BIG POTATOES: THE LONDON MANIFESTO FOR INNOVATION

Without doubt, the launch of Apple’s iPad was another over-hyped media circus. Yes, it provoked some debate about the nature of innovation today. (For example see this piece in the New York Times in defence of ‘elitist and individual’ innovation versus this piece in the Guardian which attacks Apple’s proprietary approach as ‘stifling open innovation’). Interesting, but this is small potatoes. What is notably absent is a serious public debate about innovation and the future of economic growth. Which is precisely what Big Potatoes: the London Manifesto for Innovation aims to do and which will be publicly launched at the end of this month.

WHY BIG POTATOES?

The Credit Crunch has so far failed to spur any major innovations. Worse, there is no public debate on innovation. Instead, our political leaders focus on symptoms — ‘greedy bankers’ and the parallel financial universe, lack of ‘consumer confidence’. They also prefer dying business models to the great and necessary challenge of creating new industries. What we have is a great evasion – a systematic failure to face up to the innovation crisis that threatens to rob future generations of economic growth.

This is why a group of us decided to come together to create a new 14 point Manifesto for Innovation which we hope to make a key issue in the forthcoming UK general election. Beyond that we hope to make this a global debate, for innovation is an issue that faces humanity. The Manifesto authors are: Nico Macdonald, Alan Patrick, Martyn Perks, Mitchell Sava, James Woudhuysen and myself.

We believe innovation is an indispensable premise for improving the quality of life. It is first, a means to a better life; but it also dignifies human beings, and sets them apart from animals. In innovation, humans find uses for things that seemed useless, and new uses for things they thought they knew the uses of.

During today’s economic downturn, innovation will be more important than ever. The sooner far-sighted strategies are developed and implemented by government, business and other agencies, the more a better world will be within humanity’s reach.

It is not innovation that creates inequality, but the social choices of institutions. We distinguish innovation from fiscal, regulatory, legal and cap-and-trade responses to today’s challenges. Unlike these technocratic measures, innovation has the potential, at least, to increase wealth and opportunity for everyone: it is not a zero-sum game.

The Big Potatoes Manifesto is call to arms: for leadership and risk taking, for accepting failure and unexpected outcomes as the necessary and inevitable path to success, for bold and ambitious experimentation and an end to the instrumentalist short-termism which has institutionalised a culture of limits. This Manifesto is designed to improve the climate for innovation and represents a clarion call for a new generation of leaders that can inspire new gymnastics in the mind and new ingenuity in the lab and factory floor.

14 points to raise the debate

The Manifesto consists of the following 14 points:

  1. Think big!
  2. Go beyond the post-war legacy of innovation
  3. Principles, not models!
  4. In praise of ‘useless’ research
  5. Innovation is hard work
  6. For success, expect lots of failures
  7. Regard chance and surprise as allies
  8. Take risks
  9. Innovation demands leadership
  10. Innovation is every body’s responsibility
  11. Trust the people, not regulation
  12. Think global, act global
  13. The spirit of innovation knows no limits
  14. By, with and for humanity

The Manifesto will be publicly launched at the end of this month. If you are interested in reading the Manifesto and/or getting involved, or attending the public launch, please visit us here and register your interest.

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6 thoughts on “BIG POTATOES: THE LONDON MANIFESTO FOR INNOVATION

  1. I’m always excited to see anyone exploring innovation, as I agree that it’s one of the things that human beings live for. Unfortunately I fear that Big Potatoes might have a slightly impoverished view of what innovation is.

    It’s not true at all that economic, fiscal or regulatory actions are zero-sum, and I hope that this does not mean that the manifesto excludes social or economic innovation as a source of human welfare and fulfilment.

    My slightly different take on this (and do correct me if I have wrongly interpreted the excerpt you quote above):
    http://www.knowingandmaking.com/2010/02/pareto-improvement-fail.html

    1. Thanks for the comment Leigh. I think when you read the Manifesto (if you register your interest ont he site we’ll send you a preview copy) you’ll see that we certainly do not discount social or economic innovation. However, our emphasis is to bend the stick away from this for we fear that innovation today has become impoverished precisely because it stresses ‘economic and social innovation’ at the expense of research, science, technology – what yesterday would have been regarded as the essence of R&D. Its this imbalance that we’re trying to address. Yes, its great to tweak a business model (like the Telcos have with innovative pricing which ordinary mortals have no possibility of understanding by the way) but what about research into the next generation carrier technologies, or transforming the telephony experience? etc etc…I could go on.

  2. Fair enough – I look forward to reading the manifesto. I certainly agree with the importance of developing what would traditionally be considered ‘technology’, I simply think that both physical and social technologies have a place and both create value.

    I’ve registered by email and will await the published document eagerly.

  3. There may well be a crisis in R&D, but I remain unconvinced that there is one in innovation. It’s certainly regrettable that so many political and business leaders take such a short-term, narrowly utilitarian view of research and dismiss the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but these are hardly new phenomena. It’s also a pity that our culture is so negative about science and progress, but most people probably always have been. I don’t really understand why the authors of Big Potatoes appear so pessimistic.

    Yes, more than a billion people live in poverty but, thanks to extraordinary economic growth in Asia, the poor are now a comparatively small minority of the global population – not long ago they were the vast majority. I’m also uneasy about the undertone of hostility to business and the fact that you say so little about economics and entrepreneurship. Agreed, business innovation isn’t everything but, from Henry Ford to Michael Dell, it has brought goods and services that were once fabulously expensive within the reach of hundreds of millions. That’s how great technological innovations – almost invariably after a lengthy time lag – are brought to mass markets. Schumpeter put it well in 1942: ‘The capitalist achievement does not typically consist in providing more silk stockings for queens, but in bringing them within the reach of factory girls in return for steadily decreasing amounts of effort.’

    You argue that our era doesn’t compare with the ‘sweeping grandeur’ of earlier revolutions, but we’re too close to events to make a considered judgment. The most exciting innovations are unlikely to be visible until they have been brought to market. How many people realised in the 1980s the significance of what Vint Cerf, Bill Metcalf and Tim Berners-Lee were doing in computer networking? How many even noticed that the Arpanet had morphed into the Internet, not to mention all the other giant digital strides that were taking place then? Indeed, how could anyone outside Stanford have known before 1998 the significance of the work Larry Page and Sergey Brin were doing on PageRank? Google is one of dozens of examples of entirely new markets and industries created by rank outsiders, some of whom, like Apple and Nokia, have been significant technological as well as business innovators.

    The last thirty years have been an extraordinary era of technological and business innovation, which I describe in Winners and Losers, Creators and Casualties of the Age of the Internet. Creative destruction has operated on a scale and at a pace never seen before and the biggest winners have been consumers. By standing back from the past we can sometimes see important patterns.

    Many economic historians would question your rather rosy account of the so-called Agricultural and Industrial revolutions, which were pretty horrible experiences for most of those affected. The cheap food only came later, with the repeal of the Corn Laws and the opening up of the American West. The term ‘industrial revolution’ was only coined decades later – and in France, rather than in Britain – nobody at the time thought they were living through a glorious revolution. The historical consensus now is that technological and economic change has mostly been evolutionary rather than revolutionary, though it is punctuated by shocks, many of them from the disruptive innovations of entrepreneurs.

    I share your enthusiasm for innovation, and agree with much of what you have to say about the value of ‘useless research’, the need to take risks, to be prepared to fail, to experiment and explore. It is certainly the case that that the pressure on large companies to produce consistent financial results makes this immensely difficult. With a few notable exceptions, they are mostly optimised for efficiency and execution, not exploration and discovery. That is why the most exciting innovations often come from outsiders whom nobody notices until they rocket to enormous commercial success. Complacent incumbents then find the ground crumbling beneath their feet, to quote Schumpeter again.

    There is no reason to believe that the process will dry up, or even slow down. Indeed some of the most interesting innovations in healthcare and manufacturing are now coming from countries like India and China, where there seems to be more entrepreneurial spirit and optimism than in the West. I see every reason to be optimistic about mankind’s ability to find ingenious solutions to pressing problems

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