The best way to invent tomorrow is by treating innovation as a biological process, not an ownable thing.
You probably don't know him – no one remembers his paintings, and his other works were never successes. John Goffe Rand is arguably the most influential artist of the 19th century, but not through his art. Rand did something altogether more powerful: he created a new product that profoundly increased others' capabilities.
Rand himself was an oil painter. In his day, oil paint was stored in pigs' bladders, opened by pricking, as you would a sausage. But once opened, the paint had to be used before it dried. Expensive colours and newly invented pigments were seldom employed – because once you started using a colour, you'd need to use a lot of it to make it worthwhile. Artists would rarely work anywhere but their studios, because the bladders tended to burst easily.
So, Rand looked at that one part of his artistic process, and invented something new: the metal paint tube. With a crimped end and a screw on top, the new container not only didn't burst; it could also be resealed. This made it possible to use new colours, and enabled artists to free themselves from the confines of their studios.
That one small innovation gave Rand's fellow painters the ability to do work they had never dreamed of before. As Pierre-August Renoir put it: "Without colours in tubes, there would be no Cézanne, no Monet, no Pissarro and no Impressionism."
The time is ripe for this sort of capability-unlocking innovation. Right now, our exponentially capable world, whose very potential comes from its interdependent, intertwined nature, has been disrupted by the coronavirus pandemic. Many of us are redefining our purpose and examining the impact we have on the world. Businesses and investors are rethinking their models and strategies, and directing their efforts to benefit their wider communities.
It's a period in which our capabilities grow ever more powerful each day. But we're left with a curious conundrum. Many of our leaders, and the organisations underneath them, have a desire, and a need, to change. They face pressure on one side from the state of the world in 2020, and pressure on the other from newly created technological capabilities. Yet they seem incapable of innovating.
Why innovation can never be owned
Many of the reasons behind the inability to innovate have long been accepted. Organisations traditionally prefer predictability, while innovative processes are inherently unpredictable – and so discouraged. People are also paid with bonus structures that reward short-term profits over longer-term payoffs. And there's the simple fact that we often just don't like change.
While innovation is lauded as a heroic activity, and 'Innovator' is the title of choice on the magazine cover of most executives' dreams, perhaps this is the problem in itself: the assumption that innovation is something that can be owned by a key individual, or done as a special project – by a specific department.
This concept of innovation is a power play, removing the agency to adapt and improve from the team. It frames the task of making things better as a specialist activity, restricted and controlled only by those in the right place in the hierarchy. And it's a way of thinking that not only serves to starve real innovation, but can also hold companies hostage to the possibility of irrelevance if (and often, when) that 'specialist' runs out of ideas.
Enabling 'good work' in a business
Because, again, innovation isn't actually a thing. It's a 'hyperobject'. New words to describe problems give us new powers to think about them, and hyperobject is one of those words. It means something so large as to be unaddressable directly. In this way, innovation is a hyperobject. You can set out to innovate, just as you can decide to fight climate change, but that isn't a plan. It's just a theme.
For business leaders, for example, the way to unlock radical creativity is to accept that every employee in an organisation is not just an expert in the processes they are responsible for – and to be aware of the vital part they play in achieving a wider goal.
Given the chance, encouraged and empowered, those employees could help to solve seemingly intractable problems. Led by principles and mission, rather than governed by an 'org chart' or quarterly targets, the natural reaction of someone with unsung abilities and all the toys they need at their disposal is to use them.
In short, enabling employees to do what they perceive as 'good work' (from either a technical or an ethical perspective, or both) unleashes passionate engagement – and could be a model for creating the sustainable businesses of the future. We're already seeing this in the way that employees from different companies are working together to innovate responses to the crisis, casting aside the shackles of the 'closed vault' of ideas.
For a family business, encouraging imaginative input from all involved can also help to grow leaders from within, paving the way for this next generation to integrate their skills and passions in unexpected, yet positive, ways.
Radical creativity as biological growth
This form of radical creativity – where staff are treated as creative humans on a collective mission, and not as interchangeable cogs in a clockwork process – can feel and look like chaos. In fact, you might be balking at it right now.
But that's because it's a fundamentally biological idea. It's one of adaptiveness and thriving, of evolution and growth. It's one where everyone uses their energies to move forward, and not to stand still. And it's one that's mirrored in the most innovative companies today – none of which resemble their past selves in anything other than their spirit and values.
Thinking of the process of innovation in this manner opens us up to other metaphors too. For example, companies seeded in the fertile ground of diversity of thought – and hence, diversity of recruitment – will be more successful than those that try to flourish in the aridity of homogeneity.
Giving creativity permission to grow
To return to John Goffe Rand, it's now a matter of unlocking the artists from their studios, and enjoying the beauty they bring on their return.
And while moonshot experiments – with little grafts planted in wholly new areas to see if they take – can be spectacular, the future isn't rockets and robot cars, no matter how cool they may be. Rockets and robot cars are simply yesterday's idea of tomorrow.
The real tomorrow is left for us to invent. It's where we will be spending the rest of our lives, and to the generally agreed chagrin of every expert, that future is infinitely less predictable than it has ever been. So it rewards us all, in each of our own personal areas of responsibility, to consider how best to take on the role of inventing it anew.
If there's one thing to emphasise here, it is this: the thoughts that got us here are no longer enough. The best way forward, therefore, is in building the ability to have radically better, radically more creative ones.
Ben Hammersley is a British technologist, strategic foresight consultant, futurist, keynote speaker, broadcaster and systems developer based in New York City.