Innovation versus business optimisation: from Gyro Gearloose to Elon Musk

Imagine, we could fast forward to 2050 and from there look back over the last past 30 years. Would we be happy, would we conclude that we nailed the big questions of the early twenties? Would we be proud and celebrate emission-free industries, oceans exploding with life, no food shortages worldwide, plastic-free shopping, and balanced agriculture? Or would we lower our head and stare down to the ground in despair, nobbing our heads. China invaded Taiwan, Europe split up again, a civil war is raging in the US, and a shortage of food, medicines, and freshwater determines every nation's politics. Much will depend on our ability to innovate, change, move forward and think outside the box. Luckily innovation is a big theme in every industry. In this series of blogs, I want to peel off the innovation's skins and see if we can hit a happy 2050. In this first issue, I will zoom in on understanding the terminology around innovation.

Gyro Gearloose
There is much talk about innovation, or should I call it gossip. In the end, gossip means: “casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details that are not confirmed as being true”. To decide that, let’s dive into the cultural history of innovation which closely correlates with inventions.
Being raised in the seventies, the symbol of innovations or inventions was Gyro Gearloose with Little Helper from the Donald Duck Universe. The somewhat brilliant but clumsy Gyro always came up with something new that not quite worked as it should have. If we think of inventors or innovators today, we often recall names like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs. In the Netherlands, we often mention Tony’s Chocolonely, Koolen Industries, and the Vegetarische Slager (Vegetarian Butcher). It may be my childhood perception, but innovation was more associated with garage box engineering and less with big business and successful enterprises in the seventies. It can be that business was more local-oriented and not submerged into a worldwide digital infrastructure in those days. However, the focus on large scale enterprises and, in my opinion, the focus on short returns and quick wins obfuscates the true drivers and mindset to make innovation successful. The focus of innovation has become making more money with less effort than making the world a better place or solving the problems we face.

A few terms that immediately spring to mind hearing the word innovation are experimenting, opportunity, change, investment, failure, despair, first-mover advantage, bankruptcy, curiosity, and not forget the most important one: serendipity. We know what curiosity did with the cat, and that is what it does with many innovators. Many innovations start with an idea, a belief, an opportunity and someone, or a group chasing it. An excellent example in my view is the vision of the Vegetarian Butcher mentioned before. After selling his company to Unilever, he went on his second mission: cow-free milk. In his opinion, the cow is just an intermediate between grass and milk. The cow facilitates just a chemical process to turn grass into milk, and as a true capitalist, you want to take out the middle man. Taking out the middle cow will have an enormous impact on society, animal welfare, the carbon footprint of cattle breeding and the way we are landscaping the countryside. Don’t get me wrong, I am not a die-hard vegan, but our meat production's industrialisation is something I don't fancy. I prefer to have a heavenly tasting weekly piece of meat instead of a daily chunk that is harder to chew than my couch. Imagine brewing milk. Think of the cow. Instead of being sucked dry of milk by a robot, she will feed her calf again. Instead of being inseminated by a cold human hand wrapped into a plastic glove, she will be able to have a little adventure with the oh so charming strong and raging bull from the next field. Needless to say that before we have brewed milk, a lot of experimentation, failure, investment, and the chance of a dead-end and bankruptcy is evident. But the mission is there. If successful, the advantages of being the first one on the market will be enormous. There are still many hurdles to take, and in 2050 we can look back and see if he succeeded or not. To give an insight into the challenges he and other innovators face, let’s briefly dive into a few examples from history.

The wheel
Let’s take an example that we are all familiar with and look at what hurdles the inventors had to realise the solution. Undoubtedly the wheel is one of the biggest inventions of humankind. Imagine a life without the wheel. Hard, isn’t it? Cody Cassidy wrote an article about the wheel in Wired Magazine: Who Invented the Wheel? And How Did They Do It? In this article, he dives into the transition from rollers (logs beneath heavy objects) to the wheel we know today, invented around 6.000 years ago. It was the result of the introduction of the axle on a potter’s wheel in Mesopotamia. The transition from there to the full-scale wheel under a wagon took several hundreds of years and didn’t happen before other inventions had taken place. The wheel was impossible to make with stone tools. First, metallurgists had to cast copper tools to create the right instruments to make the wheel. Once the right tools were available other problems occurred. The axle needed refinement, and also, the form and size of the wheels needed to be optimized. After that, a new round of optimization was needed when you loaded the cart with cargo. The axle and wheels needed to be adjusted not to break down when loaded. It was a real effort to pull this off 6.000 years ago. Knowing that in those days, government support and venture capitalists weren’t around. Those were around in the second example of another humankind's great invention: the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg around 1450. Beautifully told by Stephan Fry in his podcast: Great Leap Years — A Faustian Pact(S1 EP2).

Printing Press
But let me first spent some words on Stephan Fry and why this complete podcast series is worth listening to. In these fast-moving times of the digital press, where politicians only respond to 280 characters statements in 280 characters, we often forget that events travel from far and that the way we act and react is as if we were humans. And humans have a long history, and although we have invented a lot of technology, we, as humans, didn’t change a lot. Stepan Fry is one of the few alien humans who connects the past, the present and the future in a special way as if logic is the driving force behind history. I would say as if history is deterministic. But don’t let me rub too much salt in an old and open wound of an ongoing historical debate about the course of history.
According to Yuval Harrari, we humans need a story to move forward. That is the essence of being human. Apes don’t tell each other stories. Well, as far as we know, they seem to smile at us, or should I say laugh at us? Anyway, if history is one giant pool of chaotic events, I trust Stephan Fry’s ability to create an engaging story to move us in the right direction. You have to like his totally high tea British accent and his etymology strays, though. If you do like that as I do, you will enjoy the Great Leap Years a lot. In the episode “A Faustian Pact”, he describes the printing press's invention as if it was a modern-day business with a venture capitalist (Faustian), a first launching customer (the Catholic Church), and a business opportunity (printing indulgences). The invention was possible because Gutenberg thought outside the box and combined several existing technologies, mastering all of them and created the printing press. Stephan Fry connects Gutenberg with Steve Jobs because they both had a passion for typology and combined existing technologies into a new groundbreaking invention to display text perfect on a new medium and rocked the world with it. Besides the analogy with today’s way we think about innovation, Stephan Fry also describes the most important characteristic of innovation: serendipity.

Serendipity is almost the opposite of determinism. From one thing comes another, but that one thing has to happen first. The Catholic Church thought to have found a time saving and money generating technology: instead of handwritten, they had printed indulgences. Imagine the amount of time they saved. Actually, they were the first to print money. Besides, the press also enabled them to massively print copies of the bible and spread their version of the holy truth. However, if the Catholic Church could spread their version of the truth, so could others. This resulted in many truths, misinformation, and disputes about the truth versus fake news. Sounds familiar? A few decades later, Martin Luther used that same press to spread his protest against the habit of indulgences resulting in the Reformation. The launching customer had not expected this. And this is only a mild form of serendipity.
A more extreme example of serendipity is asbestos. Used to make fire-resistant walls in buildings, leading to builders having lung cancer. An example of today: Facebook. The idea to keep contact with your friends, family and former schoolmates resulted in massive manipulation, influencing democratic elections, and spreading fake news. I heard that one before. The most positive example of serendipity is the discovery of penicillin by Alexander Fleming, who accidentally left a Petri dish open when he was cultivating a test and went on holiday. When he came back, his test failed, but penicillin was invented. We can go on with serendipity examples: the research for heart medicines led to viagra and fast food triggered obesity. A redundant communication system between military bases gave us the internet. GPS was originally developed to guide missiles to their target, and the nasty mustard gas, yep, the stuff from the trenches in World War I, is used in chemotherapy to fight cancer today. I will touch on serendipity in the next blog, where we dive into the question of why people want to innovate and the social and economic impact of innovation.

For now, I can conclude that I slightly drifted away from the question, do we talk or gossip about innovation? However, having shed some light on innovation's nature, I dare to conclude that many projects we call innovation are business optimization. It is not that this is a bad thing, but saying that you are innovating and other people talking about you as an innovator is a bit of gossip when you mainly focus on making things more efficient. A premature conclusion? Yes, I think so, but we are merely at the beginning of this series, so who knows what follows. Stay tuned.

The innovation files
1. Innovation versus business optimization: from Gyro Gearloose to Elon Musk
2. Serendipity: Icarus and the four horsemen of the apocalypse
3. The evolution of product revolution
4. Digital: Boolean Rhapsody
5. Welcome to the Digital Economy
6. Whiskey, platforms and the network effect
7. The waves of innovation
8. Corporate innovation: Apple’s toilet paper and unforeseen side effects
9. Mentality, digital transformation, sustainability and innovation

As an educated historian, entrepreneur and self taught technologist I like to connect the dots of technical, social and economic developments.