The Spark.Me conference just sparked up with a rather passionate and completely unexpected talk by professor Alf Rehn, one of the most interesting new voices in business thought today. A well-regarded academic, who combines rigorous analysis with a creative and often surprising outlook on life, decided to use his time on stage to dissect a word we throw around a lot, a trend and a hype that consumes us today- innovation. And this academic enfant terrible, slammed the culture of “innovation” (quotation marks intentional) right there on the stage, and slammed it hard.
When opening a conference you should talk about happy shiny things, says Rehn, but sometimes we should open a conference with a warning. Events like this can be dangerous, because people often talk about the comfort zone, that mythical place where other people live. Not the beautiful, fun, hip, border hopping limits testing us. We love to think of ourselves as the disruptive, digital, sexy, and when we all get together int he same room, that room becomes a comfort zone of likeminded people.
Talking About Inovation Is Easy, Innovation Is Hard
But there is a crisis in the innovation field, and lots of bullshit gets told. What we’re missing is some doubt and innovation skepticism. Innovation is the most important word in our society and we overuse it so horribly, warns Rehn, right along with ”disruption”, that it is losing meaning. When we describe candy floss taste infused grapes and peanut butter pop tarts as “innovative” , and not raising any questions about what innovation really is, we are stepping on thin ice.
We have made innovation into an industry, but not a productive one- talking about innovation is easy, but being innovative, that’s hard. Which is why we have so little real innovation, and such a big innovation hype machine, producing innovation porn, but also money.
Innovation pornography (not innovative pornography, that’s for Germans, says Rehn, followed by a huge applause implying that a lot of the audience knows just what he’s talking about, wink wink) is produced by writers, speakers, bloggers who tell cock-and-bull stories of potent innovation heroes boldly overcoming obstacles:
That relates to reality the same way porn relates to actual sex- very little. Both sex and innovation can be hard to come by, problematic, messy and you don’t always reach that climax you desire.
We May Be The Generation Of Innovators, But What Are Our Innovations?
We’ve reached an innovation fatigue, and innovation has come to mean very little, which leads us to a very distinct case of innovation crisis. We always imagine that we are the generation of innovators, those who change the world, but when we take a closer look we see that it isn’t so. We had an innovation boom somewhere after 17th centuries, when we did little things like sewage system and penicillin, but nothing lik we do now.
Take the Yo! App as an example. It’s an app that elt’s you send a Yo! to a friend at a bush of a button on your smartphone, and Yo! back. It also has 50 000 users, 4 millions of Yo’s sent and it secured more than one million dollar funding. Is this the face of innovation? Is this what we are funding, asks Rehn and is this a really where we want to head as a society?
The hype machine doesn’t want you to look at these figures because you just might realize what a gap there is between what you are putting in innovation and what you are getting. Innovation is supposed to get us forward, not just get another round of funding.
And we have to get it back.
And how do we do that?
For starters, let’s stop talking about disruptive- transformative beats disruptive any day of the week. Let’s stop talking about popular and sexy and freemium, usind a handful of business models and app ideas and calling them innovative:
Sometimes innovation has to do with garbage disposal and water management, the least sexy things in the world, but sexy does not stand for important.
Not everything needs to be revolutionary, but we should realize that innovation is manifold, and remember that it is about creating something. It is not people like you creating things for people like you– all the people in this room are very much alike, Rehn points out, and we are a small percentage of population, a speck in t he society. We forget those who not only need our help also those who are our greatest potential market, if we can actually make something new, something innovative, something people need.
The future of innovation and those who build it starts in this room, Rehn reminds us, as it always does, in rooms around the world. There are two possible paths we can chose– we will either create more and more apps which will make tiny difference but the literature will tell us they’re amazing. Or, we will review how we talk and act and think about this thing we call innovation, start a provocative dicussion and ask ourselves „Is this what we are looking for? And if it’s not, let’s not do it anymore. Let’s do important.