To innovate, forget

We humans love to speculate about the future. It’s part of an ability that makes us different from other animals; we can look into times other than the present. We can consider, in great detail, what has happened and what has yet to happen

Typically, when we imagine what the future will be like, we imagine it to be different by degrees. We see ourselves with more money, more possessions, more skills and abilities, more happiness, less worries, less problems. And we see the world around us with less conflict, less poverty, more wealth. Or we see the opposite of that, depending on whether we’re baseline-optimistic or baseline-pessimistic.

But frequently the innovations that change the world and shake up the order of things don’t correspond to our visions of the future. That’s because we think the future will be different by degrees, when really, it will different by kind. As Kevin Kelly said in The Inevitable:

“As we try to imagine this exuberant web three decades from now, our first impulse is to imagine it as Web 2.0—a better web. But the web in 2050 won’t be a better web, just as the first version of the web was not better TV with more channels. It will have become something new, as different from the web today as the first web was from TV.”

Of course, innovation-by-degrees is way, way, way easier than innovation-by-kind. To innovate by degrees, all you have to do is look around you at what already exists and amplify or minimise some of the properties already present. Imagine that every attribute of a technology, service, product, etc., is plotted on a sliding scale. To innovate by degree, you just have to slide one of, or a combination of, those properties up or down until you find something interesting or valuable. Anyone can do that. It requires no special ability or gift. Just patience, perceptiveness and the capacity for experimentation and exploration.

Innovation-by-kind is not so simple. Montaigne said in his Essays that “Man cannot be other than he is; he cannot have thoughts beyond his reach.” That’s what innovation-by-kind requires; the ability to escape the impression formed on our mind by the current world and imagine something completely new. 

Another way to frame it is using the idea of talent-versus genius. It’s said that talent hits targets that everyone can see but has trouble hitting, and genius hits targets that no one else even knows are there. The genius, the innovator-by-kind, doesn’t just build on top of already-constructed architecture. He comes up with a new building, or a new way of construction.

That’s the difference. To be an average, or even an above-average speculator and investor in the future, we can attempt to imagine innovation-by-degrees. We can look at the world around us and imagine a better version, with it’s good features turned up and it’s less-good features turned down, or removed altogether. But to be a great speculator and innovator we need to look at the world around us and then forget about it. Because the future will be different in kind, not by degrees, every impression we have of our current reality biases us toward iterating something old, rather than helping us to forge something new.