South by Southwest

The Team Sport Of Innovation

Innovation is a team sport. Sometimes this gets lost in the discussions and analyses of how great advancements in technology happen. The default is often to romanticize the process, as though it wasn’t even much of a process; the image of the mad scientist alone in the garage comes to mind.


In reality, innovation is a lot messier and collaborative than that. At SXSW, Eric Schmidt, Executive Chairman of Google, and Megan Smith, Chief Technology Officer of the United States Office of Science and Technology Policy sat down with author Walter Isaacson, author of the definitive Steve Jobs biography among many other works. Innovation, how it happens, and the different factors involved in it were the topics at hand.

Innovation often comes from individuals, but large companies are always trying to foster environments that promote innovation. For many, it’s a challenge. Google, Schmidt says, is able to do this because of its founder-driven culture. The company is innovative by its nature, so an innovative culture permeates through the entire, now sprawling, organization. Schmidt also noted that Google has “no signs of limits”.

In many ways, Google is a problem-solving company. They aren’t one-size fits all, and there really isn’t anything Google can not, will not, or should not get involved in. They’re investing in the autonomous vehicle space. They could be big players for live sport broadcast rights sometime in the future. It’s the spirit of innovation that the company values and promotes that allows it to think big.

Technological advancements bring about new products and services that change people’s lives. But at some point, the road to full adoption intersects with government. And governments themselves are looking to be more innovative in the digital age. For Smith, government has been missing “TQ”, or Technology IQ. Her point interceded with the concept of tech companies and their no limits mindset.

Governments, surely, aspire to be problem solvers, and they often need to either innovate or work with innovators in order to solve problems. Schmidt mentioned Google [X], the company’s facility that is dedicated to major technological advancements that looks to solve future challenges; challenges that fall in the middle of the Venn diagram of Really Hard and Really Possible. Governments have many Really Hard problems they need to solve. Smith said that governments have an opportunity to serve their countries through technology; technology can make some of government’s Really Hard challenges Really Possible.

Isaacson touched on the long-held opinion that there is a negative offshoot of technological advancements, one that would concern governments; jobs. A lot of folks fear that technology will be replacing human labor and eliminating the need for companies to employ people. But Isaacson believes that technology doesn’t decrease the actual number of jobs, rather it dislocates and changes them. As an example he referenced the loom and its impact on textile manufacturing; four times the amount of people worked in the textile industry after the introduction of the loom.

Certainly Isaacson’s point makes sense at some level. A technological advancement can mass-produce a product, and there will be a need for more people to manage the new product, support the technological systems that are helping manufacture them, etc. But it’s also not totally inconceivable to imagine scenarios where technology can replace human work which doesn’t open up other avenues for that worker, and others, to remain involved. Like a specific technological advancement, the true large-scale impact on technology’s proliferation throughout the world remains to be seen.

Regardless of their future impacts, technology is going to keep improving, and new products, services, and behaviors are going to change the way we live.

Whether or not the seeds of these ideas come from a single mind, a hackathon, or a big company’s innovation lab, they won’t reach life-altering status without a number of participants. Isaacson summed it up well when he said, “Vision without execution is hallucination.” And execution by one’s lonesome isn’t possible.

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