Invention and innovation

1 September 2021
1 Sep 2021

This is an excerpt from today’s issue of my weekly newsletter.


I’ve been working through Jon Gertner’s The Idea Factory this month. The book covers the early history of the storied industrial research lab Bell Labs. Though I’m not finished yet, the book, combined with a week-long vacation in Paris, has triggered some thoughts in me I wanted to share.

Bell Labs' prolific history of innovation and discovery in computing includes the vacuum tube, the transistor, C, and UNIX. Given such a track record, the book’s motivating question is: how can we make sense of its outsized impact in technology and computing? What makes this innovative drive tick? How might other teams replicate their magic?

A key idea in the book that has stuck with me is that innovation happens in problem-rich environments. And conversely, in the absence of interesting demanding problems to solve in the market, meaningful innovation stops. Jack Morton, who oversaw the development of the transistor among other things, wrote:

It is not just the discovery of new phenomena, nor the development of a new product or manufacturing technique, nor the creation of new market. Rather, the process is all these things acting together in an integrated way toward a common industrial goal.

In other words, innovation isn’t just making something great or novel – it’s figuring out how to wrap it in an accessible and attractive package, and get it to reach millions and billions of people’s lives. Problems outside of the lab beget innovative ideas, but those ideas must complete the circle back to the hands of real people for the cycle of innovation to be complete. Otherwise, you don’t have an innovation – merely an interesting hack, perhaps an invention.

The book further notes that there are two interesting implications of this mindset. First, if you can’t build and distribute the new thing to lots of people, the circle of innovation can’t complete.

The second more interesting implication is that if there isn’t a ready market in demand of what you’ve just built, you haven’t innovated. You’ve perhaps discovered or invented something interesting, but innovation, at least by this definition, requires some impact on society which isn’t possible without large-scale transformative adoption.

These ideas have circled the periphery of my mind since I read about them, because I’ve been thinking more deeply recently about what it means to innovate in the space of building knowledge tools. There’s been an avalanche of talent and capital and attention injected into the space of “tools for thought” — software that tries to help us think smarter and remember more. But it seems like most of the effort going into the space is hopelessly obsessed with a kind of self-admiration that prioritizes building increasingly complex castles of bullet points and textual syntax instead of building something that the average human in the world wants to use to improve their lives or be more thoughtful. In this space, today, I worry that we are recklessly inventing without innovating.

The average person on Earth barely takes notes, uses the default notes app on their phone if they have to (or more likely, a scrap piece of paper), and cares more about their morning commute time than “organizing knowledge” or comparing note-taking apps. To deliver on an innovative knowledge tool, I think this space of tool-builders as a whole needs to acknowledge that the world mostly does not care about knowledge management or tools for thought, and contend with that reality as we try to deliver attractive, accessible tools that improve people’s lives in ways they truly care about.

Merely “shipping” interesting projects and raising lots of venture capital will not do. Innovation doesn’t happen in GitHub repositories or in Twitter threads of thought leaders du jour. It happens on desks and in pockets of millions and billions of humans navigating their own, varied lives, and the tools that win will be those that end up on their desks and in their pockets. And to do that, I think it’s worth taking some of the voracious energy that’s been going into creating and imagining new solutions, and redirecting it to understand why, if these new inventions are so great, many people simply run their lives on their iPhone’s Notes app.

One of my favorite quips from the book so far is a saying that innovation is the act of making the possible, probable. I love the image of innovative people working to imagine a possible future and somehow tugging on it to pull our reality closer to our imaginations. But to pull the world into the future, we can’t bet the house on the gravity of the genius of our inventions. We must keep our feet grounded in the present, and pull the rest of the world with us into the future.


Scales of cities, scales of software