The Age of Innovation is over’ – haven’t we heard this one before?

There has been a lot of interesting debate recently, about current levels of innovation in the business world and whether, in spite of the whiz of the web and digital technology, we are actually living in a time of low innovation.  John Winsor’s piece Is Innovation Dead? makes the interesting point that in organisations, innovation has historically taken place near the edges of companies – where it can plough it’s own individual furrow and where it does not affect the direction and composure of the mothership organisation.

He makes the point that this may not be enough moving forward : the demands of needing to be innovative to survive and the pressures of competition, mean that innovation ought to have more of a central focus – idea generation delivered by design rather than through happenstance.

Neil Perkins’ piece Are we Living in a Low Innovation Age?’ quotes a number of interesting pieces, in particular Tyler Cowen and his book , The Great Stagnation in which he compares advances made in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century – such as the internal combustion engine, aircraft, electrical engineering, television, the telephone, cameras and so on; with those of our current digital age and suggests that we are on a “technological plateau”.

In his piece Neil is not completely persuaded by this argument, commenting that the digital revolution is by itself an extraordinarily innovative development:

Digital has the potential to disrupt so many different markets so fundamentally that the sheer breadth of change is impossible to anticipate. And that (like electricity) it is only when new structures and models are built from the bottom up with the new technology at their heart that we really see the full potential of what it can bring. Mary Meeker , in her latest Internet Trends deck , talked about the ‘re-imagination of nearly everything’ but some of these disruptions will take longer than others, and I’m quite sure there are many we have no sight of at all.”

The Economist weighed in to the debate last week with it’s front page article and leader  - Will we ever invent anything this useful again? – The growing debate about dwindling innovation; accompanied with an image of Rodin’s The Thinker sitting on the toilet.

The Economist highlights three arguments to support the view that ‘the ideas machine has broken down’. The first is that innovation drives growth and, the current level of economic output per person in theUS, has dropped by two thirds compared to the 1945 level.

Secondly, there is the observation around growth being driven by the level of research and development occurring at a given time.  According to research byPierreAzoulay of MIT and Benjamin Jones ofNorthwesternUniversity- there are more people currently ‘in research’ than ever before, but there are fewer practical outputs per person, than in the past.

Finally, there is the ‘evidence of the senses’. Take kitchens. The improvements accrued between the 1900 and 1970 include tangible developments such as gas and electric hobs, fridge freezers, food processors, microwaves and dishwashers . Developments across the last 40 years, so the argument goes, are markedly less tangible.

For me, however, the key point in the article is that the evidence of innovative thinking takes time to become manifest: Roughly a century lapsed between the first commercial deployments of James Watt’s steam engine and steam’s peak contribution to British growth. Some four decades separated the critical innovations in electrical engineering of the 1880′s and the broad influence of electrification on economic growth.  

What really underlines this point however, is the fact that we have been here before. Henry Ellsworth was United States Commissioner of Patents in the mid 19th century. In 1843, in his report to congress, Ellsworth stated, “The advancement of the arts, from year to year, taxes our credulity and seems to presage the arrival of that period when human improvement must end.” In 1899 a successor – Charles Holland Duell was purported to have said – ‘Everything that can be invented, has been invented’. Although the veracity of this quote has been latterly questioned, the fact that it was originally accepted as true, provides a good indication of a widely held sentiment of this period.

Of course, we now know how wrong these pronouncements were, given the list of extraordinary technological achievements and innovations that occurred across the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

What was difficult then, as it is now, is to anticipate which innovations may have a significant impact on the future. It is easier to look through rose tinted glasses at the past, than to look into the crystal ball of the future.

Nick Hammond is founder at The Digital Filter @digital_filter