Oprah Time: Closing the innovation gap by Judy Estrin

Innovation is an overused word, companies like to have it associated with their brand, products and services as it affects both the share price: covering management sins and providing investors with a veneer of hope for future growth. In a previous life, I worked at a firm where we used to talk about doing ‘innovation communications’. Where the theory went, we helped innovative companies communicate the fact that they were innovative.

All this pre-supposed that we had a clear definition of what innovation was. From my time there, there seemed to be an assumption that all IT and biomedical related businesses were essentially innovative (unless they competed against our existing client base).

Whereas a food business that borrowed the ‘virtual fab’ model from chipmakers in the semiconductor industry to take on big guns like Proctor & Gamble or PepsiCo wasn’t. I guess the bottom line I am trying to get across is that innovation is critically important, yet tragically misunderstood by many people.

Judy Estrin has a genuine pedigree in innovation coming from a family of innovators. Her father worked with John von Neumann (the father of modern digital computing) at the Institute of Advanced Studies in Princeton and her mother was a professor at the computer science department of UCLA.  Judy has a Silicon Valley pedigree having had senior roles or been a board member at: Sun Microsystem (who build servers on which banks, telecoms providers and many dot.coms depended – now part of Oracle), Cisco (who pretty much are the internet infrastructure) and FedEx.

The book addresses the challenge of innovation that we currently have.

I have had a gut feeling about the decline in pace of innovation over the past decade or so. In a lot of respects improvements in computing have lost their sparkle, they longer feel like a leap forward, but more of the same.

When I think about the dot com period there were meaningful improvements in telecoms hardware, web technology, software and business processes – not all of them where financially successful but things felt as if they moved forward.

If I think about web 2.0 – the biggest single improvement was more of a software engineering improvement with a deliberate focus by the likes of 37signals and the original flickr team on avoiding feature bloat at the expense of usability.

Facebook is an evolution from the likes of The WELL, Friendster, Friends Reunited and MySpace – rather than a true innovation.

The iPhone whilst beautifully crafted in terms of software and hardware, increasingly reminds me of my long departed Palm Vx PDA – but with a shitty battery life.

In Closing the innovation gap, I found the book to fall into three distinct sections:

  • Charting the origins and progress of what I will call ‘innovation entropy’ in the west. This talks about how the cold war was entwined with the rise and stall of innovative research that helped in creation of technology that we take for granted today: keyhole surgery, the internet, modern computers, cellular phones and CCDs (coupled-charged device which go into digital cameras.)
  • The economic and cultural effects of ‘innovation entropy’. In this respect Estrin echoes the work of Will Hutton’s The state we’re in published in 1996 which I read in college. Like Hutton, Estrin is a critic of short-termism in business, the financial markets, academia and government spending. Some of this short-termism was unintentional as the law of unintended consequences kicked in due to changes in regulations that were designed to encourage innovation. A secondary factor that Estrin points out is a corresponding lack of appetite for risk – or the rise of risk management which has helped cripple long-term research which begat big innovation
  • How to address ‘innovation entropy’. Estrin maps out the areas where educators, government, financiers and businesses need to change and collaborate on. This collaboration requires root-and-branch change

Estrin’s book is powerful as she pulls together a coherent story which makes it easy to read. As a prominent person within Silicon Valley she gains access to many people who are at the head of organisations driving innovation at the present time.

You can find out more at Estrin’s website developed to support the book.

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