Being Innovatively Practical

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Being Innovatively Practical

Every day the news is replete with some amazing new advance in technology. It is like we are on the cusp of living in the world of Buck Rogers or Luke Skywalker. It will be great to beam ourselves to a sunny beach and take a magic diet pill to avoid the gym. Yet, take a look around and is much really changing?

You still have to line up at Starbucks like a Soviet-era bread line. For all the talk of fintech, it is still drudgery to apply for a loan or mortgage. And let’s not even talk about healthcare and government services. Our world is a wonderful and fascinating place but please do not call it efficient or entirely productive.

Daniel Gross, Executive Editor of strategy+business, digs at this reality in a terrific post. In Innovating the Mundane he writes, “Cars that drive themselves or run on fuel cells! Space tourism and manned missions to Mars! Tunnel-based loops that transport people at high speed in underground pods! Everywhere you look, futuristic whiz-bang technologies that promise to usher in a golden age filled with a higher quality of life are being promoted as potential near-term realities.”

He infers this is all smoke-and-mirrors or bread-and-circuses. Underlying all of these wonderfully distracting pronouncements (they would be announcements if they were actually happening) is “a general pessimism about what the future holds” and a “simmering discontent about the future in the midst of massive technological promise.”

This dissonance is attributed to little effort being paid to how existing systems work now. The blog is a desperate plea to put effort into “make our existing systems work better — or stop them from getting worse.” Gross shares the reality with a bit of grey humor, “I read a lot about exciting new projects while sitting on the train that takes me 50 miles from suburban Connecticut to midtown Manhattan, a trip that now takes 15 minutes longer than it did 15 years ago.”

The author takes a poke at innovation, agility and disruption, “It’s great that people are thinking about ways to make many of our existing, annoying systems irrelevant. But what if we could apply some of that engineering talent, imagination, and capital to simply make the stuff we use right now work a little better?”

It is a delightfully intriguing notion. We worship the Elon Musks of the world but could care less about those toiling to make critical incremental improvements. It is far more difficult to innovate within a crushingly bureaucratic and status quo system. Gross rightfully points out, “The reality is that opportunities for increases in productivity are everywhere.” He goes further, “in too many areas and industries, including the ones that directly affect how we feel about our quality of life, we seem to have lost the capacity or appetite for building sustained incremental improvements.”

Clearly, working on improving existing systems is less sexy but “the imperative for improvement is greater than the need for blue-sky innovation.” He cites many practical examples:

“It’s exciting to think that a few people might to go Mars one day. But what matters to most people today is having their flights taking off on time. A hyperloop would be awesome. But it would be even more awesome if our existing trains could move just a little more quickly next year than they do now — and then move a little more quickly the year after that. Pharmaceuticals designed to address individuals’ specific health needs would be a quantum leap. But just imagine the immense gains we could reap right now if we could simply reduce the level of wasted medical spending from its current level of 20 percent.”

It would be fantastic to be part of the team that accomplished any of those “incremental” improvements. When you really think about them, they are not incremental at all. These improvements would help change the world. And as Gross concludes, “it’s likely that an increased emphasis on optimization right now could boost our collective optimism.”