As an investor, founder, CEO and business book author, I write about startups, design, how to build a good business, and I like to muse about culture in any form.

Sex, Reality-based Demographics, and Romancing the Pocketbook: Three must-haves for innovation

June is  Innovation Month in New England.  Journalist Scott Kirsner asked for thoughts on how to amp up the heat in New England. I have three urgent recommendations:

1)  “The rate of cultural and economic progress depends on the rate at which ideas are having sex.” –as declared by Matt Ridley.  (He’s a writer who covers evolution and genetics.)  I think we are actually doing a pretty good job in this area already.  There must be an “ideas” event every night of the week– and the universities are a motherlode of aphrodisiacs.  As an industrial designer I know that the depth of creativity often depends on the depth of openness to influences, oddball ideas and the seemingly improbable juxtaposition of competing thoughts.  Case in point:  when my first startup was consulting to Reebok, and trying to invent bouncy shoes to enable better basketball rebounds, a scientist suggested we study the chemicals released in the legs of fleas–since they can jump hundreds of times their size.

We do need to improve the mix of speakers and stop asking the usual suspects to take the stage at tech events.  Which brings me to idea #2:

2)  Make sure our entrepreneurial leadership, investors, and “influentials” reflect the general population. The “prominent” entrepreneurial community in Boston is overwhelmingly middle-aged, white, and male.  But the people who will buy their products are overwhelmingly NOT that at all.  I see a problem with this picture.  A funnel to failure, really.  Beyond that, I believe  it’s also the first time in history when we can really learn from young people in a company setting, as opposed to training them to become contributors.

So, sadly, if you deliberately set out to restrict resources and attention to a small slice of the population, like we do–unconsciously–in New England,  that would be an ideal way to crush innovation.  We need to fix that yesterday.  Like about 30 years of yesterdays.

3)  Work hard and fast on innovation in the biggest sector of our economy–consumer products and services. Business products and services only contributed 3% to the last ten years of US GDP growth.  Consumer products and services accounted for 70% (and they account for 65% of our economy year in, year out).   We increasingly marginalize our innovation community when we focus it so heavily on B-to-B enterprises.

So.  Innovation.  Easy peasy, at least in my eyes.  Cross pollinate, include new faces, and grab the consumer opportunity NOW. I have a front seat on the successful expression of all three of these imperatives every day when I see the idea submissions coming to Daily Grommet. They are not originating from the usual suspects.  They are coming from college kids corralling cheap prototyping and manufacturing tools, grandparents who have the time to connect improbable invention dots, immigrants importing ideas from home, restless cube-dwellers, and ambitious young mothers.  Truly, all over this country, people of every stripe and color are pushing the innovation envelope in the consumer sector.  We can do it too.

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