Tag Archives: communication

Antics with Semantics: The Innovation Interview with Semantics Pioneer, Ora Lassila

Wanting to speak to someone, both interesting and inspiring, about the Semantic Web and Innovation, Ora Lassila, an Advisory Board Member of the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) as well as Senior Architect and Technology Strategist for Nokia‘s Location and Commerce Unit, was the obvious ‘go to guy’.

A large part of Ora’s career has been focussed on  the Semantic Web as it applies to mobile and ubiquitous computing at the Nokia Research Center (NRC), where he, among many things, authored ‘Wilbur’, the NRC’s Semantic Web toolkit.   As impressive as that is, as I did my research, finding out more about Ora, the more fascinating he, and his career, became to me.

Ora is one of the originators of the Semantic Web, having been working within the domain since 1996.  He is the co-author (with Tim Berners-Lee and James Hendler) of the, to date, most cited paper in the field, ‘The Semantic Web’.  Ora even worked on the knowledge representation system ‘SCAM’,  which, in 1999, flew on a NASA Deep Space 1 probe.

Leading up to our attendance and presentation at the Berlin Semantic Tech and Business Conference, Michael– the true ‘tech head’ of KimmiC – and I were extremely pleased that Ora, ‘the Mac Daddy’ of the Semantic Web, gave us so much of his time.   I hope you find our conversation with him as interesting as we did!

[I’ve italicised Michael’s questions to Ora so you are able to differentiate between us – though, I think it will become obvious as you read – lol!]

Ora Lassila (photo credit: Grace Lassila)

Ora Lassila: Capital I Interview Series – Number 13

Lets start out by talking about Innovation in general, and we’ll move on to the Semantic Web as we go along.   As this is the Innovation Interview Series, the ‘baseline’ question is always: how do you define Innovation?

Good question.  I think many people do not make a clear distinction between ‘innovation’ and ‘invention’.

To me, ‘innovation’ is something that not only includes some new idea or ideas, but also encompasses the deployment and adoption of such.  You can invent clever new things, but if you don’t figure out how to get people to use those new things, you have fallen short of the mark.

How essential has innovation been in your career to date; and how important do you envisage it being, going forward?

It has been important.  A big part of my professional career was spent in a corporate research lab, where inventing new things was less of a challenge than getting these inventions ‘transferred’ to those parts of the corporation that had more capability in promoting their adoption and deployment.

That said, I have learned that ‘technology transfer’ is not always about taking concrete pieces of technology, software for example, and handing them over to someone else for productization.  Sometimes the transfer is more ‘insidious’ and involves influencing how people in your organisation – or outside your organisation – think and see the world.

I would claim that some of my early work on the Semantic Web absolutely fits this definition.  So writing, publishing and talking all constitute viable means.  Also, we should not forget that people need to be inspired.  You cannot just tell them what to do, instead, they have to want to do it.

What do you think are the main barriers to the success of innovation?

I am not kidding when I say that the absolute biggest obstacle is communication.  That is, we should learn to communicate our ideas better to be able to convince people and to inspire them.  I have much to learn in this area.

Who and what inspires you? Where do you look for inspiration?

I have no good or definite answer for that.  When I was younger I was really inspired by the Spanish aviation pioneer Juan de la Cierva whose simple yet radical idea about aircraft – the ‘autogiro’ – paved the way for the adoption of helicopters.  And yet, one might argue that, in many ways helicopters are a far more complicated and complex technology than de la Cierva’s original invention.

Juan de la Cierva y Codorníu, 1st Count of De La Cierva

I am inspired by simplicity… I strive to create and design things that are simple, or at least not any more complicated than necessary.

What are, in your view, the current emerging critical trends in Innovation and technology?

I like openness, things like open-source software as well as Open Access and sharing of data as part of the scientific process.  I am hoping we see a fundamental change in how research is done.  In many ways we have progressed to a point where many problems are so complex that they are beyond a single researcher’s or research group’s capacity and capability to tackle.

Also, on the topic of openness, I like some of the recent developments in open government, e-Government, and such.

And what are some of the coolest mobile technologies you’re seeing launched? 

I am much enamoured with the idea that mobile technologies – particularly via the use of GPS, etc. – ‘ground’ many services to the physical world.  There are many uses for location information, uses that help me in my everyday life.

Furthermore, by making the mobile device better understand the current ‘context’, not only geographically but also by making use of other observations about the physical world (movement, sound, etc.), we can make applications and services better for users.

Do you think we will have a ‘meshed up’ world that effectively bypasses the stranglehold telcos have on infrastructure?

I don’t necessarily agree that the telcos have a ‘stranglehold’.   They provide an important service and a critical investment in an infrastructure I don’t really see us living without.

But we need things like ‘net neutrality’ to make sure that this infrastructure really serves people in an open and non-discriminatory way.  in this regard I am also concerned about more recent legislative attempts [SOPA, PIPA, ACTA] that (perhaps unintentionally) will hurt the overall technical function of the Internet.

It seems that current Web based business models are founded on the idea that businesses have the right to record everything about users/consumers and profit from this information.  Do you think this is a sustainable business model, or do you think the user/consumer will start to think that they, and their data, is worth something and begin to demand recompense of some sort?

There are very few fundamentally different, viable, business models on the Web, so I can see that businesses would want to cash in on user data.  It is only a matter of time before the consumers ‘wise up’ and understand the value of their own data.  Personally I think we should aim at ‘business arrangements’ where all parties benefit.  This includes concrete benefits to the user, perhaps in a way where the user is a bona fide business partner rather than just someone we collect data about.

It is important to understand that what’s at stake here is not only how some user data could be monetized, it is also about users’ privacy.  Luckily I work for an organisation [Nokia] that takes consumer privacy very seriously.

You’ve got a fascinating history, and seem to have gotten into the Semantic Web at the very beginning.

The very, very beginning, yes.  I think I can argue that I’ve been doing this longer than the term has actually existed.

In ’96 I went to work at MIT…  I’d just been hired by Nokia, and they wanted to send somebody to MIT as a kind of visiting faculty member.   So, I worked in Tim Berners-Lee’s team, and one day he asked me what I thought was wrong with the web.

Tim Berners-Lee

Just a small question.

Yeah, not intimidating at all.

I said: “My hope has been to be able to build,” – what then would have been called agents, autonomous agents – and I said: “I can’t really do that because the web was built for humans and human consumption.  I would really, really like to see a web that was more amenable for consumption by automated systems.”

And he [Berners-Lee] said: “Yeah, that’s it! Now, how do we fix that?”

And I went: “Well, how about we try knowledge representation and apply that to web technologies.”  Because knowledge representation is a branch of artificial intelligence that has a long history of taking information and representing it in such a way that you can reason about it then draw conclusions from it… things like that.  We agreed that I would look into that, and that’s really how I got into all this.

Of course I had worked on various projects before that, that involved ontologies and knowledge representation, it just wasn’t done on the web.   The big reason being that the web had not really been invented yet.

There was Cyc and some other AI [Artificial Intelligence] things before that… 

Cyc is a very good example of an attempt to build a very large ontology that would encompass common sense knowledge.  But there are many examples of systems that used ontologies in one way or another for narrower domains.  Cyc was an overly ambitious project, in the sense that they really wanted to cover a lot of ground in terms of human knowledge.

I had worked on several projects in the past that applied ontologies to things like planning industrial production, or planning logistics.  So, the question really was, could you build a model of the world that was rich enough and precise enough that a system could use that knowledge to create plans for various things.  In my case those were plans for either how to run industrial production, or large fleets of logistics’ resources.

You were a long, long way in front of everybody else… at least ten years.  It’s incredible!

One might argue too far ahead.

I think at that time most people were just trying to come to grips with basic HTTP and web servers.  If you look at the vested interests, especially of software providers at that time… I guess it wasn’t really the right timing. But I think that time is coming now.

Yeah, I think we’re in a better position now and we’ve certainly seen a lot of adoption of Semantic Web technologies in the last few years.

I think elements of semantic are brilliant.   RDF, for example, is one of the smartest ways I’ve ever seen of describing something.  You can’t break the way semantics talks about something, whereas you can break the interpretation easily in XML.

I start to lose traction with it when it gets towards ontologies.  Do you think that ‘splitting the message’ would help with adoption?  For instance, you can use ontologies, but there is also a part of semantics which is brilliant for just doing ‘business as usual’?

I think there is a fairly broad spectrum of possible ways of making use of this technology.  I’m sure you’ve seen diagrams of the so called layer cake, with the different technologies layered on top of one another.

A Semantic Web Stack (layer cake) [image created by Tim Berners-Lee

I think that it’s up to you to decide how far up that layered structure you want to go.  There are a lot of applications where very simple use of just some of the most basic technologies will give you a lot of benefit.  And then there are other problems where you may actually want to separate a lot of the understanding of your domain from your actual executing code…  for those kinds of things, encapsulating that knowledge in the form of a potentially very complex ontology may be a good way to go.

My issue with ontologies is exactly the same issue I have with the current enterprise software providers… If you talk about mass adoption, as opposed to just specific domain adoption, for every extra entity – be it a class or data table – you decrease your adoption exponentially.   And, once you go up to higher levels, you shouldn’t assume you’re the only person that has a valid way of looking at the world, though you may be using the same data.  I think we’re saying the same thing…

Absolutely.  The interesting thing to say about the current enterprise software providers, I think, is that they have one model of the way to look at the world.   There are cases where companies have had to change the way they do business in order to adopt the enterprise software [currently available].

You have two choices: you either do it their way or else you spend a few million bucks and you do it their way anyhow.

I think that there is a possibility, with these Semantic Web technologies, of getting into more flexible uses of information and I kind of like that idea.

Over the last few years I’ve become increasingly interested in our ability to share information.  When you start talking about sharing it becomes really dangerous to have very complex, strictly defined semantics.  Because, like you said, other people might have a different interpretation of things.

But you want to nail some things down.  Understanding something about [the] information would give you a baseline for interoperating.  And then, you could do ‘better’ interoperation if you had a better definition of the meaning of the information.

I agree with you about understanding information.  But I think where most things fall to pieces – and this is also looking at business model languages and stuff – as soon as you get anywhere near processes with that information, it goes to hell pretty quickly. 

Exactly.  I spent a few years, at the beginning of the previous decade, working on a large Semantic Web research program funded by DARPA [Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency].  I was part of an effort to see if we could use ontological technologies to model web services.

Is that DAML and stuff like that?

Exactly; DAML, and DAML-S for services.  We very quickly got into process modeling; and those kinds of things get very difficult…

Very quickly.

Absolutely.  I think that’s the thing that still needs work.

The traditional approach to anything process-oriented just doesn’t work unless you have very tight coupling and a very controlled domain.  But I think there are a lot of different ways of trying to solve the same problem without having to get to that level.

I think that one of the things that is missing from the whole Semantic Web collection of specifications is this notion of action… a notion of behaviour.  It’s hard to model, but I think that we ought to work on that some more.

We [KimmiC/FlatWorld] have taken a more hybrid approach, so we use things like REST architecture, and a lot of stuff from the business world, in terms of authentication and authorisation. 

Sure.  I’m not in any way advocating the use of the WS_* collection of technologies. I’m not a big fan of those.

I’ve looked at all the SOAP stuff and there are a lot of problems… like business process deployment.  It is a nightmare to deploy these technologies.  It’s even more of a nightmare to load balance them.


Essentially, if you’re looking for dynamic relationships – be it in business or whatever – they’re just useless for that sort of thing.  They’re always designed around having control of a large domain space; this is especially true when it comes to deployment of applications.  I just think they’ve missed the point. 

I think the web is the best example of a redundant, massively-distributed application; and we need to look at it more as, “That’s the model,” and we have to work with it.

Absolutely.  I think that for 20 years there have been discussions about these sorts of ad hoc enterprises, or collections of smaller companies, being able to very quickly orchestrate themselves around a particular mission [purpose].  But I think that these technologies, just like you said, are probably not the right answer.

When you wrote your 2009 position paper you noted that rather than languages, the  biggest issues or problems facing the uptake of the Semantic Web were 1. Selling the idea; and 2.  A decent user interface.

Why did you feel that was the case then; and, has your opinion changed regarding these issues in the two+ years since you wrote your paper? 

Semantic Web technologies are well suited to situations where you cannot necessarily anticipate everything – say, about the conditions and context in which an application is used, or which kind of data an application might have available to it.  It is like saying that this is a technology for problems we are yet to articulate.  Sounds like a joke, but it isn’t, and the problem in ‘selling’ Semantic Web technologies is often about the fact that once a problem has been clearly articulated, there are many possible technologies that can be used to solve it.

The issue I have with user interfaces and the user experience is the following: Semantic Web technologies – or more generally, ‘ontological’ technologies – give us a way to represent information in a very expressive manner… that is, we can have rich models and representations of the world.  I feel that user interface technology has a hard time matching this expressiveness.  This issue is related to what I said earlier about not being able to anticipate all future situations; writing software that can handle unanticipated situations is hard.

All that said, I don’t like the term ‘Semantic Web applications’.  Users shouldn’t have to care, or need to know, that Semantic Web technologies were used.  These are just useful things in our toolbox when developing applications and services.

What are the key challenges that have to be solved to bring those two problems together?

I am really looking for new programming models and ways to add flexibility.  This is not only a technical problem, we also need to change how people think about software and application development.  I have no silver bullets here.

How do you see applications developing in the next few years – compared to the current environment – as you have mention we have to shift our minds from an application that ‘owns and controls’ it’s own data rather than simply interacting with data?

I think, again, this is about changing how people think about application development.  And, more specifically, I would like to see a shift towards data that carries with it some definition of its semantics.

This was one of the key ideas of the Semantic Web, that you could take some data, and if you did not understand it, there would be ‘clues’ in the data itself as to where to go to find what that data means.

As I see it, the semantics of some piece of data either come from the relationship this data has with other data – including some declarative, ‘machine-interpretable’ definition of this data, for example, an ontology – or are ‘hard-wired’ in the software that processes the data.  In my mind, the less we have the latter, and the more we have the former, the better.

In previous interviews you’ve noted that you feel users should have a say “in how they view  information.”  Do you think that users should become involved in making the semantic web more ‘usable’? And if so, how?

I think users should demand more.  There needs to be a clear ‘market need’ for more flexible ways of interacting with information.  User experience is a challenge.

On this topic, I also want to point out how unhappy I am with the modern notion of an ‘app’.  Many apps I have seen tend to merely encapsulate information that would be much better offered through the Web, allowing inter-linking of different content, etc. It kind of goes with what I said earlier about openness…

There’s a lot of guys saying they can plug two systems together easily, but it almost always means at the data level.   It doesn’t really work once you start applying context on top of it.

I’d like to see a middle ground where we have partial interoperability between systems, because that’s how humans interact.

That’s something we’re looking at as well.  I view it like this: when I go through Europe, I can speak a little bit of German, a little bit of French. I’m not very good, but I have to have a minimal level of semantic understanding to get what I want: to get a beer.  I don’t have to understand the language completely, just enough, in context, to act on it.

Speaking of acting on things… Ora, where are you going with semantics in the future?

That’s a good question. Right now I’m working on some problems of big data analytics.

With semantics?

Nokia is investing in large-scale analytics, so I’m in the middle of that right now.

I’m currently looking at how to tackle the problem of how to bootstrap behaviour.  Behaviour and notions of action are not well-tackled in the space of the Semantic Web, and I’d really like to get into bringing two information systems in contact with one another, and have them figure out how to interoperate.

That’s very ambitious.

Right.  And I’m not entirely sure if people understand that that’s an important question to tackle.

Oh, it’s an important question to tackle; it’s just more a question of… Again, you’re very far ahead of the game.

Well, I think that today, if you want to make systems A and B interoperate, it’s usually a large engineering undertaking.  So, it’s directly related to the question of separating information from applications…  you could pick the applications you like and take the information that you’re interested in and make something happen.  In terms of interoperating systems, right now we have a situation where we either have full interoperability, or we have nothing… we have no middle ground.

You can learn more about Ora via his website, blog and  Twitter feed.

[Kim, Michael and Ora Skyped from their homes in Boston and Sydney.]

[This interview has been translated into the Serbo-Croatian language by Jovana Milutinovich of Webhostinggeeks.com]

Growing the Culture of Disruption: A chat with Linda Bernardi, a Most Personable Provocateur

Linda Bernardi, author of ‘Provoke: Why the Global Culture of Disruption is the Only Hope for Innovation, is undoubtably one the most personable provocateurs I’ve ever had the pleasure of speaking with.  The fact that she is as inspiring as she is interesting is a bonus.  Once I read her insightful and thought provoking book, published in November of 2011, I knew I wanted her to launch the 2012 Season of the Innovation Interview Series.

Linda wears an wide variety of hats, she is: CEO of StraTerra Partners, a technology strategy consulting company focussed on new tech adoption; an an early-stage technology Angel Investor in the US, Europe and India; and a board member for several commercial and not-for-profit organizations.  Her work with the Bernardi Leadership Institute sees her training in large enterprises and academia as well as engaging entrepreneurs internationally in Innovation Based Leadership™.  If that weren’t enough, ConnecTerra, the company she founded in 2001, provides RFID tech to large enterprise IT.  All of this underlines that Linda knows what she’s talking about when it comes to ‘Capital I’ Innovation – and yet, as engaging as all of that is, none of it is why I was so determined to interview her for this series.  

The fact is, with all those feathers in her cap, Linda now also wears the hat of an author, and it is for that reason – once I had read Provoke – that I sought her out.

Linda Bernardi: Capital I Interview Series – Number 10

Throughout my reading of ‘Provoke‘, I found myself talking out loud and having a dialogue with the book, “Yeah, that’s right!”… “I know!” … “I’ve thought that for years!”  But, to Linda’s credit, I also learned a great deal, and found myself rethinking certain ‘givens’, which perhaps aren’t given any longer.  Credit where credit is due – I recommend Provoke to anyone interested in moving the economy, especially the economy of Innovation, forward.

Throughout this interview you will find ‘snippets’ from the book.  I hope they inspire you to purchase a copy and dive into your place in the ‘Culture of Disruption’ [CofD] that Linda opens to her readers.

“You are already part of the Culture of Disruption. Just by reading this book, you’ve become a disruptive force.”

Congratulations on writing such an engaging and insightful book Linda.  Provoke prompts readers to ask themselves, “What can I do to become part of, enhance, enrich and ensure a successful Culture of Disruption,” be that in their school or business, and regardless of whether that business is a startup or an entrenched, global corporation. You’ve defined the Culture of Disruption as:

“…the culture that invites and nurtures ideas and ways of thinking that continually disrupt convention wisdom and legacy models.  A CofD needs to be part of any organization looking to innovate.”

Added to that, you have made clear that change is inevitably uncomfortable, at least initially, but Innovation is the responsibility of everyone involved in the ecosystem.  This ecosystem encompasses entrepreneurs and employees, investors and Board of Directors, even academia and the media and, perhaps most importantly, Consumers – who are the market.  As you see it, working together – collaborating – they can create an unstoppable Culture of Disruption.

You refer to Collaboration a great deal in Provoke.  Why is collaboration so important in the Culture of Disruption?

Collaboration has very broad ramifications.  Part of what I hope to do with Provoke is explain the different constituents in the ecosystem… and illustrate how things are changing.  As things get more democratised and open, by nature they become more collaborative, and this includes decision making… even very fundamental decisions such as strategic acquisitions, product directions and market plans.

The process of making these decisions will become much more collaborative within companies.  It will also become more collaborative with the consumer – the market component, because the market now has an immediate voice regarding anything that company does. Decisions that used to be non-collaborative, where a company produced something for the market and the market had to take it or leave it, are now commented upon and can be broken, or not, based on the input of the market. Social media enables bi-directional communication.

These forces, that we never had in the past, allow uni-directional decision making, development, and communication; it’s becoming very bi-directional and collaborative.  For the first time we’re embracing intellectual development on all levels and planning strategic development at a collaborative, global level.  We’re respecting, or learning to respect, the power within individuals – whether they’re within a company or collaborating with the company – and the market.

In opening up to collaboration in such a social way, things are moving very quickly.  Do you see the CofD as evolutionary or revolutionary?

Parts of it are evolutionary, because it would be impossible to say that everybody has to stop what they’re doing and completely change tracks.  If it’s a big company serving tens of millions of consumers, it’s inconceivable that they’d immediately stop what they’re doing, abandon the past, and develop anew. On the other hand, certain Cultures of Disruption can be revolutionary, because they don’t have a legacy burden or have to service a huge market.

“The 3 Is–Inspiration, Impact and Innovation in the CofD.”

To that extent, you see companies like LinkedIn, Facebook and Twitter, new generation companies that can evolve their business model immediately.  Because everything is very dynamic, smaller companies have the ability to be much more agile and evolve very rapidly.  Added to that, the bigger the company becomes, the less likely they are to reward risk and innovation.

Do you think that innovation is always risky?

Actually, I don’t think it is at all.  Innovation, fundamentally, is looking at something that doesn’t exist, or a new way of doing something… creating some new possibilities.  Innovation should be inherent in anything we’re doing.  [Unfortunately] bigger companies tend to think they’re not entrepreneurs.

When I give a lecture to a company where there may be a 100,000 employees, a common [theme] that comes up is, “I’m just an employee; I’m not an entrepreneur.  This stuff does not apply to me.  I can’t bring about change.”

“… a formula for figuring out the odds that a given acquisition will succeed, based on five conditions that exist when the ball gets rolling: 1. Purpose; 2. Plan; 3. Personality; 4. Players; and 5. Panic.”

Well, anyone and anything they do can be innovative.  That is why companies hire them; why companies go to the best universities and hire the best people.  They bring them in because they want their talent.  Their talent means they have brilliant ways of solving problems.  That is innovation!

But something happens in their journey, and within a year or two, these same individuals get frustrated and leave.  It’s ironic because they go off and doing the most fantastic things, and when you ask them, “Why didn’t you do it while you were at work?” They come back to their line of thinking: “I’m not supposed to innovate. I’m not entrepreneurial. I’m an employee.”

Provoke is trying to break that mould… to say that innovation CAN emanate from within.  One of the reasons that I wrote Provoke is to change the lethargic behaviour that we see in big corporations and conglomerates. Most of my clients have one-hundred-and-fifty to two-hundred thousand employees.

The Bernardi Leadership Institute

It is frightening when I enter these companies and see an attitude, which is much more about: “I’m here to do a job and collect a pay check,” versus: “I’m here because I’m super-bright.  I’m here because I have enormous talent and enormous capacity.”  I think they’re only operating at anywhere between 10 to 15 percent of their intellectual capacity in these types of companies.

There are reasons for this.  Often there are a lot of barriers – which I talk about in Provoke –  that prohibit people from being innovative.  After I give a lecture people will approach me and start sharing their stories.  They inevitably revolve around not having a supportive manager, having a leadership that’s disconnected, a system that does not reward risk taking or innovative thinking, and failed systems of capturing innovation from within.

“Smart leaders should be looking at a managing method I call “the baton”: orchestrating diverse groups, allowing expression within the boundaries of an overall plan, and making work emotionally appealing and creative…”

Think about it;  if you have one-hundred thousand employees… if one percent of those people – just one thousand people – were to have one idea a year… that’s one thousand ideas per year!  Yet if you look at the amount of innovation that’s actually captured within companies, it’s maybe three to four ideas per year.

To me, as an ex-CEO, it’s as if these company leaders are willing to bypass their most incredible source of innovation.  Often they think, “Maybe I need to make an acquisition to do an innovation.”  A lot of times the Innovation acquisitions that are made could have been accomplished within companies, but employees within the company were never consulted.  Imagine their motivation level.  The level of inspiration drops proportionally the less people are involved in innovation.

We have to disrupt this model, cultivate and inspire talent, and bring creative thinking out.  Currently I believe this is incredibly dormant, both within the US as well as globally.  Instead, it’s the big company model that prevails, on in which, for some reason, expressiveness and innovation go unrewarded and are even discouraged.

You must meet, at least initially, a great deal of scepticism in these larger corporations.

Well, scepticism is a lot easier than innovation, isn’t it?  In fact, in the five stages of dealing with disruption, scepticism is one of the first stages.  When cloud computing came out, it was very easy for people to be sceptical: “It’s not going to work.  I’m not going to use it as my corporate enterprise system.  It’s going to fail.  Nobody is going to want it.  There are security issues.”  The list went on and on.

When Apple disrupted the music industry and brought out the iPod, it was an incredible revolution, it redefined the entire possibility landscape, it redefined distribution of music.  And then it came up with the iPhone and redefined telcos.

My big clients in Europe all said: “Well, a computer company that’s a music company… they are never going to make it as a phone company.  It’s not possible!  We’re a phone company!”

And when Apple redefined the iPad the sceptics said: “No one is going to walk around with an iPad, and an iPhone, and a MacBook.”  And what do you think are the most three prevalent devices at any meeting I go to?  Those exact three devices!  Then the sceptics said: “Nobody is going to abandon their iPhone just to get a new iPhone,” yet everybody does.

I’m so glad you brought up this question because there is so much scepticism and misunderstanding around innovation.  Innovation – or disruption – doesn’t mean just coming up with a flaky idea, going off and doing something new without considering what the ramifications are.

Innovation (whether it’s  by a small, medium or large company or an individual) looks at the possibility of developing something that doesn’t exist, or expanding on something that exists, and disrupting the model.

“Here are a few tips:

  • Try something that seems crazy.
  • Solve a problem.
  • Observe everything.
  • Ignore the naysayers.
  • Have a strategic plan and execute it
  • Expect more of yourself”

Look at companies like Kodak, which I talk about in Provoke, who owned the entire photography space, and I think about the myriad number of ways that Kodak could have taken digital photography and owned that space… It could have been the hub, the platform for all digital photos.  Or, look at Blackberry, that owned the business of communication smart devices…

I think there are very few companies that are willing to take the broad risk of blatantly innovating in the face of scepticism, while understanding the heightened level of gratification they have to give to the consumer.

Speaking of the consumer, do you see a widening or lessening of the generation gap – between those of a ‘certain’ generation and those part of what you deem Generation I (the Generation of Innovation)?

I’m delighted by how intelligent the consumer is.  Something magnificent is happening today, the like of which we’ve never seen before.  When the first personal computers came out people that were over a certain age, who had never dealt with a computer, never learned.  There was a very distinct gap.

Somehow, in the last five to ten years, with the help of social media, that gap is being bridged to the point where grandparents are revelling in the use of Skype… they know how to use their iPhones.  They feel a part of it.   And that’s fantastic!  A nine-month-old can take an iPad and play a game.  Of course there is a broad range of technical capabilities, but the generational gap is becoming less and less relevant.  In my view, it’s because innovation is becoming more practical and end-user-oriented.

We’re developing things with the idea that the mass of people should be able to use them; things are becoming simpler to consume.  With computers in the past, the art lay in  buying the computer, loading the operating system, figuring out what program to buy, going through the heroic task of installing it and figuring out how to use it.  Only a very small percentage of the population could actually do that.

It’s very different today with the ‘www.anything/anytime’ model, which allows anyone access to anything.  The art is the use rather than the technical prowess to be ‘able’ to use; and that has really diminished the generational gap.

Unfortunately I think a great many technologists miss the fact that, regardless of how ‘smart’ their technology is, if people aren’t using it, it just won’t matter.

Exactly.  If we ask the question, “what makes certain innovation distinct?” it is when you develop something that people use.  In Provoke I discuss each of the constituents within the ecosystem of disruption, which is the enabling body of the Culture of Disruption.  These include the leadership, the board, the investor and the employee.

I then talk about the market and its power, because it’s the market that is totally redefining advertising and marketing.  The market has a tremendous impact.  Look at what happened at Netflix within span of few days.  The company came up with a new business plan, people revolted and called it back.  Imagine if we could have done that  ten years ago with hybrid cars.


When Innovation becomes practical and usable, it redefines everything.  And the beauty of it is that, sooner or later, change is inevitable.  The sooner you embrace the disruption the better.  If you don’t believe in disruption, you’re fundamentally saying that you believe in nothing changing… companies that think like that are the companies that become extinct.

The business equivalent of the dodo bird.


That leads into my next question: is ego bad for innovation?  As a consumer I have a great amount of ego because I feel, more and more, that I can have an effect – especially if I group together with other consumers.  From my perspective as an innovator, I realise that if we (KimmiC) didn’t have ego, perhaps we wouldn’t be as audacious as we are in deciding that we can change the world.  

On the other hand, perhaps part of the reason that people and companies feel they don’t need to change is the ego they have invested in their current offerings.  

What are your thoughts?

It’s a very important question.  If we were to define ego, I think competence, belief, passion and drive are necessary attributes… they’re critical for any of us to do anything significant.  If you didn’t have those you wouldn’t be able to do what you believe you can do.  You wouldn’t have the passion or the drive to do it; or the fundamental belief, as an entrepreneur, that: “I know this is risky but I really believe in the fundamental outcome. I’m going to do it and very little is going to stop me if anything”.

On the other hand there is the misplaced ego, which is ego by virtue of what you’ve been in the past, or what you think you are, or what you think you have to be.  That’s wrong because that completely stifles growth.  Those are the companies (or individuals) that are not innovating, because they believe that if they shatter that ego, everything will fall apart.

It’s necessary to know what you don’t know, to know that you have to learn, and to be eager to learn.  Unfortunately, in the latter group of people (or companies), there’s very little learning or change going on because of their belief: “I’m company X.  I’ve dominated this field.  I own it.  No one can be as good as me.”

At the same time there are some entrepreneurs that can be unfoundedly egotistical.  They believe they know all the answers just because they’ve been successful in the past.  These are the entrepreneurs that believe they’re going to take their social media company public and, suddenly, it’s going to be worth hundreds of billions of dollars.

Those that wear their Google Goggles proudly!

Yeah. Or because they’re 20 years old, they got their Ph.D. at MIT and somebody told them they’re super-bright.  They have expectations, at the age of 23, that they are going to be multi-millionaires on their yacht.

“The comfort and the recklessness born of wildly available capital are actually corrupting innovation. Obstacles and scarcity force us to be better, think creatively, and work harder.”

Silicon Valley, while it’s been enormous in bringing us tremendous innovation, is also the breeding ground for unfounded ego, both in entrepreneurs, corporations and investors.  There are venture capitalists there that believe that, in some sense, they’re God!  One of the things that inspires me about Asia (and some of the other continents) is that they are where Silicon Valley was about 20 years ago.  There’s passion and hunger, but there’s also an incessant energy and drive.  It’s extremely difficult to balance that with unfounded ego.

Talking about Asia brings me back to thinking about scepticism.  I believe, and I think from reading Provoke and speaking to you that you probably have a similar view, that woe betide those who are sceptical of what is going on in Asia.

Right.  One things that got me really worried and started me thinking about writing Provoke was a December 2010, CNN round table of six CEO’s from major companies in Silicon Valley – we’ll leave them unnamed.  For an hour they were being spoke about the prowess of the U.S. versus the global market, and how the U.S. would never lose in the innovation game.

Clearly, they all have operations in various countries outside the U.S. and they definitely, as executives travel there, but the answers they rendered really left me baffled.

“Among giant companies, only Apple and Google seem to have mastered the deliberate act of balancing a youthful, wildly innovative, disruptive organizational ethos with the iron discipline and market focus that produces win after win… What my students and clients want to know is how to capture that same spirit.”

In my role as an investor in companies across the globe, I get a unique opportunity to look at entrepreneurism in various countries at a fundamental level.  For instance, in India there were about 5,100 business plans submitted [to us] last year.  We’re expecting this year to top 7,000.  China, South America, Europe… Talent is everywhere. Genius is everywhere. So to think that it’s going to be in one place is a very dangerous game.

StraTerra Partners

Everything is available everywhere.  So, for companies and the leadership of those companies to sit there and say things like: “We are going to be the leader. Nobody can catch up with us,” really showed enormous blindness.

It could be posited that the current state of the U.S. economy is, at least partially, reflective of that blindness.

Absolutely.  Innovation is collaborative.  Right now, just within my client list, there are three to four million employees. That’s a lot of people.

Just within that group of people, if I can start the process of active thinking and processing, just awakening people to the power that they have, and get them to believe in it…  To believe that an entrepreneur is just somebody that thinks creatively; that they can be, and are, an entrepreneur in what they do.  If the system around them is not designed to listen to them, they should create a system that is.

If enough people think like that… well, how could the leadership of a company resist 50,000 people wanting to express themselves.  What are they going to do? Lay them all off… because they’re thinking creatively?

“People need to feel valuable, creative, inspired.”

Disruption is simply another way to look at something.  Imagine if we’d never experimented… because that by default means disruption.  We would have never had any discovery.  That’s the power of the ‘what if’ culture.  That’s what engineering and science is, it’s about experimentation.  Disruption doesn’t mean disrupting the business, it just means opening up the business to new opportunities.

You mention in Provoke that you’d like an opportunity to rebuild the entire business school paradigm.  How would you change it?

I can actually answer that question with a very concrete answer.  I taught a number of classes last year at the University of Washington, in their MBA program.  It went so well that they’ve now offered me a lecturer position and, starting at end of January, Provoke will be used as a textbook.

It was very interesting to go into a program that’s well-established.  It’s very methodical, like every other MBA program, and I taught it completely differently.  I wanted my audience to participate with me, I wanted the students to think.

I made them  very uncomfortable because I told them I didn’t think they were thinking enough.  At one point I turned around and said I found it completely boring being with them.

I know they’re bright but they were just sitting there waiting for me to teach them things.  I said, “But you know everything!  Let’s talk about how you can change things!”  What ensued were incredible business plans; and I thought: “Oh my God!  They’ve woken up.  Look at what they can do!”

“Professors should pursue corporate relationships, explore creative funding options and worry more about impact and less about tenure.”

This is the first step.  We’re going to incorporate it with formal teaching and, over the course of the year, I hope to expand it to other universities and other business programs.  I really think that business programs have to be completely disrupted and revamped for the new world that we’re entering.

In Provoke you mention your respect for (The Daily Show’s) Jon Stewart.   What is it about Jon that moved you to mention him in particular?

In addition to being a comedian, Jon played a very important role during a very difficult previous [Bush, Cheney] administration.  His was probably the most unbiased and candid voice talking about what was going on in the administration, in congress, in politics in general.

Jon Stewart

Part of the comedy passport that he has allows him to bring things to the foreground and talk about them both in a way that audience connect with.  He is able to make light of very complex things which, frankly, need to be made light of.

It’s ironic, but though he’s a comedian, he’s one of the cleanest source of political news.  That frankness is also needed in discussions about business, Innovation and the Culture of Disruption.

He’s very much a provocateur, as are you.   Like Jon, you don’t seem to have any reticence in voicing your opinion, nor qualms about how you may be perceived in doing this.  That is not necessarily a position that a lot of women are comfortable taking.

I would say that, as we enter 2012, it’s really disturbing to me how few women do what I do.

When I look at technical conferences, and go through the list of keynote speakers, there are no women.  We’re 50% of the workforce, yet we’re not there.  When I sit around an investment table, I don’t have women investors with me.  When I’m on a board of directors, I don’t have women with me.  It’s disturbing to me that in a course of decades, instead of this becoming a non-issue, in fact it’s a real issue in that, women are still uncomfortable taking centre stage.

I’d like to have a lot more women doing what you’re doing – asking tough questions, putting themselves on the map.  But generally women lack a desire for risk.  Women dislike failure and want to play it safe – for a lot of historical reasons – yet women have enormous power.  I’m hoping that, as the world becomes more and more collaborative, more and more women will come to centre stage.

How will you measure the success of Provoke in the Culture of Disruption?

I really believe in the power of the people and I want Provoke to have a role in it.  So, if you ask me: “What would be a measure of success for me in a year?” it is how many people I might have touched with Provoke.  How might I have helped them change their thinking around the inevitability of disruption and their positive role in the Culture of Disruption.  To me, those would be incredible success factors.

“I’m a free thinker, not a Kool-Aid drinker”

If I can just provoke people to think differently, the mathematical combination of possibilities grows infinitely.  I’m very pleased to see  companies – some as large as federal agencies – saying: “You know what? We need to bring in innovative thinking.”  In fact, they’re replacing my “Culture of Disruption” with “Culture of Innovation.”  They’re saying: “You need to help us create our Culture of Innovation.”  Right there, suddenly there’s a positive translation of my dream.  The “Culture of Disruption” has now been translated into the “Culture of Innovation,” or, as you call it, the “Capital I”… which is huge!

Linda is giving a free gift of the first chapter of the Provoke eBook, along with a Culture of Disruption membership card, to any readers of this Innovation Interview who sign up for her monthly ‘Innovation Excellence’ newsletter by clicking this link!!

You can find out more about Linda, Provoke and the Culture of Disruption on her website and blogYou can also connect with Linda on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.

(Kim and Linda Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Seattle.)

Chewing on Black Swan for Christmas

Rather than looking back at 2011, we chose to talk to Doug Vining – chief technology adviser to the FutureWorld Global Think Tank and Editor of MindBullets: News from the Future – about the future, and his hopes for it, in this, the last Innovation Interview of 2011.

Doug Vining: Capital I Interview Series – Number 9

Futurist, entrepreneur, guru, writer and editor – these are only some of the words used to describe Doug Vining.  With an eclectic career which has encompassed advertising, corporate consulting, and working for tech titans such as IBM, Doug has had his finger on the pulse of Innovation and its commercial applications – along with its potential for solving real world problems – for many years.  With 30 years in ‘the game’ and three business degrees, Doug is a tech and strategy consultant, with a particular fascination for emerging technology .

You define yourself as a futurist… what does that term mean to you?

Well, I’m part of a group called ‘FutureWorld‘.  What we do is teach companies and organisations how to learn from the future.  They call us ‘futurists’, but we don’t predict the future, the future is impossible to predict.

Life is not perfect, reality is messy, that is what you should expect.  Anything is possible in the future.  What is needed is an attitude of durability and adaptability… expect the unexpected and learn from what could happen.

We look at scenarios.  We don’t say, “This is what will happen.” We say, “This is the kind of thing that could happen.”  Even if some of it would seem to be improbable.

Very often it’s the  least likely scenarios that occur.  Looking at the opportunities in those scenarios and planning a strategy today, that will help you in the future, that’s what we mean by ‘learning from the future’.

Your fellow FutureWorld gurus are very impressive.

Yes.  For over twenty years “Future World” has been in operation, so we have quite an impressive group of gurus.  There are four core members (I’m including myself) who have been involved with the business for about twenty years, and then there are others who come and go, or get involved in one stage or another.

Your fellow core members are Wolfgang Grulke, Anton Musgrave, and Neil Jacobsohn.

That’s exactly right.  Wolfgang started this whole thing when he was still with IBM.  Many years ago he said, you can’t look to the past for strategy.  Strategy has got to be about the future; strategy and innovation are tied together in that future perspective.

“In this warp-speed world it is no longer enough to learn from experience, we must learn from the future.” Wolfgang Grulke

Anton Musgrave

It’s about agility, adaptability and flexibility.  If you expect everything to be ordered and measured, then unfortunately, you’re going to be wrong.

That sounds like one of your MindBullets.

MindBullets: News from the Future‘ was one of several that Wolfgang came up with. The idea was to present a scenario in the form of a short, sharp news story that would make business executives sit up and think. Executives are often far too focussed on operational issues, and need a jolt to get them to think strategically and consider the future.

The mind bullets are little news stories from the future.  We produce one every week, we’ve been doing it for years.  Because we have been doing it for so long, some of those ‘futures’ have become the present, or the past.  It’s quite interesting to see how many of those MindBullets, which we thought were crazy ideas at the time, actually look pretty normal in today’s world.

Such as?

A big one must be world-wide communication and the adoption of cell phones, and smart mobile devices; it’s completely changed the modern world.  We said that these sort of things would become commonplace.

Another example is an article we wrote four or five years about communication becoming a basic human right.  Just last year the United Nations said that internet access should be considered a human right, and countries are starting to put in broadband for their citizens.  Those are the kind of trends that we considered futuristic at the time, and now they’re commonplace.

Would you say that is something like the smart/mobile phone, which enables easy communication, is the most important piece of innovation in your lifetime?

Absolutely.  In my life time I think the most profound piece of innovation has been the internet and the convergence of the internet, cellphones, and smart mobile devices.

The mobile phone on its own has completely changed the way the world works, especially in places like Africa and Asia.  In the past, for example, a manager, or someone with some product, would have to travel to another town to find out if there was a market for their goods, or their labour.  Often that trip would be a fruitless waste of energy and they would miss other opportunities by making it.  Now, with cell phones, they can find out where there is a demand for their services or products.  That completely changes economic opportunities.

And, of course it’s become more pervasive, more into the realm of social communication. We’ve seen what’s happened in Egypt, and Libya and Tunisia.  The catalyst has been the ability to communicate and organise socially, and to be heard.  People who were powerless have been given power.

Speaking of power, FutureWorld has a very impressive list of clients: huge companies and multinationals such as British Airways, Cisco Systems, The Financial Times, Gartner, IBM, Kraft, Microsoft, SAP and Oracle. 

There’s a number of reasons for that.  When we engage with clients on a formal basis we are quite expensive, so start-ups can’t afford us.  And, start-ups normally already have that innovation… that future-looking, crazy-idea mentality.

Therefore, yes, most of our clients are big corporates who are kind of set in their ways and very static.  They need the intervention from FutureWorld to get them to consider programs of innovation such as setting up a separate a business unit to take new ideas into the future.  Start-ups don’t need us and can’t afford us; big companies who can afford us definitely need us.

I suppose one of the ways that a start-up, or an individual, could gain access to you and the rest of the gurus would be to sign up to MindBullets.

Absolutely. There are a number of entrepreneurs who’ve been subscribing to MindBullets for years.  There’s a lot of intellectual property, a lot of our thinking, available for free on our website.  We also started a discussion forum; everyone that subscribes is free to comment and enjoy the conversation.

And the controversy?

That’s the point.  The future actually awards people who stand out.  I mean, look at Steve Jobs. He was the obvious example of the unreasonable man.  He wasn’t part of the crowd; he was a maverick.  He expected the impossible and he often got it.  There’s an old saying: “To change the world all you need is an unreasonable man”.

There’s a book called “The Black Swan“, written by the international speaker Nassim Taleb.  Now, a black swan is an inventor or invention that is unreal, unusual, and appears to be random.  But, it – the black swan – completely changes the landscape and the status quo; so much so that things are never the same again.

The origin of the black swan was from the time in history when all swans were thought to be white (because all swans in Europe were white).  This thought prevailed until someone from Europe went to Australia and ‘discovered’ the black swans there.  Of course the discovery completely changed the previous volume of knowledge… the certainty that all swans were white.

There are so many obvious examples of black-swan events, like the 9/11 attacks, the Fukushima tsunami, and earthquake.  Even the global adoption of mobile phones is a kind of black swan thing.  People didn’t predict it, they didn’t expect to be quite so dramatic, and so profound in its impact.  The key thing about the black swan is the world will never be the same again; we can never go back to the way it used to be.

With that in mind, do you think that movements such as OWS (Occupy Wall Street) are Black Swan events?

I do.  I think that they are important events.  I think they’re also a symptom of a shift in mind-set.

There are a number of themes around this kind of thinking.  The first one is the rise of the individual.  One of the lessons from the future is that the individual becomes much more powerful than institutions, and corporations.  The individual has the power to connect, to communicate, to organise and to make big changes in society, and economies.

A more recent theme, which Niel (Jacobson) and I put together over the last year or so is called “Naked Leadership“.

Neil Jacobsohn

This theme has proved to be very popular with our clients in the last few months.  It looks at social media bringing about things like the Occupy movements, and the uprisings in Egypt, and Tunisia.  There are number of factors playing there: communication, the power of individuals, the transparency that people demand, and the fact that institutions, countries, governments, big businesses, and big brands, are no longer in control.

I wouldn’t like to predict where it’s going to, as it does change from day to day, but there is the argument that Occupy Wall Street is the manifestation of individuals demanding their rights, and their freedom.  On the other hand, there’s a feeling that this could be a kind of socialism which could subjugate individual desires of to those of ‘the group’.  Once the 99% are in power, where does the individual stand?

How very Ayn Rand-ian.

Exactly. It’s about individual rights being under threat.

Speaking of individuals, who inspires you as an Innovator?

One of the innovators who I truly, truly admire is a young chap called Elon Musk.  Elon is a multi-millionaire entrepreneurs living in California, but he is originally from South Africa. He helped found PayPal, which he sold for hundreds of millions of dollars.  He’s currently involved in three things: Tesla Motors (electric cars); SpaceX, his private company, which is the first private commercial company to launch a space craft into the atmosphere and orbit Earth; and, he’s also very interested in the concept of green energy.

Elon Musk

This year [2011] he was awarded half a million dollars for the Heinlein Prize, for ‘accomplishments in commercial space activities’ – which is no mean feat; and apparently (according to Wikipedia and Jon Favreau) he was the inspiration for Tony Stark, of the ‘Iron Man’ movies.

He’s an amazing guy.  And, it just shows you that innovation can come from strange places.  I think Elon epitomises what I consider to be a ‘Capital I’ Innovator.  At FutureWorld we talk about Radical Innovation, which think that ties into your view on “Capital I” innovation.


Radical Innovation creates new products, new businesses, new business units, and creates a steep difference in the performance of a company.  That’s one of the truths you learn from the future… to create radical innovation in your businesses and in your life.

Radical Innovation is about expecting and getting ready for what’s next…  the next big, radical, exponential increase.  Sometimes that means you have to kill off your old business to make room for your new one.

An example of that, of course, is the iPod.  Sony could have had the iPod years before Apple did, but they said: “No! It’s going to cannibalise our Walkman business”.  Of course it did; except Apple did it for them!

That’s just a typical example.  That’s one of the lessons from the future: eat yourself before someone else does.

Its about consistently, and continuously are editing yourself.  Very Darwinian.

Certainly radical innovation is all about taking risks and finding those opportunities that are going to be the next big thing, even if it does mean killing off existing things.

When we go to companies, we try and help them to engage in programs of radical innovation.  We say that they should look at using their existing businesses, which hopefully include some cash cows, to produce the revenue necessary to invest in risky ventures for the future.  It’s like taking some of your mature business lines and nurturing them, while at the same time pouring money into more risky things that may be the next radical businesses of the future.

As a futurist, do you have any thoughts or lessons to share for 2012; what do you think we should be looking out for?

Well the problem is that, for me, 2012 is almost yesterday.  We’re looking beyond 2020, because what’s going to happen next year is already old hat… it’s kind of discarded and even obvious.  The longer view is much more important and much more interesting.  Having said that, there are lots of thing that I expect, maybe not to happen, but to start becoming much more mainstream.

One of the things that I’ve been talking about for years is solar energy becoming cheaper and more efficient.  To the extent that, ultimately, it will probably dominate as a primal form of energy world-wide.  Now, there are many reasons why you might want to debate that, but it certainly seems to be emerging as highly probable.

I’ve got a blog where I talk about ‘The New Energy’.  Whether it’s solar, biofuel, bacteria [microbial fuel cell], genetically-modified organisms or organic waste [pyrolysis], I think it’s definitely in the future.  When?  I don’t know.  But the sooner the better as far as I’m concerned, because it will offer so many opportunities and solutions to problems that everyone assumes can only get worse.

This is the big thing about the future: futurists are very optimistic.  You have to be!

Image: Peter Griffin

I think we will see black swans in climate change, in energy, in communication, and all sorts of things.  I believe that the future beyond 2020 will be a bright future.

(Kim and Doug Skype’d from their homes in Sydney and Johannesburg.)

This is the last Innovation Interview of 2011. I’d like to take this opportunity, on behalf of Michael and myself, to thank all the Interesting, Insightful, and Inspiring ‘Capital I’ Innovators who have given their time so graciously and who’ve been so enthusiastic in becoming involved in the Innovation Interview Series this year.

We’d also like to send our thanks to the thousands of people who have joined us on this journey, as readers, supporters, commentors and influencers.

To all of you we wish a very happy holiday season and an Innovative 2012!


‘Capital I’ Innovation (Part 1)

Recently I read an article on Anthill.com, ‘Innovation: Australia is screwed without it. Really, really screwed. One of the premises the article and its accompanying video put forth was that, while 95% of Australian businesses claim they’re innovative, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics only 40% actually undertake any form of innovation activity. Hmmmmm. Somebody’s got some ‘splaining to do.

Unsurprisingly, I was a little confused, and I started to wonder, what’s up with Australia and innovation? Now I don’t mean ‘little i’ innovation… I mean ‘Capital I’, game changing, in your face Innovation. We’re not talking ‘lipstick on the bullfrog’ here people. We’re talking a whole new species. Or at least we should be. And we should be talking about it together.

My questioning led me to explore the GE Global Innovation Barometer for 2011 and, globally at least, the facts are quite heartening. For instance,

  • 95% of respondents believe innovation is the main lever for a more competitive national economy.

As encouraging is that the vast majority of respondents believe innovation can improve the lives of their country’s citizens in the next ten years.

  • 74% believe innovation can improve housing quality;
  • 77% believe innovation can improve the quality of education;
  • 82% believe innovation can improve energy security;
  • 87% believe innovation can improve health (care) quality;
  • 88% believe innovation is the best way to create jobs in their country; and
  • 90% believe innovation can improve communications.

All of these illustrate excellent reasons for individuals to buy-in to the necessity for ‘Capital I’ Innovation.

GE Global Innovation Barometer: Positive Perceptions

But what about business? Well, 75% of the global respondents believe:

  • SMEs and individuals can be as innovative as large companies;
  • The greatest 21st Century innovations will bring value to society as a whole, not only to individual consumers or citizens; and
  • The majority of innovation in the next ten years will be driven by a combination of players partnering together.

So what’s the Aussie problem? In a nutshell, only 2% of respondents saw Australia as a leading innovation champion. This is in contrast to the US (67%), Germany (44%), China (35%), and India (12%). I’m reminded of the quintessential line from the classic film Cool Hand Luke, “What we got here is… failure to communicate.”

GE Global Innovation Barometer: Optimism Index Country Ranking Chart

The bottom line that we need to be talking about is that Impactful Innovation in the 21st Century will require incorporating Partnerships who Integrate Solutions which focus on Individuals. However, this takes vision and an ability to factor in risk. And risk or the unwillingness to take it is, as some would see it, Australia’s problem.

The thing is, Australia is a traditional country. Now first let me hasten to note that there are, of course, exceptions to this rule. But, generally speaking, Australia wants to protect what it has rather than taking a risk by betting on something new, something they don’t know. It can be scary to switch to a knowledge based economy.

GE Global Innovation Barometer: Most Negative Perceptions

Peter Riddles, CEO of ViciBio Pty, has recognized this problem for years. Riddles works with governments and economic regions on innovation and strategies for industry growth, and with new ventures and universities in innovation and commercialization. To his mind, “Australia is a commodity and services based economy and is therefore not necessarily geared to be a knowledge based economy.” Agreed.

However, if Australia – in both the private and public sector – doesn’t support its own entrepreneurs endeavoring to launch ‘Capital I’ Innovation, some other country will, and will profit from it. As noted in last week’s blog, there is a multitude of multinational companies drooling to drink at the well of profit that the NBN scheme is likely to provide them. Regrettably, it is likely that only droplets will be left for any local businesses – unless, of course, they come in under the guise of a foreign flag.

All is not lost though; there is still time, and certainly a degree of opportunity, for Australia to lead the way in some form(s) of ‘Capital I’ Innovation. This is particularly true in the realm of health care. I have long said that I believe it is part of the Australian psyche to provide sustainable health care to its citizens, regardless of how rural and/or remote their location.

True, up to this point there has been a reliance upon ‘little i’ innovation but, to date, this has stood them in good stead. Australians took the international ‘Capital I’ Innovations of radio and airplanes, and created the ‘little i’ innovation that became the world renowned Flying Doctors. Huzzah! However, these are laurels that can no longer be rested upon.

Australia must support and cultivate a culture of ‘Capital I’ Innovation and, balanced with its need for security in a traditional economy, it must become a nation which supports and encourages entrepreneurship and a knowledge based economy.

As Peter Riddles noted in our chat this week, “Innovation is what entrepreneurs do.” And with some of its most innovative and entrepreneurial minds finding it easier to do business off the ‘Big Island’ Australia is not only suffering from a ‘brain drain’, but also from a sizable loss of potential profits. When your entrepreneurs know that it makes more sense for them to sell their wares to an American company, and then have the Americans sell it back to Oz – there is a fundamental problem in the plan.

Australia has the brain power to create ‘Capital I’ Innovation. What it needs is the courage capitalize on this. Australian entrepreneurs must be empowered locally to think and act globally. It is then that they will begin to take the lead in ‘Capital I’ Innovation rather than creating yet another iPad application.