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Innovators of past enabling our future

Walter Isaascon collated the history of the technology industry into a series of short stories in his book “The Innovators”. Here are some insights into how we can realise the potential of people, technology and business.

Encourage diversity of thought Ada Lovelace (1815 to 1857), daughter of the great English poet Byron, was, in the early 1800s, the first person to document a computer software program as an algorithm (wow! Just wow!). For Ada, learning was exceptionally important. She was tutored by Charles Babbage, who was paid by the British Government to explore technical hardware. Ada was inspired, explored what could be achieved on the hardware, and developed ‘software’ language. Ada’s mother sought to balance her creative side, which was passed on from her father, with some mathematics, and this was Babbage’s role. Sadly, Ada passed away at 36, the same age as her father, who was a Luddite. Byron spoke of the risks of change and actively resisted change, whereas Ada challenged this and encouraged diversity of thought.

Technology reduces costs and enhances capability Technology through innovation improves capability at reduced cost. The first prototype chip for the Apollo guidance computer cost $1,000, and, by the time it was in regular use, it cost $20. The average cost for a microchip in a missile in 1962 was $50, and by 1968 this was $2, which then encouraged the development of the microchip market for devices for ordinary consumers. Sensible timing and a structured approach can reduce costs and create possibilities; in this regard, business cases generally make sense.

Processing power will accelerate exponentially ‘Moore’s Law’ is that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit will double every two years. This was as much a prediction as a self-fulfilling prophecy, with the industry setting this as a goal in the second half of the twentieth century. Moore’s Law is forecast to end around 2020, as other emerging technologies are expected to redefine possibilities.

Strive for greater diversity with flexibility Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard managed three shifts of workers (many with women) through flexible working patterns in the 1950's. The role of women and their key role within the technology industry has been a key component for the industry. The workers were given plenty of leeway for determining how to accomplish objectives and for applying diversity of thought. Management hierarchies were flattened when merged with this flexible approach. Diversity of thought with flexibility will contribute to result in great outcomes.

Casual connections spark ideas Robert Noyce, nicknamed ‘the Mayor of Silicon Valley’, developed a more open and unstructured workplace after working in a rigid hierarchy. He was a key initiator of the ‘Californian lifestyle of work’. His objective was to enable ideas to be sparked, dissented to, refined, and applied without ‘people having to go up through a chain of command’. The ‘Mayor’ created a true meritocracy by empowering employees, resulting in them being more entrepreneurial.

Ideas must be combined with business skills Innovation from engineering talent must be combined early with business skills so as to set the world aflame. Many good ideas simply remain good ideas due to a lack of diversity of thought. Einstein once said that ‘intuition is nothing but the outcome of earlier intellectual experience’. People should strive to take insights from multiple sources and put them together. For example, there are ideas from the ‘hippie movement’ that helped define Silicon Valley:

  • Authority should be questioned

  • Hierarchies should be circumvented

  • Non-conformity should be admired

  • Creativity should be nurtured.

Be rational but decisive Innovation requires some decisiveness that is not based on emotion, personal favouritism or whim but rather on a rational and precise analysis of options. By analysis, decisions can then be respected. People may disagree, but with a process that is crisp, clean and fair, they are more likely to accept decisions. Endeavour to avoid significant ambiguity when ideas are being formulated and seek to refine ideas and assess them.

Simply smart The greatest creativity has come from those who have connected the arts and sciences. For example, people like Steve Jobs believed that beauty mattered. True geniuses such as Kepler, Newton, Einstein, and Jobs had an instinct for simplicity. Many of us are smart, but can we be simple? Simplicity allows you potentially to reach the largest audience.

Divergence delays potential The internet and the PC were both born in the 1970s, but they grew separately from one another. There was a difference in mindset between ‘networkers’ and those ‘excited by the PC’. Tim Berners Lee, inventor of the World Wide Web, who tinkered with various technologies that were not as successful as the WWW, stated: ‘We didn’t have the same ripe community and cultural mix around us like Homebrew and Silicon Valley’. New ideas occur when random notions mix together until they coalesce. As Tim explains, ‘they may not fit well, and then we go for a bike ride or something, and it’s better’. Exercise the mind as well as the body.

Connect your experts In January 1994, there was only 700 websites, but, by the end of the year, there were 10,000, and then 100,000 by the end of 1995. In 1997, John Barger produced a fun website called ‘The First Blog’. By 2014, there would be 847 MILLION blogs. This was achieved in the way that most digital tools get commandeered for social purposes, evolving into communities. Connected communities can disrupt industries. Encyclopaedia Britannica stopped publishing a print edition in 2010 and now represents less than 2% of the content of Wikipedia, which began in 2001. With Wikipedia, people were initially concerned about the lack of experts; however, the crowd became the experts, sharing, critiquing and correcting knowledge. Who are your experts and how connected are they?

Structure creative collaboration Creativity is a collaborative process. Innovation comes from teams more often than the light-bulb moments of geniuses. Innovation requires at least three things:

  • A great idea

  • The engineering talent to execute it

  • Business savvy and the deal-making capability to turn it into a successful product.

The best innovators are communities ‘who can link beauty to engineering, humanity to technology and poetry to processes’. Visionaries must be partnered with those that can execute; a vision without execution is a mere hallucination.


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