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Is innovation stagnating?

Posting in Technology

"Innovation" has been one of the most popular--and arguably overused--business buzzwords for nearly the last decade. The Economist's recent cover story, "Has the ideas machine broken down?" examines whether skeptics are right in theorizing that today's most popular inventions are really not as life-changing as they may seem. Some economists, academics, and Silicon Valley veterans believe that using the I-word to describe the hottest products and services of the 2010s might be more hype than deep truth.

"A world where all can use Twitter but hardly any can commute by air is less impressive than the futures dreamed of in the past," writes the anonymous voice of The Economist, paraphrasing the sentiment of venture capitalist Peter Thiel and his colleagues at the Founders Fund.

Why the pessimism? Some say we've simply already invented most of the life-changing gadgets (toilets! phones!) that we can. Others point out that in the so-called developed world, the relationship between GDP growth and improvement in technology is not too impressive these days. Conversely, of course, in developing markets, there's a sense of growth related to technology's effects, mainly because they are playing catch-up. Others blame the machines that were invented during earlier, more innovative times for a lack of "progress," if we can define progress as increased productivity and incomes. You see, computers and other devices have actually made it easier to get things done, faster, and eliminated jobs.

Some academics, such as Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwest University, believe that such innovations as the ability to use electricity or basic telephony are simply hard acts to follow. The Economist also points out that the rate of dramatic, life-changing innovation seems to be slowing. Compare the experiences of cooking at home in 1900 versus 1970: it's a difference of using ice blocks delivered by horse-drawn carriages versus a fridge and freezer. Planes and cars are pretty much the same as they were nearly half a century ago. But we can update our statuses on Facebook.

The piece goes on to make an argument for optimism for the state of innovation today by claiming that we have not yet seen the full effects of recent advances in information technology. Reading it, I wondered whether we simply need to stop comparing today's rate of "invention" with the outdated markers of progress in the past. So what if planes and cars have the same basic shapes and purposes? So do pants and toothbrushes and forks and wheels. Do we need to re-invent those or declare human ingenuity stagnant?

As The Economist goes on to mention, there are opportunities in developing driverless cars, 3-D printing (including of biological matter), and gesture-based computing, among other products and services. There are also, obviously, many advances to be made in medicine when it comes to eradicating or at least improving how we manage diseases. I'm oversimplifying the article -- which goes into the details of historical patterns of innovation--and its arguments. It's worth a read for anyone seeking to "innovate" and that really means all of us. At a time when in the developed world, entire industries are in need of reinvention or risk collapse, and in the developing world, entire industries need to be invented, the I-word is as important as ever to discuss, debate, and define.

Image: Corey Templeton/Flickr

— By on January 17, 2013, 12:31 PM PST

Reena Jana

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Reena Jana has written for the New York Times, Wired, Harvard Business Review online, Fast Company, Architectural Record, Artforum, Time Out New York, Harper's Bazaar, and GQ. Previously, she was the innovation department editor at BusinessWeek. She holds degrees from Columbia University and Barnard College. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure