Thoughts on American Innovation

Typically in this space I try to focus on marketing and communication related topics. There are a number of other things that make up my day I leave out. For instance I frequently joke that I probably know more about industrial energy efficiency than any marketing professional in the state. I have enough professional development hours in certified energy management to cover 5 engineers this year alone.

One of the areas that I spend a lot of time with is innovation. As a part of my dual employment I set on 2 of the state’s largest innovation organizations and interact frequently with most of the other major players both statewide and nationally. It has given me a very in depth perspective of what America is doing to increase innovation.

Often, especially if the government gets involved, we struggle to practice what we preach. As a nation we have come to realize that innovation is about the only chance we to continue to be relevant as an industrial nation. So to help spur innovation we look at how companies in the past have become innovative and try to find ways to promote that. We look at processed brain storming for example. We try to make ideas systematic, if you follow step 1-24 you will churn out a shiny product that will save your company and a nation. We look at traditional models for idea investment. We encourage individual innovators to quickly patent and sell.

The problem with the American innovation initiatives is that it is no longer innovative.

This is not to say that American innovation is dead however. It is very much alive and, well, innovative. We are seeing something truly amazing happen with the social world beginning to take over innovation. It completely changed the way we communicate and market ideas and products. Now it stands a chance at changing how we make them in the first place.

One idea that I’ve fallen in love with over the past year is Kickstarter. It solves a couple of the major problems I’ve seen in my two years inside the innovation world. First there is the whole product market problem. Trying to gauge the potential market for a new idea is always difficult. Many innovators dump a lot of money into bad ideas only to discover no one wants them. On the flip side there are many good ideas floating around that people are hesitant to (or don’t have) invest money in development out of fear that it will not sell. By tying investment into the development with actual product sales these problems are eliminated. If a project meets the funding threshold the innovator gets their money and can gauge the potential market, or not. Plus good products usually get a decent amount of marketing coverage that you could not possibly buy.

The next big step is social collaboration among innovators. I don’t mean teams working on products, I mean products working better with each other. As APIs for digital products become more of a norm an entire industry of new products utilizing those APIs has developed. Soon you begin to have product hubs such as twitter, facebook, Instagram. I saw a number of products at SXSW this year relating to the photo industry that use these APIs to develop new products and if digital even kick out their own API.

This creates a world where as one product innovates other products around them innovate as well. It crosses both digital and physical product boundaries. Apple creates the iPhone and introduces the iOS API allowing for apps. Instagram takes this API and develops an app and releases their own API. Instant print cameras that were once dead take this API and use it to create a physical printer for instant photographs. If any one of these groups innovates the entire chain will. If Apple adds camera features, it enhances the other two. If Instagram enhances their app some of their enhancements can find its way back into the iPhone and the physical printer. The printer itself if successful causes both Apple and Instagram to innovate to support it more.

This is the type of innovation government should be funding and encouraging. This is the future of innovation in the US.

*Note, while I work for innovation organizations and help distribute some of this very government funding, my ideas are my own and as far as I know are not shared by any organization I am a member of.


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