Strategy, Tech

The Innovation of Things and The Innovations of Ways

I recently watched an excellent TED talk by Dan Pollata called “The Dreams We Haven’t Dared to Dream”. In his talk, Dan eloquently notes that while human ingenuity has exponentially increased the transistors on a chip for the past 40 years, we have not applied the same exponential thinking to our dreams nor human compassion. As he says, “we continue to make a perverse trade-off between our future dreams and our present state of evolution”.

Some describe this ethical stasis as “the tyranny of the OR”

In a similar vein, Stephen Hawking wrote in his book, On Equality, “If machines produce everything we need, the outcome will depend on how things are distributed. Everyone can enjoy a life of luxurious leisure if the machine-produced wealth is shared, or most people can end up miserably poor if the machine-owners successfully lobby against wealth redistribution. So far, the trend seems to be toward the second option, with technology driving ever-increasing inequality.”

Unilever’s CEO, Paul Polman, put it more succinctly as he talked about the exponential growth of new technologies, “Power is dispersed, but wealth is concentrated”.

From my perspective and research for the book, Tip of the Spear, I have called it the challenge of the Innovation of Things versus the Innovation of Ways.

I will be discussing this in more detail in the book but I wanted to put this idea out there for feedback.

Innovation of Things is – as it name suggests – the creation of new tools, toys and devices that serve to make human live better, easier or interesting. It is the cars that move us, the computers that connect us and so much more. It is the “What”.

Innovation of Ways is the use of these tools to change the way we do something – from the way we build our cities, to how we share rides or rooms to how we run our finances or build our organizations. It is the “How”.

In the history of the world of innovation, How most often follows What.

But there is a growing conflict. The tension between the power of technology to create new and magical things (The What) and the ability of the human species to understand and absorb it all (the How) is central to my thesis of the book. It is growing more more acute every day.

Much of the Innovation I speak about in the Tip of the Spear – that is, the white hot edge of technology disruption –  centers on the Innovation of Things:  Robotics, AI, VR/AR and the long list of exponential technologies.

In my opinion, we are suffering because the Innovation of Ways is lagging – in many cases significantly.

But let’s add a second dimension to this to see if we can understand this a bit better. In my research it has helped me to think about how innovation is also broken down into Innovation for Wants and Innovation for Needs.

There is very, very different dynamic of capital flow, timeline horizons and even the type of individuals who are involved in these different areas.

It kind of looks like this – using my “Tip of the Spear” analogy.


Intuitively this makes sense. In a market and capital driven system, the return of capital in the top left quadrant is likely (I have no data – yet – on this) shortest, most obvious and highest. Anecdotally, it has often been said that the earliest use of the newest technologies is often the adult porn industry. New “toys” being applied to the most obvious and basest of “wants”.  Just check out want’s happening in Virtual Reality and think back to the introduction of VHS, the internet and many others through out history.  Gaming is a close second.

But – of course – this is far too simplistic in this extraordinary time of innovation and technological advances.  We are seeing new devices that are the result of combinations of exponential technologies in all areas of our lives. Many innovations start in the upper quadrant, then move down into the bottom left.

But what about the Innovation of Ways?  Coming back to Dan Pollata, I feel somehow – and my research is strongly hinting at this – that we are lacking the same heat and light in the areas of changing the way Government works, the Education systems and heath care for example.  These are clearly the “ways” of life – how we govern, organize, teach and heal.

My optimist side says that the new technology winners in the Innovation of Things will begin to turn their attention to the Innovation of Ways.  That is why I am so interested in what Mark Zuckerberg is doing with his initiative to connect the planet to the Internet.  The cynic would say that it is to add more users to Facebook. But on very close read and observation – short of speaking directly with Mark – that is clearly not the case.

The pessimists will say that we are stalling in our global thinking that will transfer the best the Innovation of Things to the Ways of the world due to walls being built – literally and figuratively – across the world and the deep and concerning concentration of wealth and power with the new titans of technology.

The debate is the essence of the Tip of the Spear.

Would love your thoughts.


New Work, Strategy

The Rhythm of Innovation

When thinking about Innovation, I have been wondering if there is a new way to think about the “process” as companies and individuals embrace the idea that innovation is much more about execution than simply ideation.

In today’s world, human beings individually and collectively create, learn and grow in essentially two ways:

Face to Face interaction (Same time) – or what I call synchronous engagement – bringing the best of what makes us human to the table:  Spontaneity, emotional interaction, human interplay and ‘riffing’.  Facilitation excellence, magic can happen when smart, engaged people are paired.

Online interaction – (Different Time) – or what I call asynchronous engagement – excels at longer running interaction where ‘threads’ play out over time; where ideas and points of view – again if properly and effectively moderated – create an audit trail of the emerging themes and allow for more thoughtful participation. 

Crowdsourcing approaches can create moments of exciting and thoughtful, open interaction and can be combined with private collaboration that can allow smaller subsets of the crowd to work more intensely to drill into the details.  The online research & insight activity essential for innovation can be very flexible:  as new trends emerge from the digital discourse, new themes of deeper exploration can be injected in real time – both qualitatively and quantitatively.

When they are paired and integrated it forms what I call the Rhythm of Innovation.  It works something like this: Online “crowdsourcing” is used to build a trusted place for “digital discourse”.  Themes are explored and emerge.  These themes create focus and agenda for future discussions and provide insight for next steps.  Ideally the crowd shapes future agenda for more intensive synchronous discussions.

“Same time” meetings (doesn’t have to be “same place”) are then driven from a set of well-travelled discussion items.  Participants – sometimes sub-sets or segments of the larger crowd – are able to get out from behind the keyboard and be able to start with the canvas partially filled in.  The best of human interaction takes place:  increased intensity, focus, social, engagement, group activities. Etc.

The best part comes as the asynchronous online world “picks up the ball” after a real-time event.  Action items are explored and reviewed.  Ideation and co-creation of ideas are informed by deeper human understanding and the benefit of focus.  The “emotional quotient” of the participants vis-à-vis others is significant higher; the ‘crowd’ is no longer anonymous, social cues are much clearer and online “authenticity” begins.

And the cycle repeats. 

This rhythm is working well in some my largest clients as the line between offline and online discourse blurs and each begin to inform the other.   

When thinking of innovation, think of this new “rhythm”; with the crowd and the human face-to-face worlds combining to form a powerful continuum.

Ecosystem, New Work

Alberta’s Start-up Tech Ecosystem: Why not here?

It occurred to me as I watched another western Canadian technology firm head down to spend 42 hours in the valley ecosystem, that there is an unfortunate analogy with the Canadian Oil and Gas industry.  Instead of bitumen, unprocessed heavy crude and natural gas, we are speaking of intellectual property, human capital and innovation moving south.  And instead of moving to the Gulf refineries, we are “shipping the crude” to that other refinery – Silicon Valley.

Let’s build the technology equivalent of upgraders and refineries right here.  There is no reason that we need to go south in a world as connected as ours. We are sending our talent, intellectual property, unfinished opportunities, highly skilled jobs, diversification opportunities and tax dollars south by doing so.

Locally, I look to the A100 (and the AEC backed Accelerate Fund) and its ecosystem; StartUp Calgary and its university allegiances.  In the east we have the superb iNovia team, OMERS and the Canadian Council of Innovators; I look to local companies like Benevity (Global sales and US funded but staying put) headed by the indefatigable Brian deLottinville as excellent examples of a Canada first approach.

Our small economic size means the need for connectivity, efficiency and speed.  We have that in spades.  Its time for thoughtful government macro policy, broad based entrepreneurial mentoring and capital maturity to think beyond – to modernize an old Canadian chestnut,  “hewers of wood, drawers of water and writers of code”.

Time to put the shovel in the ground.

Game On!