We are not all technologists. We are not all inventors. We all have, however, the potential to be entrepreneurs, as I claim during the Startup NOW accelerator boot-camp. As children we are all born with entrepreneurial instinct, and for many it is lost by the time we gain adulthood – the result in my view of traditional schooling and economic and societal pressures in our modern environment, which have made the new generations lose something that our predecessors had which was ingrained in them from an early age.
Almost 130 years after its founding, by 1905, the US had become the richest industrial nation in the world. It was, in my view, because of the prevalence of this increasingly lost instinct. Our country produced over half of almost everything with 5% of the earth’s land mass and 6% of its population. Today, we produce between one fifth and one quarter of the world’s GDP with 4.5% of the population – the rest of the world has caught up to our ways, I bet because of the allure of this instinct. It is encouraging that on a more local level, according to the Kauffman Index, the Miami-Fort Lauderdale–Pompano Beach metropolitan area ranks first in the nation today in startup activity.
In the boot-camp, we also illustrate with a couple of videos how technology developments in the last 200 years have propelled gains in productivity for humanity – measured in life expectancy and income, as proxies for health and wealth. In the beginning of the 19th century, it was pretty crowded in the poor and sick corner. The video shows how 200 years later, the world is converging towards the healthy and wealthy corner, driven by the remarkable pace of innovation. In another video, we show how the defining phenomenon of “innovationism” has turned the centuries old, slightly upward sloping graph of wealth creation – as measured by GDP – into the shape of a hockey stick in the past 200 years.
We are all on a path to somewhere. Some, like Ray Kurzweil, refer to this path as leading towards “the singularity” – when we become one with the machines. We, regular people, like to see it as a path to a better quality of life, to better health, to greater achievement or prosperity. I’m not so sure about that merger with the machines. There is distance to cover. We’ve been covering it all our lives, and people before us, all their lives. The time to get to the next new milestone covering this distance has shortened. Something is driving this increase in productivity.
In traditional management literature, improved productivity in any enterprise is linked to employee engagement, or empowerment, as it is also commonly called. I was reading on this subject recently, specifically on a model that explains that when management improves communication, motivation and the capabilities of employees, productivity improves. Employees that understand their job roles and expectations and receive adequate and timely feedback and necessary ongoing training undergo a change in attitude, and become more productive. This is the result of them having obtained the four elements that promote employee involvement, and productivity as a byproduct: power, information, knowledge and skills.
In the video that shows the hockey stick of human innovation, different theories of what is driving it are mentioned. The institutionalization of secure property rights as well as the rule of law and non-corrupt courts in the late 18th century, specifically in the US, are given as plausible examples. Improvement of education or access to cheap, reliable energy sources are also seen as examples of the driving force for this increase in productivity and innovation. Economic historian Deirdre McCloskey is quoted as attributing this “innovationism” – a term she coined – to a change in attitude. The change in attitude that made people appreciate inventors and trailblazers instead of conquerors and warriors as heroes drove this bend in the hockey stick.
It is not surprising to me that the trend has accelerated to a mind numbing pace in 200 years, and continues to do so. This is the case because it is a process that feeds on itself, with discoveries and inventions in one area of human endeavor prompting the development of inventions in other areas that would seem unrelated. Most people agree that the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg allowed the faster and cheaper production of books, making them more widely available to more people than when previously, monks in secluded monasteries took years to make copies by hand. Most people do not think about the highly probable fact that the standardization of print types led to some of these monks and other likely recipients of the newfangled volumes noticing that the letters were sometimes too small and their eyesight not good enough for them to read the print. This new realization prompted innovation in optics and eyesight correction instruments for decades and centuries going forward. And then we figured we wanted to look even further into the cosmos.
Look around you, at the tools available to you today, in your pocket, in your purse, on top of your desk. Think about the software that runs in the periphery of your daily life. Five, ten years ago, you did not have perhaps most of them, at least not in the same stage of advancement as you have them today. These are the tools of the digital revolution, and they put information, knowledge and skills at your fingertips. They make you powerful. They hand you precisely the elements that the studies show you need to develop the change in attitude to yearn to innovate. The bend in the hockey stick has brought all of us these elements. They are easily available to YOU – are you taking advantage? Do you feel the yearning? Feel guilty if you must, because both the traditional management literature, as well as the perspective of people that study innovation and entrepreneurship back up that claim, and you may not be acting appropriately.