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Home / Opinion / Columns /  Opinion | The big picture of innovation is in the small things

In his absorbing book, Elon Musk: How The Billionaire CEO Of SpaceX And Tesla is Shaping Our Future, Ashlee Vance brings to light an interesting take on innovation—an innovation lull. To drive home the point, the author references physicist Jonathan Huebner’s research paper, “A Possible Declining Trend In Worldwide Innovation", which, according to Vance, can either be seen as “an indictment of Silicon Valley or an ominous warning".

Huebner believes that innovation is a finite resource. He opted to use a tree as a metaphor to describe what he saw as the state of innovation. Man has already climbed past the trunk of the tree and onto its major limbs, mining most of the really big game-changing ideas—the wheel, electricity, the airplane, the telephone, the transistor. Now, we are left dangling near the end of the branches at the top of the tree and mostly just refining past inventions. Huebner’s research plotted major innovations over time compared to the world population and showed that the frequency of life-changing inventions has started to slow. While innovations peaked in 1873, it has since been declining, and is projected to reach its economic limit by 2038. Interestingly, the period between 1873 and 1915 was certainly an innovative one. For instance, it included the major patent-producing years of one of the greatest inventor Thomas Alva Edison (1847-1931) who patented more than 1,000 inventions, including the incandescent bulb, electricity generation and distribution grids, movie cameras and the phonograph.

Cut to the present. At a time when you believe that you are in technological nirvana, a view that tests the limits of technological innovation certainly comes as an unfashionable one. Or does it? Such line of thinking does find resonance with some of Silicon Valley’s top tech investors.

Remember this famous quote from Peter Thiel: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters." What is lesser known is the following: “You have as much computing power in your iPhone as was available at the time of the Apollo missions. But what is it being used for? It’s being used to throw angry birds at pigs; it’s being used to send pictures of your cat to people halfway around the world; it’s being used to check in as the virtual mayor of a virtual nowhere, while you’re riding a subway from the nineteenth century."

It also resonates with what some venture capitalists have been ranting about back home for a while: A cut-copy-paste mindset of entrepreneurs; building an Amazon of India, building an Airbnb of India, or questioning themselves when they meet startups—“Are you inventing something like a vitamin–where people can eat it every day, but if they don’t they’re still going to be okay–or are you inventing something like a cancer drug, where people have to eat it every day or they won’t be able to survive. You get the picture, right?

But, most believe that India is now steadily upping its game on the innovation quotient, even though it plays a catch up game with Silicon Valley, China or Israel. So, how well do we score?

The answers varies from “we are getting there to we are already there…". Some even directed me towards the correct parameter for measuring innovation--something that should impact, and how many lives does it touch. On that metric, India scores high. “When a domestic airline like Indigo designs the dresses of its airline staff such that the flight attendant zips herself up in one go to keep up with her airline’s motto of on-time arrival, there’s process innovation. When Flipkart introduces cash-on-delivery to better suit the spending habits of the Indian consumer base, that’s innovation, too. When a company like Forus Health uses local know-how to offer cataract screening at one-third the price point compared to other markets, that’s reverse innovation, and so on." Point taken, innovation is being found in small things and should be appreciated.

But what about the big picture? Most futurologists say technology is developing at exponential rates, but innovation may seem to be slowing even as its real pace accelerates, because it’s slipping from human hands and fading from human view. According to theorist John Smart, more and more progress is taking place “under the hood" in the form of abstract computing processes. He cites an example of a modern car and the amount of computation–design, supply chain and process automation–that goes into building it.

Going forward, artificial intelligence or AI is really being seen as the game-changer--the new electricity. One sees the eyes of VCs shine once again with the mention of AI–as was seen in the previous two gold rushes of e-commerce and fin-tech. Just as we started to electrify the world through the electrical revolution, AI is poised to start an equally large transformation on many industries, perhaps barring hairdressing, they say.

The big picture of innovation is small--globally it’s about refining old ones, locally it’s in small doses. But, at a time when too much capital is around, and voices like “its great time to be an entrepreneur" are gaining strength, it would be interesting to see whether it heralds the golden or the dark age of innovation, as Huebner puts it!

Shrija Agrawal is Mint’s associate editor. Due Diligence will cover issues in India’s venture capital, private equity and deals space.

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