
When one considers the human desire to achieve ‘more’ then we see that the demand for innovation is inherently linked to our insatiable demand for a better life and society. This drive is well described by Bertrand Russell’s rather foreboding observation that “if all our happiness is bound up entirely in our personal circumstances it is difficult not to demand more of life than it has to give”.
 
To understand the history of innovation there are two key points to consider:
 
1. The specifics of our needs have focused innovation over time.
 
Let’s consider the needs of three broad interrelated groups in our society: the People (consumers), the Government and the Owners (businesses), as it is their needs that have shaped this process. 
 
 
People
 
Throughout history people have pursued higher living standards. In his 1943 paper ‘A Theory of Human Motivation’, Abraham Maslow defined the different levels of needs. Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs describes the human motivation for more. At the bottom of this scale are basic needs, such as shelter, followed by comfort and status, including recognition by family and the community. Above this are higher needs - to improve oneself and ‘give back’ to society. In general, consumers’ needs underpin the requirement for innovation in society.
 
Governments
 
Nations and governments are a relatively modern phenomenon – emerging as little as five to ten thousand years ago, against more than a million years of human history. Whilst governments have sought to protect their own citizens they have also driven the demand for weapons and military innovation. On a lighter note, they have also supported innovation in diverse areas including arts, education and laws that have shaped human culture.
 
Owners
 
Businesses emerged much later and have become a key means of meeting the needs of people in the modern world. The pursuit of ‘profit’ / return on investment has been a powerful driver of innovation over the last five hundred years.
 
2. Our approach to innovation has evolved with the development of human society.
 
The focus on and approach to innovation has naturally evolved throughout history. The ‘ages of innovation’ outlined below show that innovation has gone hand in hand with human need and the development of our societies. Whilst many aspects of how we innovate have changed, there has also been a critical constant: innovation has supported the desire to improve our lives and the world.
 
Beginnings: Survival of the Fittest (c.1 million to c. 4,000 BC)
A period when innovation occurred without structure, driven by natural discovery and creativity as a matter of survival. Those who were successful innovators dominated and became the forebears of the human race. 
Example Innovations: Fire, Wheels
 
 
Kings and Thinkers (c. 4000 BC – 18th Century)
Innovation was delivered by ‘thinkers’ but often sponsored by leaders like kings to meet the basic needs of the people. Innovations also supported the waging of war and creating social structures, e.g. the church, through architecture and art. Often the balance of these innovations proved critical to the success of regimes.
Example Innovations: Mathematics, Cannons
 
Inventors and Entrepreneurs (c. 1760-1850)
The development of many industrial technologies, from steam power to cotton mills, transformed the production of goods. Separately, early financial services and legal reform enabled the establishment of companies, creating the capitalist economy and ‘the profit motive’ that are major drivers today.
Example  Innovations: Steam engine, Joint-stock company
 
The Rise of the Corporation (c.1850- c. 1950)
The second phase of the Industrial Revolution saw the rise of large corporations, heralding the incorporation of major industrial companies. Innovation moved from being purely the domain of creative individuals to an industrial process with scientific research and development.
Example Innovations: Electrical power, vehicles and aircraft
 
The Specialists (c. 1950s to today) 
Modern companies created specialist expert departments, such as research and development, strategy, marketing, operations and finance, with innovation delivered across many complex processes. In recent years there has been a strong trend toward centralised, expert innovation functions.
Example Innovations: Computing, Space travel
 
Distributed Innovation (c. 1980s-today) 
Today, we are all innovators as organisations seek our views and interpret our actions using communications and computing technology to process many inputs. Examples include ‘open source’ customer collaboration, technology to de-code customers’ unconscious preferences, and the use of customer transaction data.
Example Innovations: Internet & search engines, Social media
 
 
 
So the history described provides a flavour of where we have come from to reach the present day where innovation is a discipline talked about by leaders, and that engages an ever greater number of consumers and organisations worldwide.
So what are the lessons from history?
 
There are many observations we could make on the lessons from history – here are six to consider:
 
1. It’s about meeting needs: It is a given that innovation meets needs, but which needs to address? In today’s developed world the consumer trend toward seeking ‘status’, looking to self-improve and making a contribution is a rich area for innovation. In the developing world finding new ways to meet basic needs remains a critical area for thinking and investment.
 
2. Innovation must give back as well as make profits. Innovation over time has met the needs of the few and the many to achieve societal balance. Great legacies (in terms of public buildings, art and indeed the Nobel Prizes) were bequeathed from the profits of innovation. Today large organisations have Corporate Social Responsibility agendas, so let’s see the innovation teams contribute to their thinking to achieve more for the wider good.
 
3. Governments must innovate more for the good of society. The darkest periods of human history have seen the innovation in weapons technology lay waste societies – that remains as true today as it was in history. And yet over human history governments have also led social innovation (e.g. creating public sanitation and healthcare) to help meet basic needs. As governments face the challenge of austerity, innovation must support in creating public services that are delivered efficiently.
 
4. The pace of innovation change is increasing. We can probably feel this around us. Today change can be measured in terms of the life of the iPhone 4 years. Many great leaders have fallen because of disruptive change, and many great leaders (business and political) will fall more often in today’s world unless they can harness change through innovation.
 
5. Innovation itself is rapidly changing. The discipline of innovation has evolved over time and this evolution is accelerating. However good your innovation department is today, they will (should) be considerably more effective three years from now. We are in a period where new computing and communications technologies will enable new approaches to innovation – harnessing this capability is critical to future success.
 
6. It’s all about people. People have always been the innovation catalysts – the leadership of ki ngs to sponsor artists, the creativity of inventors to experiment, the broad skills of teams in corporates boldly developing new technologies. As Steve Jobs said “IBM were spending 100 times what Apple spent when we came up with the Mac – it’s not about money. It’s about the people you have, how you’re led and how much you get it”. Amen to that.