Innovation Ambition and the Futures We Build

The future isn’t a thing that just happens. Instead, it is built, molded, and crafted by our actions in the here and now.

Just like the industrial future didn’t just turn up out of the blue to surprise our pre-industrial ancestors, and the digital future was built through the ceaseless work of researches and engineers in an analog era, our future is being built today, through our choices and our investments in it. But just how ambitious a future are we building?

It is easy to talk about the future as a simple extension of today. We’ve gotten used to digitalization and the automation of everything, so we assume the future is digital. We’ve talked to Siri and Alexa, so we see a future filled with artificial intelligences. Whilst this might not be untrue, as such, it is also limiting in at least two ways. One, we often fail to see things that do not fit this tidy storyline. Innovation history is filled with cases where we missed revolutionary changes because we were too busy looking at familiar developments. Two, we get too caught up in the technologies we track to think properly about what changes they, or other, untracked ones, might bring.

Today, we often speak of how “digitalization” or “AI” will change “everything”. But do we really understand how such changes work? I would propose that there are at least three kinds of change, three dimensions in which today’s developments grow our tomorrow.

One is scale. This is the one we’re most used to. We used to be able to send letters to thousands of people, today we can affect a few hundred million with a well executed Facebook-campaign. We used to be able to build ships only so big, whereas contemporary materials and engineering have made entirely new size-classes possible. This is usually how we view the development of innovation, but it’s only one dimension.

Are we really creating innovations that focus on better lives?

A far more interesting one is impact. Are we creating innovations that go beyond bigger and faster, but instead focus on better – better lives, a better planet? This represents a far more ambitious goal than merely shouting more loudly or beating speed or size records, and instead asks for why we are innovating and what kind of world we’re building.

To this comes the third dimension, namely reach. Whilst impact alone is good, it can also be fleeting. Are we creating impact in the short run, or building something that can start a revolution with long-term effects? Are we more focused on what looks good in the next PR-push, or creating a legacy?

Truly great innovations, the kind that build grand futures, manage to hit all three of these – they go big, they make an impact, and this impact extends beyond the field it emerges in. Still, a lot of the things we focus on today may hit none of these, instead opting for just a slightly better bottom line. As a result we need less talk about sexy technologies, and more talk about whether a new solution or a new way of thinking can be both bigger, have ten times the impact, and start the ball rolling on something truly ambitious. Then, and only then, we will be moving away from innovation for innovations sake, and towards creating a better future.