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Posted: January 07, 2014

The futurist: Competing for the title, “World’s Chief Innovator”

Part One: Some of the contenders

Thomas Frey

When Thomas Edison died he left a gaping hole. He was credited with inventing everything from the electric light bulb, to the phonograph, to the movie projector, to the stock ticker, to the motion picture camera, to the entire movie industry.

He lived during an age of great inventors like Henry Ford, George Westinghouse, Nikola Tesla, Alexander Graham Bell, Marie Curie, the Wright Brothers, Edwin Land and Harvey Firestone. But Edison rose to the top.

While he had many detractors, Edison was revered by millions, creating generations of Edison wannabes. Businesses found this to be a threat to their influence and control and began forcing all new hires to sign over the rights to their inventions during their time of employment. And so the great age of inventors came to an end… at least for a while.

When Steve Jobs came along, he brought with him a flair for the same kind of PT Barnum-showmanship that kept Edison in the news. Along with ushering in the personal computer era, Jobs was the chief visionary behind everything from the iPod, to the iPhone, to the iPad, and was the founder of Pixar animation studios.

Some went so far as to describe Jobs as the “Father of the Digital Revolution.” His death has left another huge void.

But times are different now. We live in a global marketplace. Most large companies have lost their ability to innovate. Startup incubators are cropping up everywhere and money for startups is readily available through crowdfunding, angels, VCs, and both acquisitions and IPOs are back as viable exit options.

With these and many other forces in play, creative individuals are feeling empowered like never before, and several are lining up to claim the now open title of “World’s Chief Innovator.”

Here’s a look at some of the contenders, and why we’re in for some dramatic times ahead.

The New Path of Innovation

Hollywood loved to portray the old fashion inventor as a mad scientist developing Rube Goldberg devices in his garage while espousing some crackpot theory of physics as he proceeded to blow up more than a few things along the way.

On the other end of the spectrum, today’s Tony Stark computer genius-type inventor is never being more than 10 keystrokes away from whatever information is needed and able to compress eight years of product development into five minutes with the aid of a room-size interactive hologram and an ability to gesture-manipulate components on the fly.

The true innovator is not bound by traditional thinking. While not all innovation includes the early-stage invention or discovery phase, it does involve bringing the vision to life.

That said, there are many different kinds of innovators. Here are a few of the novel ways innovation is currently taking place:

  1. Skunk Works Innovators – Originally championed by Lockheed Martin in their advanced development programs, today’s skunk works projects refer to a small and loosely structured R&D team to develop new projects primarily for the sake of radical innovation.
  2. Philanthropic Innovators – Most of the innovation currently being championed by Bill Gates is being done with philanthropic donations.
  3. System Innovators – Very often simply tweaking a major system can have far reaching implications. When a group of quants tried to rework the home mortgage industry, the fallout was far from pleasant. At the same time, we are burdened with countless bad systems that need to be revamped.
  4. Competition Innovators – When Pete Diamandis announced the winner of the very first X-Prize competition, a new form of innovation entered the business world lexicon.
  5. Political Innovators – When President Obama wanted to change healthcare in the U.S., his primary toolset involved passing a bill in congress, political processes, and legal mandates.
  6. Economic Innovators – In the months following Bitcoin’s debut, a number of other crypto currencies began to surface, causing us to rethink our relationship with money
  7. Design Center Innovators – Inside Apple, all new products are developed inside Jony Ive’s design studio.
  8. Open Source or Crowdsourced Innovators – Places like Kickstarter and Indigogo are a ripe new playground for the inventive mind to launch their latest project.
  9. Experience Innovators – The entire retail storefront industry is quickly coming to grips with two equations: (product + experience) will draw a far bigger crowd than (product + no experience). Many storefronts would do well to hire a Slashcaster.
  10. Social Innovators – Facebook is a good example of social innovation because it changes our relationship with those around us.

This is far from an exhaustive list of how and where innovation can take place, but a few to stimulate your thinking as to the tool sets true innovators will use to break down the barriers before them.

Thomas Frey is the executive director and senior futurist at the DaVinci Institute and currently Google’s top-rated futurist speaker.  At the Institute, he has developed original research studies, enabling him to speak on unusual topics, translating trends into unique opportunities. Tom continually pushes the envelope of understanding, creating fascinating images of the world to come.  His talks on futurist topics have captivated people ranging from high level of government officials to executives in Fortune 500 companies including NASA, IBM, AT&T, Hewlett-Packard, Unilever, GE, Blackmont Capital, Lucent Technologies, First Data, Boeing, Ford Motor Company, Qwest, Allied Signal, Hunter Douglas, Direct TV, Capital One, National Association of Federal Credit Unions, STAMATS, Bell Canada, American Chemical Society, Times of India, Leaders in Dubai, and many more. Before launching the DaVinci Institute, Tom spent 15 years at IBM as an engineer and designer where he received over 270 awards, more than any other IBM engineer.

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