Recognize Innovators, Get More Innovation


The Sixties Called and and They’re Asking, Where Are All the Flying Cars?

In his manifesto on innovation called “What Happened to The Future?” billionaire-provocateur Peter Thiel asks where are the flying cars? Where’s the elevator to space? Where’s the box that cleans your clothes (and then folds them, too) in a minute or so, or the replicator that creates a fresh fish dinner out of thin air?  Why is jet travel getting slower, not faster? NASA was headed to Mars after the Apollo missions using the technology of the day before the agency’s wings got clipped by President Nixon. Now manned expeditions to Mars are still at least 20 years in the future. Starting with Nixon, every president has promised a cure for cancer. Even if cancer treatments are better and survivability has improved, there’s still no cure. These are all things we’ve imagined, which, in some ways, is the hardest part. Still we haven’t yet made them so. Why?

In his money line Thiel writes, “we wanted flying cars, all we got is 140 characters.”

Wait, you say, what about the computer in our pocket? The device that fits in your hand yet allows you trade stocks, Facetime a farmer in Botswana, order anything Amazon sells and see it delivered to your door a day later? Cool, no doubt.

But, as Thiel said in a debate with Marc Andreessen, the investor and inventor of Netscape who himself raised the issue of iPhones, what we’ve done with the power of smart devices is much more unremarkable, pedestrian even.

“You have as much computing power in your iPhone as was available at the time of the Apollo missions. But what is it being used for? It’s being used to throw angry birds at pigs; it’s being used to send pictures of your cat to people halfway around the world; it’s being used to check in as the virtual mayor of a virtual nowhere while you’re riding a subway from the nineteenth century.”

Thiel is raising the alarm that genuine progress has stalled; he doesn’t proffer many solutions or even suggestions. Although he has taken his own idiosyncratic actions.

We have a 100 times more engineers in 2017 than we had in 1917, Thiel reminds us, so where’s cool stuff 2.0? How do even we get back to the idea that something like a flying car is more innovative than something like Twitter?

Here’s one answer: we need to make innovation cool again.

Oh, policy wonks love to talk about innovation. In my small state I’ve sat through more Powerpoint from well-meaning officials than I can remember espousing the value of innovation… if only I had a nickel for every time some official invoked the name of Clay Christensen or Richard Florida… but if the message has penetrated much beyond the policy-makers it hasn’t showed up on the ground; productivity has stalled, GDP growth seems mired at less than 2 percent, and business failures exceeding startups in 2008 and have run in tight tandem ever since.

Thiel thinks this is a cultural problem.

“Men reached the moon in July 1969, and Woodstock began three weeks later. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that this was when the hippies took over the country, and when the true cultural war over Progress was lost.”

I don’t know if I’m ready to go that far, but I think it’s evidently obvious that the cultural cachet that helped fuel the moonshots, and before that the building of the Interstate highways, and before that the great dams in the American West and the Southeast, is missing from modern life.

It doesn’t seem to be a money problem, per se; most of those 100-X engineers are drawing a nice paycheck from somewhere.

But it might be an inspiration problem. For most of us, once you make a certain threshold income what motivates you to do more isn’t more money. What takes innovators and creators back to their benches or desks after the first shift is over could be love, or ego, or ambition, or it might be a matter of recognition and competition.

Peter Diamandis, a physician and engineer, and founder of the X Prize Foundation, thinks competition and incentives matter. The X Prize is premised on the idea of age-old idea of awarding prizes for singular achievement. For instance, when Charles Lindbergh made the first non-stop crossing from New York to Paris in 1927, he claimed the Ortieg Prize. The X Prize website says:

“We believe in the power of competition. That it’s part of our DNA. Of humanity itself. That tapping into that indomitable spirit of competition brings about breakthroughs and solutions that once seemed unimaginable. Impossible.

“We believe that you get what you incentivize (italics mine). And that without a target, you will miss it every time. Rather than throw money at a problem, we incentivize the solution and challenge the world to solve it.”

(For a great read on how another much older contest… the Longitude Prize… led to the first device that could accurately determine longitude at sea, read Longitude, by Dava Sobel.)

There’s some evidence that after eight years of the Utah Genius Awards that innovators and creators are motivated by the recognition they receive there. The Utah Genius Awards recognize the 10 individuals and 10 companies in the state who secure the most patents or trademarks in the year prior as determined by data from the US Patent and Trademark Office.

Beginning in October or November we’ll start getting calls from inventors and creators asking, are they in the running for a Utah Genius Award? Since Utah Genius Awards go to the top-10 finishers, the winners vary from year to year, making the Awards very competitive.

Motivation matters to creators and inventors, and the recognition provided by the Utah Genius Awards are motivating the next generation of innovation.

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