by Nitzan Shaer
You may not think about innovation all the time. But it’s surrounding us—in the office, on the phone, in the piles of emails you click through every day. Somewhere in there you’ll find innovation. But just what is innovation and what are some of the most innovative ideas around today? There’s no better place to get the answer than TED.com. It’s one of my favourite web destinations. That’s why I set aside some time to find the 10 best TED talks on innovation.
Steven Johnson notes that most great innovations haven’t arisen from “Eureka!” moments. Rather, they come as people gather around a table discussing their work. Johnson adds that despite his own diary entries, Charles Darwin’s theory of natural selection didn’t come in a sudden burst. A recent examination of those very diaries shows that Darwin had the full theory of natural selection for months before he had his epiphany. This is what Johnson terms the “Slow Hunch.” This, of course, takes time.
Think about innovation, and you’re often drawn to the notion that it’s for the big minds—the well-known think tanks or universities. Or maybe even the biggest companies in the world—the ones with the vast R&D operations. But contrary to what Leadbeater calls traditional economic theory, many innovations come from elsewhere. Consider the mountain bike. Who invented that? Not a big bike manufacturer. Nor did it come from a single inventor slaving away in a design shop. It came from cyclists, many in Northern California, who were frustrated with racing bikes and big bikes. What they came up with—a combination of parts from racing bikes, big bikes, motorcycles, and mixed and matched parts—were first known as “clunkers.” Then one of the parts suppliers decided to start selling them—maybe 10-15 years before the large companies saw a market. Now mountain bike sales account for 65% of bike sales.
It can often be amusing to look at historical views of the future. But it can also be educational. In 2003, Jeff Bezos, with the memory of the just-ended heady days of the dot-com boom still fresh in his mind, took to the TED stage to talk about the boom and what it had in common with the California Gold Rush of the mid-19th century. Then he discussed the early days in the electrification of America. He posits that, in 2003 at least, we were at a stage in the development of the internet comparable to 1908, when the Hurley Washing Machine was introduced. If we accept that, he notes, the negatives can’t bother you. There’s more innovation ahead of us, Bezos says (was the Kindle even a glimmer in his eye then?).
Web video is doing a lot more than bringing America’s Funniest Home Videos into the 21st century. Alongside the many videos of people falling off swing sets and dogs skateboarding, Chris Anderson says there’s another phenomenon at work. He calls it Crowd Accelerated Innovation. Naturally, this requires certain ingredients, the first of which is a crowd—a group of people who share a common interest. The second ingredient is light—what Anderson describes as “clear, open visibility of what the best people in the crowd are capable of.” The third (and perhaps the most critical) ingredient is desire. Without desire, Anderson notes that the hundreds of hours of toiling away at research and practice simply wouldn’t happen.
These are tough economic days to be sure. Spending is being trimmed in public and private spheres. But where should the cuts come—and at what cost? Brian Cox argues that science that pushes the boundaries of curiosity can pay for itself. In fact, the amount spent by governments on what Cox terms “curiosity-driven science,” is but a small fraction of most public budgets. But without it, we wouldn’t have transistors or silicon chips—nor would we have the basics of our modern economy.
You may have heard about Google’s driverless car. But you have to see it to believe it. Sebastian Thrun, who helped build it, was driven by his own quest to save lives—after losing his best friend to a car accident at age 18. Watching someone sitting behind the steering wheel of a car that’s driving itself is a bit unnerving. But there it is, forging ahead on busy San Francisco streets, including the famously crooked Lombard Street, and California freeways—even through toll booths. Thrun notes that car accidents (almost all of which are due to human error) are the leading cause of death for young people, but that could be prevented by this kind of technology. In addition, he believes the capacity of highways could increase three-fold.
Lisa Gansky believes that sharing is the future of business. A so-called “mesh company” combines three ingredients: social (our ability to connect with each other), mobile (devices that enable us to find each other) and physical goods (knowing where things are). Gansky says that a service like Zipcar, which didn’t invent car sharing, made it sexy by choosing the right kinds of cars (not boxy cop cars) and targeting universities. The company realized all along that, according to Gansky, “a brand is a voice and a product is a souvenir.” A key distinction for Zipcar is its recognition that it is not a car company—it’s an information company. The information it has about its customers puts it in a great position to anticipate what those customers want next.
How can we ensure that people who need glasses but can’t afford them can get access to them? Why not fill glasses with liquid so they can be easily adjusted without the need for an eye doctor? That’s what Josh Silver suggests, and demonstrates. Silver wants his affordable eyeglasses (at about $19 a pair, he thinks they’re still too expensive) to reach a billion people in need by 2020. The answer to all of the questions surrounding such a grand undertaking is research, according to Silver.
We’ve all seen or used the iPad and Kindle. But have you read a book on either device that takes full advantage of the technology. Certainly the Kindle is purpose-built for just reading. But the iPad has vast capabilities. Now Mike Matas of Push Pop Press demonstrates what he calls the first feature-length interactive book. The book takes full advantage of the iPad. You can swipe from chapter to chapter, scroll through the pages, zoom in, pinch pictures to open them and listen to narrations, then fold them back up onto the page. The infographics are interactive, enabling the reader to dig deep into data without leaving the book.
Rachel Armstrong says that buildings today use old technologies: blueprints, industrial manufacturing, and construction using teams of workers—all of which results in an inert object. This one-way transfer of energy from our environment into our homes and cities is something Armstrong believes is unsustainable. Sustainable homes and cities, Armstrong thinks, will come only when these buildings and cities are connected to nature. To save a city like Venice will take more than inert materials. Armstrong proposes “metabolic materials”—materials that can grow, adapt and repair themselves. For example, the sinking city of Venice, built on wooden piles, could be saved by a limestone reef that would grow underneath the ancient city.
If there are other videos on innovation you found to be inspiring, please share. In the words of Ray Kurzweil, we are just at the 1% moment in technological growth, with the Singularity still years away.