Photo by Johannes Plenio on Unsplash

Innovation Is Empty. Here’s Why

Innovation, not surprisingly, is one of the most popular activities that humans love to take part in, as well as one of the most desired assets of which they love to claim ownership. Since childhood all the way to adulthood, we like to invent new ideas, solutions and creations, probably because it makes us feel essential, helpful and responsible for a newborn. Entrepreneurs often refer to their innovation as “their baby”, to prove this emotional connection.

Innovation is of course not new nor industrial. In his book “The Rational Optimist”, Matt Ridley describes how innovation was born 200,000 years ago and accelerated more rapidly 80,000 years ago, when people started bartering and exchanging hand-made solutions:

“Human beings had started to do something to and with each other that in effect began to build a collective intelligence. They had started, for the very first time, to exchange things between unrelated, unmarried individuals; to share, swap, barter and trade. The effect of this was to cause specialization, which in turn caused technological innovation, which in turn encouraged more specialization, which led to more exchange — and ‘progress’ was born, by which I mean technology and habits changing faster than anatomy.” — Matt Ridely

Although the nature of innovation dates back so many years ago, there is a future perspective that should be embraced widely already in the present, and that is the consideration of any social and environmental impact that a certain innovation might create. By impact, I mean both positive and negative: innovators, by carefully planning and then continuously measuring, must be careful about creating more harmful social or ecological results, and more than that — must drive the innovation in the direction of benefit humans and natural surroundings and resources.

It is not enough to desperately want to create something — anything — new; and facing current global social and environmental disruptions — it is even not enough to innovate purposefully to meet a need. Because needs could vary from a need of clean water, to a need of a more effective on-line platform or an app. When you put those one facing the other, it is becoming clear that there is still a huge gap between what our global village really needs, and what entrepreneurs, start-up people and innovation teams actually provide.

If to use MIT physicist and AI researcher Max Tegmark’s words: “I love technology, technology is why today is better than the stone age, and I am optimistic that we can create a really inspiring high-tech future if — and this is a big if — we win the wisdom race, the race between growing power of our technology and the growing wisdom with which we manage that”.

Behind the Numbers

What about the encouraging figures about impact driven enterprises and the growth of the impact investments field?

There is, indeed, some good news that can’t be ignored. According to Global Impact Investing Network (GIIN), 228 Billion USD are currently (2018) invested in impact driven enterprises, almost double than in 2017.

In general, it is safe to establish that there is a global trend around impact investing. “We are certainly seeing more people than ever before expressing an interest in impact investing,” said Amit Bouri, CEO and co-founder of GIIN, in an interview for FastCompany.

Having said that, the trend does not prove that entrepreneurs and investors are widely considering what impact their innovation really brings, nor that they know how to analyze, predict and measure the intended impact. In an article that went viral, author and media theorist Douglas Rushkoff put it well: “The future became less a thing we create through our present-day choices or hopes for humankind than a predestined scenario we bet on with our venture capital but arrive at passively.”

What We Like Saying About Impact and What We Are Really Doing

A simple Google search for “What are three main components of a successful innovation” yield the following results:

Tech culture, training, problem or opportunity, domain knowledge, strong business model, revenue model, expertise, motivation, creative thinking, skills, clear direction, strategy.

All relevant and truly needed to create a successful innovation or enterprise — as long as making a positive social or environmental impact is not included within the definition of success.

The majority of entrepreneurs are caught in the dominant model of a successful business: It should be meeting an evident need amongst consumers (either through product or service) and be financially sustainable, with the potential to scale up. But in order to contribute to sustainable development, ease environmental pressure and increase social prosperity — the definition of successful innovation must include the positive social and/or environmental impact that we’re trying to achieve.

Defining success is the same as asking: “How would we know that we’ve reached our vision and goals? How does success look like, and what are the measurements for it?” When it comes to the inclusion of sustainability within that definition, the most responsible, strategic and effective way to go is using a profound framework, which targets any set of widely agreed sustainability principles (widely refers to scientifically explored and agreed upon). Using such framework and determining specific criteria is necessary to outline a course in which the innovation is indeed impactful and sustainable.

Without setting those criteria, without incorporating social value in the purpose of the enterprise, without considering the wide range of the effects that caused by the operation of our product or service — this innovation could go in so many harmful directions, which we haven’t even considered beforehand.

We can build a new device that captures solar power for the office use, but if it’s made of unhealthy or scarce materials — is it worth it? We can design a new smart phone which is made of sustainable materials, but if it’s being manufactured by workers who suffer from poor conditions — is it still sustainable? We can design a new app that tracks our deep breaths during the day — but do we really need another app?

“Sustainable solutions based on innovation can create a more resilient world only if that innovation is focused on the health and well-being of its inhabitants. And it is at that point — where technology and human needs intersect — that we will find meaningful innovation.” — Frans van Houten, CEO of Philips

Innovation is empty. By itself, innovation is just a frame, a mold that we need to cast content into, and this is where the hard work really begins. It is not enough to come up with a new idea, to find the best business model, and tap into the newest technology methods (or infrastructure?..) to serve the innovation. For the newborn idea to be truly innovative and impactful for society and the surroundings in the best possible way — one must take a systems’ perspective and carefully check what other humans really need; how the idea serves them and the ecological system beyond the low hanging fruits; what are the possible side-effects that can be predicted and prevented.

Only after considering all the above, entrepreneurs who are committed to enhance positive change can fill the mold called “innovation” with the thousands details that construct a successful enterprise.

Photo by Štefan Štefančík on Unsplash

Here Is a 10-Steps Brief Guide for the Social-Impact-Driven Entrepreneur:

1. Define the need or the problem, be as accurate as you possibly can

2. Get up of the sketching table and reach out to people for a reality check

3. Brainstorm for ideas and solutions

4. Decide about a framework to guide you about sustainability principles, boundaries or goals. This is where the systems perspective comes in and plays a key role in avoiding creating new problems while solving current problems.

5. Craft a set of questions as well as a set of criteria, which will guard your innovation from going in the wrong directions (even in the future).

6. Get up again, reach out to real people again, and check if your idea has the potential to solve their problem or addressing their need.

7. Iterate accordingly.

8. Design, develop and prototype.

9. Iterate according to the feedback from the surface.

10. Scale up.

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