Thursday, January 21, 2010

Bill Gates: We Need Innovation, Not Insulation

With the launch of his new personal news site, The Gates Notes, Bill Gates has formally stepped into the popular blogging arena.  His first power post, which just hit the front page of Huffington Post, addresses the the world's propensity to address short-term problems, such as climate change, with bubble gum and tape in lieu of tackling long-term goals by fostering meaningful new innovation.

Gates: People often present two timeframes that we should have as goals for CO2 reduction -- 30% (off of some baseline) by 2025 and 80% by 2050.  I believe the key one to achieve is 80% by 2050. 

Gates' logic is consistent with a recurring dialogue I've encountered in technology and forecasting circles: why waste time with incremental advances when we should be innovating technologies an order of magnitude more powerful than the previous generation.

But as we enter the knee of some potent accelerating curves (technology, information, communication), it's become painfully obvious that the majority of national systems aren't offering their populations the right innovation incentives, despite the financial near-crisis we've just experienced.  For example, President Obama's stated goal of 3% GDP dedicated to innovation, relegated to the back seat as other issues occupy the attention of federal lawmakers more in tune with the election cycle than the larger national heartbeat and nervous system, remains a pipe dream.

So how will we catalyze the systemic will to innovate in leaps and bounds rather than incrementally?  Two possible answers come to mind.

A) CREATIVE DESTRUCTION: Generational theorists Strauss and Howe argue that it will require cyclical creative destruction, a Fourth Turning

B) CONVERGENT ACCELERATION: Acceleration theorists argue that convergence in technological, communication and information systems (among others) will usher in a new era of innovation fluiditiy that permits us to better research, quantify and solve problems.  The idea here is that the free market will permit the best innovations to emerge and evolve more quickly than before thanks to the fluidity enabled by the web.

Unfortunately, our ostensibly free market system is so riddled with holes that leak human generated capital that innovation has become massively underfunded.

Gates points out that "to make the 80% goal by 2050 we are going to have to reduce emissions from transportation and electrical production in participating countries down to zero".  The current U.S. system is incapable of meeting this goal.  For this to happen, nations like ours will need to develop better cognizance of innovation and re-innovate our decision-making system accordingly.

Gates: If CO2 reduction is important, we need to make it clear to people what really matters -- getting to zero. ... With that kind of clarity, people will understand the need to get to zero and begin to grasp the scope and scale of innovation that is needed.  ... However all the talk about renewable portfolios, efficiency, and cap and trade tends to obscure the specific things that need to be done.

To solve such problems we need to reinvent our collective approach to innovation.  Many bright entrepreneurs, scholars and policy thinkers are compelled to tackle this fundamental problem, yet the system continues to misidentify and underfund progressive efforts (poor health care, lack of start-up & research incentives, poor implementation of smarter systems, red tape that blocks grass-roots innovation of ALL sorts), much less provide an actionable framework for innovation behavior.

So will meaningful change in our innovation policy require creative destruction and socio-economic calamity as a big the kick in the ass?  Or will an explosion of bottom-up innovation catalyze the intelligence growth that's required?

The storyline of 2009 suggests the former option may be the more likely future, serving as a necessary a entropy clearing shake-out, allowing us to better align national resources with national priorities.  Barring the emergence of some highly effective social media structures capable of diffusing up through and reforming government, an offbeat but realistic scenario,  it seems we're destined for some speed bumps on the road to innovating up to Bill Gates' standards.

In the end, those challenges may prove critical to catalyzing acceleration in innovation and adaptation to a rapidly changing world economy.

As Plato once wisely pointed out, "Necessity is the mother of invention." 

Related link:
Can we outrace the fourth turning?