These are remarkable times. Hope and despair, triumph and defeat, light and darkness, all get closer and closer to each other. Success and failure, breakthrough and breakdown, increasingly appear just a nano-milimeter or nano-second away from each other. This KEY traces the Ten Wheels of Innovation. First we soar to the 20,000 feet view as we make the trace. Then we look at the threshold of the next big game-changing innovation.
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The 10 Wheels of Innovation
At an early age, I was fascinated by great world explorers: Vasco da Gama, Ferdinand Magellan, James Cook,Christopher Columbus and others. What propelled these men into adventure and sailing to uncharted, unknown worlds? What gave them the courage? What passion, vision, adventurism or thrill of possible glory impelled them to take such risks? They were the entrepreneurs and the pathfinders of their time. A similar passion impelled great innovators through the ages.
Discovery and innovation follow and come out of man’s deepest impulses. There are two primary impulses that drive the wheels of innovation:
- The desire for increased mobility – the freedom impulse.
- The desire for increased connectivity – the connection impulse.
What Was Man’s First Innovation?
The first innovation, the first huge leap forward, was the invention of the wheel. Assisted mobility was utilized for the first time and became the first great innovation. Take away the wheel and you take away almost everything you see around you today. Just think of all the things you know, large or small, that have a wheel as a part of their design and/or were made possible by a wheel. With the invention of the wheel, mobility independent of the strength of our own legs became possible and leverage greater than our own muscle-power was accessed. It was a colossal development that opened the way for all the innovations that followed.
The Second Wheel: The Proliferation of Knowledge
The Diamond Sutra, a Buddhist scripture dated 888, is the first example of block printing. But Gutenberg began work on his printing press in 1436 and published the Biblia Pauperum, the first 200 copies of a block-printed Bible, in 1455. It’s Gutenberg who is credited with unleashing the immense power of the printing press. The popularization of the printing press brought the proliferation of knowledge and ended the control and power preserved by the priesthood. The empowerment of knowledge catalyzed dramatic social changes. The printing press became a trigger for commercialism and enabled and popularized self-expression that led to new inventions.
The Third Wheel: Unleashing Industrialization
The first wheel of innovation delivered assisted mobility. The second wheel distributed and moved knowledge from the few to the many. The third wheel of innovation engaged a new source of power and propelled the Industrial Revolution. Using boiling water to produce motion is an idea almost 2000 years old. The first practical steam-powered ‘engine’ was a water pump, developed in 1698 by Thomas Savery. It was followed by the first commercially successful engine around 1712. Steam engines led to powered pumping stations and steam ships and opened the way for railway locomotives and traction engines, which powered tractors for agricultural use and road cars. Engines enabled machines and capabilities that transformed the way people lived. The pace of life accelerated; new travel possibilities opened up, and production processes and capacities unimagined before became possible. The third wheel of innovation powered and catalyzed a socioeconomic shift that accelerated the development of cities around industrial centers.
The Fourth Wheel: Defying Gravity
Man’s desire for greater mobility and freedom was not pacified with the development of trains and automobiles. Observation of birds and flight fascinated man from the beginning of time. When the Wright brothers took off on December 17th, 1903, a new day dawned. The fourth wheel of innovation defied gravity and took to the sky. Aviation was born and a bigger world opened up. No longer were people dependent on the sea for traveling beyond their own boundaries. It was the beginning of the end of the British Empire. The dominance and power of the Royal Navy in controlling the sea became obsolete. The rise of America was underway.
The Fifth Wheel: From Mobility to Connectivity
Each wheel expanded people’s horizons. Assisted mobility turned into powered mobility with the steam engine (third wheel) and cheated gravity with aerodynamic lift (the fourth wheel). The next innovation pushed the envelope and expanded horizons again. Closing distances through mobility gave way to eliminating distance through connectivity. The evolution of the telephone had many steps leading to the first dial phone to be installed at Bell Systems in Norfolk, Virginia in 1919. The first transatlantic call was made in 1927. People were now able to communicate in real time over great distances. This fifth wheel set in motion the communication revolution. It opened the way for real-time reporting and the possibilities of virtual collaboration. The world changed again.
The Sixth Wheel: Electronics Powered Connectivity
As a young man, I often observed that older people who were born before there was a telephone in their home would shout when speaking on the phone, even when the line was perfectly clear. They would shout louder for an international call. They had not fully internalized the idea that distance was eliminated with electronically-powered connectivity. The transistor was developed in parallel at the Bell Labs in Norfolk and Westinghouse in Paris, France. It replaced the vacuum tube, provided the electronic signal switch and the amplification of signal. Transistors enabled and powered the radio and television revolution and the proliferation of real-time news. Radio and then TV became central characters in people’s lives and took center stage in the experiences of families and nations. The golden era of radio and TV created a unified experience for an entire nation and at times nearly the entire globe. Think about the Apollo 11 landing on the moon and the Apollo 13 rescue mission.
The Seventh Wheel: Computing Power Unleashed
As the transistor revolutionized the field of electronics it paved the way for smaller and cheaper radios, calculators, and then computers. Unleashing computing power drove the seventh wheel of innovation. With semiconductors replacing vacuum tubes it was possible to integrate thousands or millions of discrete transistors and create a microprocessor. It was a programmable digital electronic component that incorporated the functions of a central processing unit (CPU) that interpreted computer program instructions and processed data. First there was an engine that accelerated mobility. Now there was an engine that powered computing. The world changed again as computing power augmented and magnified human capacity and enabled new scientific, technological and medical breakthroughs. Business embraced information technology (IT) and harnessed automation to increase productivity.
The Eighth Wheel: The Internet
IBM developed mainframe computing power, Bill Gates envisioned a PC in every home and Steve Jobs brought elegant intuitive experience to computing. And then there was the big bang. The Internet was born. Computer networks emerged first within military and scientific research organizations. But in the 1990s the World Wide Web rapidly evolved into a pool of human knowledge allowing remote collaborators to share ideas. Almost overnight we changed the way we communicate and interact. From an evolutionary biology standpoint such rapid “mutation” in a specie mode of communication is completely breathtaking and unheard of. The Internet changed the way we learn, how we work and communicate, and the way we socialize and live our lives. It transformed social patterns and we are just beginning to realize it is changing the human brain. The commercialization of the Internet happened rapidly. With e-commerce taking off almost immediately, nearly every business on the planet was disrupted. Tremendous new businesses were created and Thomas Friedman informed us the Earth was flat after all. The free movement of ideas was quickly changing nations and impacting governments’ structures. As Google unleashed the power of search, (which may deserve in this trace to be crowned as an innovation wheel by itself) the envelope of omnipresent just-in-time knowledge propagation was perpetually pushed.
The Ninth Wheel: Web 2.0 & Mobile Connectivity
Web 2.0 changed the nature of the Internet from the experience of visiting a digital library to participating in a conversation. Wiki (Hawaiian word for “fast”) enabled a new way of collaboration and co-creation. Software as service collaboration platforms brought us globally into one shared room. The “freedom impulse” and the “connection impulse” were fully converging and integrating in cloud-enabled mobile connectivity. The Blackberry, the iPhone and the IPad and all other devices, and an eco-system that supported mobile connectivity, were evolving at light speed and promised you could do anything, anywhere, anytime. The silos of print, radio, TV and the Internet media forms were rapidly meshing into one integrated convergence that flowed at you from all directions with all options available, in all forms, anywhere, anytime. A younger generation of digital natives does not know another world and no longer perceives physical and virtual experiences as separate realities, but one meshed continuum. What for older generations looked impossible (think dolphins flying in the sky with falcons) was part of the cyber landscape for the digital natives.
The Tenth Wheel: Finding the Source
The second decade of the 21st century is accelerating the race to find the 10th and the 11th wheels of innovation. As social networking engulfed the globe and seamless mobile connectivity changed us socially and relationally, culturally and behaviorally, biologically and geopolitically, the race to find the source is on. The 10th wheel seeks to unleash safe and clean ubiquitous sources of energy. Let’s proceed into what’s coming with an imaginary thought experiment: with the price of oil north of $200 and on the way to $300 a barrel, an oil-fuelled economy is quickly becoming a dark chapter in our history. We are on course to stop burning things to produce energy. Elegant, ubiquitous and affordable energy will be harvested and captured and the ability to create power greenly and safely will cascade into new businesses. With the yet another wheel unleashing new possibilities, two billion people are emerging from poverty. No longer are they deprived of the Nine Wheels of Innovation. Instead they became users and co-creative participants. The new energy-source renaissance accelerates the search for the 11th and 12th wheels. The search to find the source of life and engage it directly and the quest to come into contact with the source of spirit takes on new meaning and significance…
The Innovation Wheels:
- The wheel – Assisted movement
- The printing press – The proliferation of knowledge
- The steam engine – The Industrial Revolution
- Aviation – Defying gravity
- The telephone – The communication revolution
- The transistor – Radio and television
- The CPU – The computing revolution
- The Internet – The World becoming flat
- Web 2.0 & mobile connectivity – Collaborative engagement anywhere, anytime, any form
- New energy sources
Each of these wheels accelerated our mobility, brought us closer, made us feel more connected and enabled a new set of capabilities. How will the tenth and eleventh wheels emerge and show up? What new unknown worlds will be opened next? What new capabilities, knowledge and possibilities will we unleash? How will these affect the nature of life and the socioeconomic fabric throughout our beloved planet?
Now it’s your turn. Turn the Key. Imagine the next wheels of innovation. Someone you know may catalyze and make possible this fantastic next wheel of innovation. Our world needs many people envisioning, imagining and co-creating a bright and enlightened future. Talk to your loved ones and friends about the thrill of new possibilities. We are all called to play a part in dramatic and bright new futures that will impel and propel us forward.
© Aviv Shahar
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