Compliments! This Invention of Yours is Totally Useless

Published: December 20, 2019

Two, three points about innovation confuse many people. Even on wikipedia the word is given two distinct and conflicting meanings that can be summarized in: "innovation is something new", "innovation improves something old". In this post I want to propose my view on the matter.

A useless strongbox

But first thing first: why an entire post about what innovation means?

Well, it turns out you could accidentally be yourself the creator of one of such innovations and soon discover that introducing it to people, to your astonished disappointment, they won't see it at all as an innovation but instead as something totally useless. Yes, you can bet on it, I'm speaking from direct experience... of someone I know.

Jokes apart, I was lately led to think a lot about what innovation is and what it's not, how to distinguish it from other forms of progress and what to expect when you are facing the venture to transform something highly innovative, and in many aspects still conceptual, in a real market product and possibly a winning one. Hence this article, in which I'm going to share the conclusions I've reached.

The main confusing trait of innovation

The first problem about innovation is that we are inherently prone to think that innovation is synonymous with improvement, enhancement or definitely with better. But every innovation we have ever faced, with no exception, has always manifested at first as a step back in its field if compared to the status quo of that field. Sometimes these steps back have been so big that many innovations have been perceived at first, and sometimes for many years, as totally worthless when not even dangerous.

And still we don't think about these steps back when the word innovation echoes in our mind. For example, TV is surely an innovation when compared to cinema, still we forget that when it first went on the market TV offered very low quality images compared to cinema, audio also was severely worse, screen size was risible (16-inch/41 cm), it's cost was astonishingly high - the first TV was priced an equivalent to $7,633 in today's dollars - not to speak about the colors, which arrived to TVs at least 10 years later than cinema. Few decades later history repeated itself: the first video I saw on a computer I think was around 1991. It played in a so ultra-low quality and in a so super-small square on my computer monitor that the first 16-inch TV screen of decades before would have seemed like a drive-in cinema compared to that risible post stamp of the PC video, not to mention the jumping and lagging flow of the frames. Could I call that any better than the TV of the time? Not even if it was me who invented this thing.

Bill Gates having a hard time explaining what internet is. It's 1995, no one had idea of what internet could bring in our lives, not even online shopping is mentioned, the maximum Bill Gates was able to mention is email.

This teaches us about one of the main traits of true innovations: an innovation is something that when it's finally widely adopted no one can remember any more how life was before it, or how hard it was or how long it took for the innovation to replace the previous status quo. At the same time until it spreads universally no one can even imagine how our life could be positively affected by it. As an example: we all think to know how the development of viable nuclear fusion would change our life, but to be honest we really cannot know. We can't even imagine it, and surely for now we only see the many decades and money and countless hours of the best brains of the world that have been invested in something which cannot be considered better by any means, even if just because there is still no way to produce with nuclear fusion an amount of energy bigger than the one needed to produce it. And yet one day this problem will be finally solved and it will bring us benefits so unimaginable at the moment, that we won't be able anymore to remember how life was before we could so cheaply get enough energy to produce antimatter or other exotic things for example to overcome gravity or travel in intergalactic wormholes, and... well, as I said, no matter how hard one tries, we can't guess what.

A real innovation is therefore a watershed. In the beginning it's never a question of being better, It is instead a question of before/after, a separator between two completely different eras in the field it applies to.
Then how to recognize a true potential innovation from a fake one?

So what's innovation all about?

As an evolution hacker I see innovation as a particular type of evolution. Evolution is a natural process by which whatever something can improve it will do it at the pace of the best line of evolution in a given moment between different lines of evolution competing for progress.

Competing lines of evolution and overall progress

In the picture above for example let's imagine that we are talking about the progress in the field of energy production. Let's define improvement as a combination of the cost of the production of energy and the environment sustainability of the corresponding production process. The different competing lines of evolution could be for example the production of energy from oil, another one with solar-cell, another could be nuclear fission, another nuclear fusion, and so on.

Three things are particularly interesting in the chart. First: when a new technology, or as we call it here a new line of evolution, is born, from an improvement point of view it is not any better than any of the older lines; which is the visual representation of what I described above: when we saw the first video on a PC it's quality was way lower than that of TV. Second: for a new line of evolution to become the new leading edge of the progress, it should be able to evolve at an higher pace then previous solutions, in a word it must be steeper than any previous line. Third: the more advanced progress is, the less likely a new evolutionary line will emerge and become the new leading edge because the initial gap between the best of the old lines and the new one tends to grow at a pace that seems clearly exponential.

And yet this is not the whole picture and the third point is quite misleading. In fact not only evolution is rarely constant and it's path can't be approximated with lines, but more than that the real problem is that lines have no limits, they can grow forever, which is way different from what usually happens in real life evolution. Last but not least, the kind of representation we have made automatically induces us to believe that innovation is when a new line of evolution crosses the previous leading edge one, the moments marked in the chart with pink spots, which is also exactly what we really perceive at an instinctual level when we think about what innovation is. Well, this is where the third point misleads us: what discussed so far has nothing to do with innovation. What we see in the above chart is just one type of evolution, the most ordinary and frequent one and the one to which we are more accustomed to. Innovation, on the other side, is a totally different kind of beast.

To understand what innovation really is, we first have to correct the mistakes we have made in our over simplistic view of evolution. In fact in real life lines of evolution are not at all lines. From biologic evolution, to research and new technologies, every kind of evolution path has always some sort of limit not only impossible to overcome, but also intrinsically unattainable. Aeronautical technology can advance as much as you like but it will never take us in space, we need aerospace technology for that. Microchip technology can evolve as much as you like and still there is a physical limit to the number of transistors that can be put together in a given volume or, to say the same thing in a different way, to the smallest size transistors can reach before quantum effects prohibit them to work properly. Our brains can evolve as much as nature would like to gift us of its magic and still there is a physical limit to the speed at which biological cells can communicate, and so on.

Every path of evolution has limits and this renders their plots a lot more similar to logarithmic shapes than lines.

Competing lines of evolution and overall progress

Now that we corrected the chart, we can immediately see what innovation really is: it's a second type of evolution, a totally different one from what we have seen so far. Innovation is that evolution path that breaks the biggest of the intrinsic limits of all the previous evolution paths, hence the watershed we were talking above. This reasoning gives us a very powerful tool to tell true innovations from fake ones. You have invented something new? Is it really innovative? Well, just count the limits of previous status quo that it breaks. No one? Well, you have invented nothing innovative. At least one? Welcome truly innovative invention.

TV was true innovation because cinema could have never get in every single house; the cinema's limit TV broke was about how many people could be reached with the previous media. Videos on PC were true innovation because they broke the broadcasting limit of TV, with video files everyone could create and transfer videos on their own on disks, via internet or whatever, without the need of a broadcasting station and repeaters and satellites all around the world. All these things broke limits that the previous status of the art of the technology at their time could have never ever break. Video streaming, on the other side, is an example of ordinary evolution, it's just an improvement on how to transfer videos but it breaks no limits of any previous technology in the field.

To sum up what can be deduced from the charts above and the history of innovations we can say that the traits of a true innovation are the following:

  • main trait: an innovation to be an innovation should remove an intrinsic limit which previous status of the art techniques in a field could not remove even if they had all the time of the world to evolve and refine;
  • velocity: innovations refine, evolve and progress at a faster pace compared to previous paths of evolution;
  • worsening: at first any innovation brings with itself an initial worsening of many aspects that previous technologies already brought at a better quality point;
  • unworthiness: many use cases of innovations are hard to be imagined and almost every big innovation has been considered in the beginning totally useless. The same inventors, promoters, investors of many innovations often totally miss the most disruptive end results of the same innovations they contribute to bring to life;
  • increase in complexity: many times innovations requires the adoption and diffusion of new infrastructures before they can conquer the world: think of the light bulb; it is totally useless if there is no power supply;
  • all-round improvements: when an innovation matures, it should bring improvements in any aspect of the field it applies to, not only in the breaking of a previous limit, or at least it should reach compromises that are largely acceptable even for those characteristics for which it is not possible to equalize or exceed the quality achieved by previous evolutionary phases.

An identikit worth making

Understanding exactly what is innovation is mandatory if you want to pursue the venture of spreading it and let it become the new leading edge in its field. Missing the comprehensions of its most intimate nature usually makes the difference between succeeding and failing. In fact, creating and spreading an innovative product is always an incredibly daunting experience. The print and media will ignore your work for long time no matter how spectacular your innovation is. Investors will again and again tell you that it's impossible to understand what your invention can do but they are strongly prone to think that it can do absolutely nothing of any interest for nobody. True that you also come across great visionaries who know how to appreciate innovation, but even in this case many difficulties remain. The fact that your solution is still a step back in many aspects compared to current technologies will rise every time. There is always a constant pressure to find and validate a market, to create a product that can demonstrate to be able to generate traction, whatever such a word could mean. All of this is not bad by itself, finding a quick and solid path to the markets should always be a priority for any innovation, but if not properly handled this pressure can undermine the success. Specifically many will try to convince you to give up, or to change some fundamental aspects of the innovation so that it could better fit a market. The problem is that most of this feedback and suggestions are off-topic and most of all they are too many, too conflicting with each other and very often totally devoid of any objective analysis supporting their effectiveness.

If you want to implement a successful product out of an innovation of yours the first thing first you should learn to do is to ignore what people think or say. Just focus on the only aspect of your innovation that really matters: what previous unbreakable limits it overcomes. Talk only about this. Bring people's attention back to this every time they digress. Explain this again and again. At first, no one will understand it anyway. For long time you will continue to hear "This invention of yours is totally useless!". But if you'll maintain the focus on the limits your innovation breaks, step by step, pitch by pitch, demonstration by demonstration, you'll reach that orange spot on the above chart and your innovation will become the leading edge of the field it's disrupting.