Innovation is Stagnating. Does Anyone Care?

By Shlomo Maital

   light bulb

       A faithful reader has alerted me to a blog by Reena Jana in Smart Planet * , who cites a cover article in The Economist, which argues something I’ve felt for a long time: Innovation is stagnating.  What we call innovation today is very incremental, minor, tweaks of existing things.  There are several reasons.  First, perhaps we’ve already invented all of the really life-changing devices (TV, stoves, computers, toilets).  Second, maybe true breakthroughs like electricity are simply hard acts to follow.   Notes Jana:

     Compare the experiences of cooking at home in 1900 versus 1970: it’s a difference of using ice blocks delivered by horse-drawn carriages versus a fridge and freezer. Planes and cars are pretty much the same as they were nearly half a century ago. But we can update our statuses on Facebook.

  The Economist cites a paper by veteran economist Robert Gordon, who is still turning out wonderful insightful research.  Gordon wonders whether US economic growth is actually over?  (See Figure below). 


Innovation Stagnates

This is based on pessimism over the lack of breakthrough innovations that in the past contributed greatly to GDP growth, first in Britain during the First and Second Industrial Revolutions, and then in the U.S., in what we may regard as the Third Industrial Revolution.

   My own pessimism is fueled by experiences working with students and managers all over the world.  Working in large organizations, they frequently become frustrated when their ideas are simply not even heard.  The number of organizations that pay lip service to innovation, yet do everything possible to destroy it internally is staggering.  Until we smash the internal contradiction between the aspiration for economies of scale, and the destruction scale wreaks on creativity,  we will see no breakthrough innovations.