Is ‘Innovation at the Margins’ really all that new?

Our world is changing, fast. The Internet has been the most recent game-changer, but do we realize it’s changing more than just how we communicate? It’s changing more than just how we store and retrieve information. It’s changing how we think and what we value.

Joi Ito, director of the MIT Media Lab, did a fabulous Ted Talk, and interview with Kate Torgovnick May exactly on this subject.

Because so much information is available at our fingertips and because collaboration is easier than ever, we no longer need to entirely rely on top down innovation to change our world, as we have been since the industrial revolution kicked into high gear. It used to be that, as Ito says, we’d need to get an MBA, who’d need to get massive funding, who’d then get expensive R&D going, and then it would be the property of the corporation who manufactured it. Now we see it happening backwards. Innovation is pushed to the edges – to individuals who create and deploy, who then perhaps get some funding, who then perhaps get an MBA.

Ito makes some excellent points about learning vs. education, pull vs. push, and compass vs. maps. But I do wonder about a few things.

Ito makes it sound like this is brand new. I’ll grant you that the Internet makes this widespread, but it seems like he also doesn’t have a great sense of history. For instance, it isn’t Ito that points out that the model that’s been reversed has been around since the Industrial Revolution – that was my observation. But I think about how it’s considered in Nasim Nicholas Taleb’s Antifragile: Things that gain from disorder. Since the end of the dark ages in Western  Europe (when there was zero innovation and you could be burned at the stake for trying – for more ghastly details, read William Manchester’s A World Lit Only By Fire: The medieval mind and the Renaissance: Portrait of an Age) in fact there has been incredible amounts of innovation at the margins. Taleb points out that it was the people most antifragile who could do the innovation, the creativity, the writing, the research – people who had some other source of stability in their lives and could devote parts of their days or nights to individual inquiry and creation. Taleb also points out that Rectors in Britian were known for this. (A Rector in that time was a priest who was in charge of a parish, but of whom little was required, aside from leading the worship services. Such people were typically given a salary which would include a lovely house and possibly also someone to take care of it. Those men had some serious time on their hands and were able to also be quite creative authors, scientists, and philosophers. I say nothing at the moment about what detriment that brought to their religion. That’s another blogpost.)

So what do you think? Have you watched the Ted Talk, or read the interview that accompanies it? Have you read Antifragile, or A World Lit Only By Fire?

Leave a Reply