Startups aren’t the answer, data-driven system-wide innovation is

The folks over at Edge have a really interesting read on innovation, creativity and culture by Mark Pagel. I had a couple reactions to this:

(1) Is innovation always data-driven? Mark makes a rather compelling argument that innovation is rarely the result of someone seeing a process or tool and automatically knowing how to make it better—it’s usually a combination of copying and trial-and-error. This leads me to think the argument is actually that innovation involves a process of evaluating how well something is working (e.g., measuring its success), and iterating to make it work better. I don’t know how much I buy it as an absolute—that all innovation is data-driven—but I suspect that it holds for the vast majority of cases.

(2) How many of us should or will be innovators?  Mark makes a compelling enough argument that any given individual in a society relies more on copying than he does on innovating—this is not to say that innovation isn’t important. The argument seems to be that any given innovation scales easily, and it scales more and more easily the more connected a society becomes. With the Internet, he argues, we need even fewer individuals innovating, because an idea that pops up in southeast Asia can make its way around the world in no time. He also makes a point about language—so I think the advent of online translation tools are also part of his argument. He seems to be saying that most of us are organized to be copiers or consumers of other people’s innovations.

What interests me about these two points in combination is what that means for how we organize as a society—how we distribute resources and human capital.

On the point about how many of us should be innovators, I think Mark is both right and wrong. He’s right if when we talk about innovation we mean new idea creation, or what I’ll call isolated innovation. That’s the idea of innovation that two guys in a garage can build something revolutionary and change the world. We saw a lot of this type of innovation in the past century. But I think Mark is a little bit wrong if we want to talk about the type of innovation we need to see more of in the next century, which I’d argue is not going to be isolated but rather systemic innovation.

The biggest problems we face this century are systems problems—climate and environment, public health, sustainable urban development, etc. These types of problems won’t be solved by two guys in a garage. Instead we need data-driven innovation at scale: we need lots of well-funded scientists collecting, sharing and analyzing huge data sets about complex systems.

If you agree with me so far, I think this suggests a few different things.

  • We need to divorce the idea of innovation from startups. Innovation is as much about existing, large institutions as it is smaller, new ones. Instead of talking about start-ups, we should focus on R&D policy—and make sure that it is size-agnostic.
  • We need to be able to collect, share and analyze data across institutions for the purposes of innovation. This means creating open data standards, especially in the public sector. Proposals like the EU Open Data strategy and work done on are encouraging.
  • Some of the data we will need to analyze is going to be personal data, so we need mechanisms to support consent in the innovation process. This is why projects like the one John Wilbanks is leading, Consent to Research, are so important.
  • Analyzing the large sets of data that will drive a lot of this innovation will mean using the cloud. It’s just not cost-effective to expect everyone to run their own data centers for this type of computation. We need to reduce barriers to access these cloud services, such as restrictions on cross-border data flow. The APEC Pathfinder project is one encouraging effort to achieve this goal.

Just a few thoughts on a very big subject. 

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