TED Conversations

Greg Worden

Entrepreneur and Adjunct Professor of Sustainable Business, Worden Associates

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Where does innovation occur?

It's common right now to look at new technologies like solar, wind or diesel or hydrogen from algae or even aquaculture and conclude they're not very good so let's stop and go back to something that works well. This is the "if it ain't broke don't fix it attitude."

But if we go to an old car or airplane museum with exhibits dating back to the beginning of last century we see lots of ideas that were either new then and evolved dramatically later or were tried and ultimately proved unsuccessful. That's how I see alternative and renewable energies as well as other technologies like aquaculture. No, they're hardly perfect.

Should we simply wait until they are perfected in the laboratory? How about some good capitalists weigh in on this one.

Where does innovation occur?

How can we achieve more?

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    Sep 11 2012: I am not a capitalist but I think it occurs in the minds of people who are not afraid to think outside the box.
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      Sep 13 2012: If you want someone who thinks outside the box, perhaps you should ask someone who's used to the box of a different discipline.
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    Gail . 50+

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    Sep 13 2012: This is really an extension of my previous remark.

    Linux, Apache, Firefox, Thunderbird, Open Office, various freeware financial management software programs, CAD programs, art programs, language tutors, to name just a few, were created by people who volunteer their time, talents, and skill sets to design products and produce products that they then GIVE AWAY - and these are wildly successful. These free tools allow you to use your computer in ways that eliminates the need to hire people to do the same tasks that you can now do.

    At a time when exponential population growth is combined with exponential automation, the consumers that are needed to sustain capitalism are being stripped of their ability to consume. Business today is ignoring not only the disconnect between what science says about what motivates and what business does, but it is ignoring the crisis in capitalism that exists in the "real" world.

    This is also something that supports a need to reconnect what we know with what we do. If you dont want to watch the full 11 minutes, start at the 5:00 mark.

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      Sep 15 2012: I finally got a chance to sit down and watch the video. Fascinating video. I love the format. He really leaves us hanging there though, doesn't he?

      There seems to be a realization on the both the Left (Occupy) and the Right (Tea Party) that excessive financial engineering and crony capitalism is destructive and ultimately counterproductive. So the question is, what do we do now?
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        Sep 15 2012: Well, it would surely help if people were aware of the many alternatives to our economic model so that we could have a national dialogue about what to do next. But it goes back to the fact that it is a rare person who even knows that alternative social models exist that can replace our economic model.

        My personal preference is certainly a minority one, but then I am one of those who have learned how to consciously manifest reality, so I do not believe that I am in as vulnerable a position when the whole economy comes tumbling down. I believe that humankind will get to a moneyless system (including no barter economy), but I'm not so sure that it will happen in my lifetime. I remain hopeful though.
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          Sep 17 2012: I love this discussion. But I can't quite tell, are you advocating the Star Trek model in which someday we're able to provide for all of our material needs so cheaply that they're no longer something we concern ourselves with? We simply have everything we need so we focus our efforts on individual and societal betterment? Or are you advocating the opposite in which we go to a pastoral model in which we grow our own food locally and are unconcerned with products? Both are legitimate models. I'm just curious.
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        Sep 18 2012: I think that your second idea is where we will begin and your first is where we end up.

        The gift economy encourages cooperation. I share my talents because I love what I do best. You share your talents for the same reason. This naturally brings us together into social units while it celebrates diversity. Those who do not participate will quickly become social outcasts, and in this way be encouraged to participate until such time as the cultural programming is in place.

        Technology and automation will help, but government(s) need to own the resources and the Internet (the people's library) on behalf of people and people drive government rather than politicians who profit at our expense, which is really not such a major shift. It just seems like it to Americans because we have been intentionally lied to about our own history and our government is implicit in furthering the lies.

        When I used to look ahead toward my retirement, I thought it would be glorious to have nothing to do. But lo and behold, I am busier than ever. I'm just doing things that I enjoy doing - things that have meaning and purpose. What if everyone's day was so exciting?

        It all boils down to properly educating ourselves. This makes our talents more valuable to the whole and our own lives more satisfying. Not tightly focused educations, but supplement the specialties with broad-based learning. This way I can improve my life and have much left over to give away.

        Do you remember the blackout in LA a few years ago? People were calling the police asking what those lights in the sky were. The police were confused. They went out and didn't see anything unusual. Finally someone realized that the callers were talking about stars. We need to do better than that. If we don't, we don't deserve to survive. If we don't get the population growth under control, and find a way to reduce +/or accommodate global warming, and find a way to exist without "consumers", we will not survive.
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    Sep 17 2012: If innovation is the process by which an idea or invention is translated into a good or service for which people will pay, or something that results from this process. That being my base I would say that again neccesity or the demand are the driving force.

    As most are aware of there have been hundreds of innovations to carburators and altenative fuels that have proven effective. These are disruptive to the industry and are bought up and stored.

    As a former member of industry I can promise you that the next three or maybe four generations of innovations are being tested today. These will come out one at a time at the best possible marketing and sales period ... usually at Chrismas.

    The problem at hand is not the innovators or inventors it is the cost to manufacture, distribute, sell, etc the product. That would only occur if you had someone to finance the adventure. Companies like Apple, microsoft, etc ... have large R & D departments and the tax laws favor them expending lots and writing them off as losses etc ...

    As a Professor in the Business department you probally spend some time in start up ventures.

    Innovation occurs daily and ony a few will ever hit the light of day. These innovators come from all walks of life .... moms, dads, kids, workers in all fields.

    The days of the individual is probally at an end. So the individual should spend the money to patient the idea and then present it to a company that deals in the area the invention represents. If it is thought to be a good idea worth marketing then leave it to lawyers and agents to hammer out a deal.

    Good question .... many answers ... the bottom line by the defination above is still money going in and coming out.

    All the best. Bob.
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      Sep 19 2012: Yes, we spend a lot of time talking about startup ventures. That's one of the things that keeps me going in fact. The news can be so depressing that learning about new possibilities and feeding off the students' energy and optimism is fantastic.
  • Sep 15 2012: "Should we simply wait until they are perfected in the laboratory?"

    No, using them in the field can speed up development, also, we shouldn't think about money only because the true costs of polluting is rarely included in the sticker price (environmental degradation is regarded as something the tax payer or future generations will have to deal with, instead of a cost in your production process), solar panels might cost a few more bucks than coal plants but if the coal plants would make the Earth uninhabitable then spending a few extra bucks on solar panels is an incredible bargain.
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      Sep 17 2012: True. The downside to many of our technologies is the fact that the negative externalities (pollution) are not loaded into the full cost. Part of the issue is that it's hard to account for societal costs and apply them to a particular technology. Any ideas how this can be done?
      • Sep 17 2012: Simply account for the cost of cleaning up x amount of substance y and then foot the bill to companies that emit y, also have a tax on mining that goes up the smaller the reserves become and the larger the unused supply (sitting in dumps, waiting to be recycled) becomes.
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    Sep 13 2012: Do you really need good capitalists to weigh in, or do you need innovative ideas? The two are not a good fit when it comes to progress.

    Take Camden, ME, for instance. There you sit on the water, but have a group of interested citizens designed a system using barrels or discarded soda bottles, magnets, and coils to take advantage of the wave energy to create DC energy that could then be inverted to AC power to power a building? (I'm thinking of an expanded version of those little flashlights that you shake for a minute to produce 20 minutes of light - combined with an old-fashioned barn raising concept)

    Innovation is a rather amazing thing. Establish a platform where interested parties can share interests, and they begin innovating and producing for fun rather than profits. Humans are social animals, after all, and social gatherings with a purpose are built into the core of our identities as seen through the history of human kind. If there were such a forum in Camden, perhaps some of your many artists would begin decorating the floating energy collectors to complement the beloved lobster buoys.

    You might find this video interesting. It's about what motivates people. (Hint: It's not capitalism)
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    Sep 12 2012: Here's a just posted TED talk that shows one place and environment with a focus on practical innovation for sustainable cities: The speaker comes from MIT's Media Lab and School of Architecture and Planning.


    More broadly, combinatorial thinking, delayed censoring of ideas, and a willingness to tinker.
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    Sep 11 2012: Innovation comes from a curious, creative and imaginative mind. The innovator needs to be persistent in his or her quest to bring the best out of an innovative idea. Usually a great invention does not reach its full potential when it is first released; it is important that the effort towards improved technologies continues in the laboratories and research institutions.

    Then we can crawl, walk, run and eventually fly.
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      Sep 14 2012: This is where I was leaning with this question but I love all of the replies.

      I fully agree that an invention does not reach its full potential when first released. It needs time "in the field" for people to tinker with it. It also needs continued support for research and development.

      When I hear people say that alternative energies should not be subsidized because they provide less than 3% of the overall energy mix or complain that they're too inefficient they're forgetting the basic notion that it takes considerable time for many inventions to have a serious impact or improve in efficacy. New technologies do indeed take time to develop fully and some may end up being duds that need to be discarded. That's all part of the evolution of technology. Some branches are simply dead ends.
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    Sep 11 2012: Inspiration comes from anywhere - - there is no special place you should go to get inspired. In short, it comes when we least expect it -- but converting inspiration to innovation or product is a different thing. That's the hard part - so many ideas (that could have advanced the world) died with the carriers or thinkers because they were scared to put them into action, only those who have the courage gave voice it. This is because, in most cases, new invention makes no sense and people will tell you to be realistic. Think about it : consider flipping a switch to get light or bending a metal to fly people overseas - it makes no sense, but it is that senselessness and thinking outside the box that lead to groundbreaking innovations. Fear of criticism is the biggest enemy of innovation . . We all have it but fear is what filters us from the great inventors . . Sorry i have strayed from the original question . .
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      Sep 14 2012: There's nothing wrong with straying. That's the fun of these conversations. Those no reason to be linear.

      You're right. There are a lot of great ideas that get shot down. It's hard to weather all of the criticism that can come with a truly innovative idea. It's also hard to put it into action particularly if it requires capital. Venture capitalists like to think they think outside of the box but in too many ways they follow a heard mentality.
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    Sep 11 2012: Innovation/inspiration comes from anywhere. The root of all inspiration is from nature.

    A lot of new inspiration comes from new technological discoveries. That Ted Talk where they can film light in slow motion was something incredible. I could think of like a billion possible new uses it would allow us to do.

    Another thing that would accelerate the amount of inspiration we can get from a new technology is accessibility to the public. And by this, we mean how abundant is the new technology and how affordable is it?
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      Sep 15 2012: Web communities like Ted are indeed great ways to share information and draw inspiration from.
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    Sep 11 2012: Innovation occurs in curious mind first......

    In our today's business model no innovation means anything until it is commercially viable.Think of todays very popular cellular phone technology....when it first invented & when it become our part of life ?

    Being a professor of business I am sure you teach students about "Adoption Process" of Innovation ..... with my naive feeling my humble opinion is , someone need to push "innovation" through that cycle if s/he believes in it offering real value proposition.....
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      Sep 15 2012: Indeed I do. We spend considerable time about the product life cycle and product adoption. It's surprising how many of us forget that simple lesson. Renewable energy technologies, for instance, make up a small percentage of our energy profile just like the early cell phones made up a minor part of the communications mix. Now how many of us still have landlines? The problem with innovation is creative destruction. Those who are on the wrong side of the curve get very upset about being "destructed."
  • Sep 11 2012: Hello Professor,
    I've wondered many times who may be harvesting the ideas presented here on TED. Perhaps TED is an "innovation maker machine"!

    Good questions you have here!

    Pilots could use a good wireless headset in the flight deck, but no one has been inspired! What to do if government agencies would nix ideas? I don't know if the FAA has nixed this one, but it would be appreciated because no wires is convenient. Is the expense of research and approval/certification a major roadblock for innovation?
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      Sep 14 2012: Yes, this is great fodder for my classes. I love sending students here to explore too.

      I like the wireless headset idea. As you know the FAA moves very slowly. I see that American Airlines is moving toward iPads for their flight manuals which is a step in the right direction. Maybe soon we won't have to turn off our electronics upon takeoff. Then perhaps wireless headsets will be next.
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    Sep 11 2012: It seems to me that innovation occurs where there is a problem, innovation is organic to humans.
  • Sep 10 2012: A successful answer to the alternative energy question should start with good science. If it takes 10 gallons of fuel to produce the equivalent of one gallon from bio-fuel, then there is limited potential for profit. That significantly reduces the number of investors, even speculative investors.

    Perfecting in the laboratory is probably not the goal. I would that making it litigation proof and environmentally friendly were more probable goals.

    Innovation occurs every where, I think the trick is recognizing it and thinking of ways to employ it, particularly ways other than the way it was intended to be employed. Trolling Google Patents is a neat way to see innovation. There is actually a lot of innovation in some of the contests for science, engineering, and design that are available for kids.

    More innovation will come in the area of alternative energy from scientists, engineers, and inventors, particularly if spurred by research grants. The nations labs are also centers of innovation of all kinds. Some of the papers and publications produced by these facilities are ripe with potential for investment.

    Maybe a TV program about young inventors, or the greatest researchers, or perhaps new ideas in science and mechanics might help.
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      Sep 15 2012: Trolling Google patents is indeed interesting. It's fascinating to see some of the ideas both brilliant and less so. You're right too that innovation occurs everywhere in the value chain and certainly not only at one point. Costs come down and effectiveness and efficiency goes up when we seek broader innovations in every area of the product/service. We sometimes focus on the technology and forget that innovation in the finance process is important as well. Sometimes it goes horribly wrong but it can also be very useful.