Better Together: Back to the lab again

A bi-weekly column exploring the intersection of entrepreneurship and community by Sam Davidson

Lately I’ve been asking a lot of people the same question: What is innovation?

Answers vary but usually focus on the typical defaults of AI, technology, blockchain, apps, or breakthroughs in any given industry. 

Of course the more important question is not what it is, but how it happens. 

Entrepreneurs are thought to be on the forefront of innovation, but that coupling is too generous. Not all new businesses are innovative. In fact, you can make a strong case that oftentimes the more boring the business, the higher the returns. 

Therefore, Innovation for innovation’s sake is rarely a path to profitability. Instead of focusing on what’s innovative, I ask two qualifying questions about a business idea/technology/plan/dream: 

  1. Is it new?
  2. Is it necessary?

If both of those questions are answered in the affirmative, congrats; you’re well on your way to being innovative. But answering these two questions also highlights a glaring fact: innovation is always a product of its time.

Case in point: the mighty paperclip.

Prior to its arrival, offices (which were newer inventions, thanks to an office culture borne from the industrial revolution) were chaotic. Physical papers (again, a newer arrival) were strewn about. Whenever a stack needed to be delivered from one person to another, the best option was to roll them and then tie the roll shut with twine. 

Oh, how far we’ve come. 

In 1867, Samuel Fay was awarded the patent for a single wire paperclip. Offices became less chaotic and eventually devolved to the uniform cubicle hell we currently call “fast-paced.” And the paperclip is largely unchanged since its invention. 

Billions are still manufactured annually, yet the paperclip is rarely thought of as innovative. Necessary, yes. But not so new anymore. 

Innovation: a product of its time.

Innovators love innovation and they also love claiming to have the monopoly on how innovation happens. But no one owns this market.

Tesla didn’t come out of the brains of a car company’s boardroom. Stripe wasn’t invented by a bank and Amazon wasn’t birthed from retail giants. Innovation doesn’t happen in skylines or ivory towers, as much as those in power wish it were so. 

Power’s first priority is usually to protect itself, not to risk itself. And innovation usually aims to upset and unseat power.

Where does innovation typically happen?

In the labs, garages, in basements, and in sheds. It takes a dreamer, a doer, and a darer to question the status quo and innovate their way out of and around it. 

So if companies and cities want to become and stay innovative, spend less on towers and more on tinkerers. Build the labs and the garages and entice people to fill them. 

Then sit back and watch as the next new, necessary thing comes from your shorelines and neighborhoods that a few generations from now people will still remember, use, and celebrate.

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