It's time for another excerpt from our internally distributed newsletter POV (Point of View) Dispatch.
Vijay Vaitheeswaran is an award winning correspondent for The Economist. His new book on the future of global innovation is Need, Speed, and Greed: How the New Rules of Innovation Can Transform Businesses, Propel Nations to Greatness, and Tame the World's Most Wicked Problems. Vijay is an advisor on sustainability and innovation to the World Economic Forum, and a regular speaker at the Clinton Global Initiative. He teaches at NYU’s Stern Business School and serves as chairman of the Economist's provocative series of conferences on innovation known as the Ideas Economy. source: wikipedia.org
POV: Hello, Vijay, thanks for taking the time to talk with us.
VIJAY: You’re welcome, glad to be here.
POV: Let’s start with some context: your first two books were focused on energy-related topics, so I’m curious about what attracted you to the more general subject of innovation?
VIJAY: I’ve been fascinated with innovation for many years. I started my career as an engineer from MIT, so I’ve always been interested in things involving innovation, inventions, and technologies. But over the years I’ve also noticed that the field of innovation has become filled with a good number of fallacies and delusions. In fact, I’d say that today the word “innovation” is the most abused word in the English language! We talk about it all the time, but it still remains a somewhat elusive concept.
POV: Okay, so let’s start with the basics: how do you define "innovation"?
VIJAY: I think it’s important to distinguish between innovation, per se, and one particular type of innovation, which is technology. Innovation around technology gets a lot of attention today, and that’s fine, but we need a more general, fundamental definition of innovation. So here’s my definition: innovation is fresh thinking that creates value. That definition is the one we use for the Economist’s conference series, which is called The Ideas Economy.
POV: I remember that definition quite well from the three times I’ve attended myself. Great conferences...
VIJAY: Thank you, glad to hear it.
POV: So that seems like a pretty good, timeless definition of innovation, but I’m also curious to know what you think people need to realize about the importance of innovation right now, in terms of the challenges and opportunities we see before us today.
VIJAY: To me, and this is a bit of an historical perspective, today innovation is more of an imperative than ever before. I think we’re in a race between a set of highly complex, urgent challenges--sometimes called “wicked problems”--on one side, and innovation on the other side.
POV: Which do you think will win?
VIJAY: Frankly, I think it could go either way, and a depends on how we innovate. We need to find better ways to innovate, and to create solutions that can address those big, serious problems, like climate change, urbanization, global quality of life, and things like that. If we don’t innovate in the right way, I think we could be in terrible trouble; but on the other hand, if we do it right, I think things can be great. So my book is really a kind of call to arms for people to take innovation seriously, rethink it as necessary, and basically, to do it!
POV: And how have people been responding to this call to arms?
VIJAY: Really, it’s too early to tell, but even at this early stage, I’ve been very encouraged by the reaction to the book.
POV: Now that we’ve talked about the increased need for innovation today, and defined it from your perspective, let’s turn to innovation itself. What are some of the key points you think people should understand about innovation?
VIJAY: I'd like to start that answer with three short ideas, three innovation rules, if you will: move nimbly, open wisely, fail gracefully. Move nimbly means that we’ve got to speed things up, experiment more rapidly, and be more flexible about your approaches to challenges. Open wisely is about increasing your sources of information, inspiration, and collaboration; moving out of your comfort zones to take advantage of the widest range of the people and ideas possible. And fail gracefully is about just that: learn to create intelligent failures, because of course failure is a key part of discovery, and ultimately, critical for innovation.
POV: So there are two distinctly different kinds of failures?
VIJAY: Of course! Intelligent failure is a key part of the scientific method, and we should see it as a natural part of the innovation process.
POV: Let’s shift gears for a moment, moving from innovation to capitalism--two topics that are obviously related. These days capitalism is coming under fire for some of its recent excesses and failures (many of them not what we'd call intelligent failures). How do you think capitalism needs to change, and how would you characterize its relation to innovation?
VIJAY: First of all, I understand the anti-capitalist backlash, or at least where it’s coming from, although I certainly don't agree with all of its beliefs and conclusions. But I understand where the anger comes from, whether it appears in the Occupy Movement or the Tea Party movement. People feel excluded from the benefits of capitalism, and in the same way the tools and rules of innovation can also appear out of reach. But it’s wrong to simply blame capitalism, when what we really need to do is improve it. Innovation is a dynamic dance that relies on free markets. Failure, as I’ve said, is often good, in the private sector, so we can’t have the government excessively overseeing the innovative process. I think we need a balanced approach to regulation and government intervention, to stop the excesses but still allow individual initiative and innovation to flourish.
POV: What do you think about the recent fears in the West that China is soon to take the innovation crown?
VIJAY: I don’t think innovation is a zero-sum game. China’s rise isn’t necessarily our fall. I really think that if we revise our views and our practice of innovation in some of the ways I've outlined in my book, we can be successful in America and Europe even as China and India become more innovative themselves.
POV: What was the biggest surprise for you as you were writing the book?
VIJAY: I’d say is was all of the exciting developments around what is sometimes called "bottom-of-the-pyramid innovation," which is about the products, services, and business models focused on the 2.5 billion people around the world who live on less than $2.50 a day.
POV: What was exciting about that?
VIJAY: The fact that constraints about what your potential customers are able to spend can be great for innovation. For example, when Tata builds a thousand-dollar car, that inspires automobile manufacturers from the more established economies to rethink what’s possible, and to try doing some things that were was formerly considered impossible. So China and India can obviously learn a lot from America, and Europe, about innovation, but we can also learn a lot from the experiments, and the successes and failures, that they are having as well.
POV: Really interesting stuff, Vijay. Thanks for taking the time to talk with us today. And good luck with the book.
VIJAY: Happy to do it, thank you.
Innovative information sharing is alive in the lab.