It is often stated by senior management figures within large enterprises, that innovation is a key area of focus for them. Despite this focus, the past 50 or 60 years has witnessed a distinct lack of breakthrough innovations. Indeed, there has been an innovation ‘drought’.
Innovations made between the late nineteenth century and about 1950 are the ones that are having the most profound impact on our lives today. To be specific, I am referring to innovations and discoveries such as the internal combustion engine, the jet engine, the electric light bulb, the television, the telephone, the radio, modern computing and antibiotics. For a London, Paris or New York City resident who travelled in time from 1910 to 1960, the future would be completely unrecognisable. For a resident of one of these cities who travelled in time from 1960 to 2010, there would be few surprises. In fact, the 1960 time traveller may be disappointed that people were not flying to work, using their own personal jet packs.
Since the 1960s, we have seen some major innovations and discoveries but less than in earlier years. Why has innovation slowed down? Well, there are many views on this matter. Some say that it because of too much regulation. Others say the opposite. My view is that there are several key reasons for this change.
Firstly, as wages increased in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, there was greater focus on finding innovations that could replace labour. This wage growth, in developed economies, slowed dramatically in the 1970s. In mature economies, real wages have not grown significantly since the 1970s. Firms have focussed, to a greater extent, on increasing shareholder value by controlling real wages as opposed to engendering innovation.
A second reason is that firms are also focussing on extracting the largest possible amount of value from existing assets. Since the 1970s, a popular way of doing this is by entering new markets around the globe. So, innovations made in Western countries and deployed in the 1950s and 1960s have been sold into emerging economies in the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s, greatly enriching large multinational organizations, but shifting emphasis away from innovation.
Another key point is that new innovations may impede the ability of large enterprises to maximize the value they get from existing assets. For example, is it in the interests of pharmaceutical firms to develop more effective treatments for cancer, which may affect their ability to fully profit from existing treatments? Is it in the interests of a plastics manufacturer to support research into 3D printing?
Today, breakthroughs in IT are creating enormous opportunities for innovation. We have seen rapid incremental innovation in the IT industry itself. But, new technology has yet to be deployed in a manner that fosters significant innovation across different industries. This is set to change. In any industry, from the automotive industry to, discrete manufacturing to healthcare, the combination of high speed networks, cloud computing and mobile technologies are driving change and, yes, innovation.
I’d love to write about the impact of these technologies on all industries. To make my point, I will focus on examples in the automotive industry, discrete manufacturing and healthcare.
In the automotive industry, GM and others spent years trying to develop autonomous (self driving) cars. By taking advantage of recent IT developments, Google demonstrated how the convergence of IT and the automotive industry leads to innovation. In August 2012, Google announced that a fleet of autonomous vehicles had completed half a million kilometres of accident free test runs. Autonomous cars are expected to become common over the next 10 years. Further innovation around transportation is inevitable and IT is enabling this.
In the manufacturing sector, 3D printing allows designs and techniques to be sourced from the cloud by any device, in any location. This could potentially drive a new industrial revolution and move the world away from mass manufacturing towards the customization of products in locations that are close to the source of demand. Will people make their own goods, to their own specifications, from home? The potential is enormous.
In the healthcare sector, high speed networks and cloud computing can potentially enable care to be delivered to patients in any location. We can expect care to increasingly be given in the patient’s location. At the same time, a decreasing proportion of care will be given in hospitals. Technology can totally change the dynamics of healthcare provision. As these dynamics change, the opportunities for radical new innovation will be immense.
In summary, the last 50 years have witnessed a slowdown in innovation. However, as IT becomes embedded into industries and high speed networks and cloud computing become commonplace, we can expect to enjoy a sustained period of rapid change and innovation.