THE BLOG
04/22/2014 07:46 pm ET Updated Jun 22, 2014

The Future of the Future: Where Are the Breakthrough Innovations?

Innovation -- the act of creating extraordinary new value in extraordinary new ways -- is a dance with one foot in the future and the other in the past. It is the past that gives you the raw material to imagine things that never were ask the proverbial, "why not?" question. And then, of course, the future takes over, for that is where innovation must find its home. That said, not everyone steps into the future with the same dance move or with the same dance partners. Much of what is extraordinary and new about the finest innovators comes from a certain asymmetry in their experiences, their perspectives and their timing. William Gibson, the futurist and "noir prophet" of cyberpunk, famously observed that the future is already here; it is just unevenly distributed. This unevenness has been at the core of the innovators we remember and repeatedly invoke -- the Edisons, the Jobs, the Yunuses. They all benefited from unevenness in some way.

Of late, there has been quite a bit of debate and discussion about whether the era of truly breakthrough innovation is behind us. The Economist magazine in January 2013 posted a cover story with Rodin's Thinker perched on a toilet wondering, "Will we ever invent anything this useful again?" Earlier, The Economist had hosted me and New York Times columnist and GWU professor, Tyler Cowen, in a debate on this topic. While I argued against the notion that we are done with Big Innovation, I do have some concerns about where we are in that dance from the past into the future. I am worried that we might all be learning the same dance moves and are at risk of losing some of that unevenness at the core of the most memorable innovations. Here are three of my top concerns:

The past is already here and it is evenly distributed: The future is unevenly distributed. True, but the past is here as well, and, thanks to ubiquitous access to information and ability to Google anything, look it up on Wikipedia or continuously share updates on social media, not to mention, the forthcoming age of Google Glass, the past may be a bit too evenly distributed. With the ease of access to knowledge, good or bad, I worry that we will lose a certain appreciation for both mystery and asymmetry. With toddlers getting iPads as their first toys, the joy of improvising, making stuff up and imagining things that never were, might become a thing of the past. With too few truly imaginative leaps, much innovative energy gets dissipated in incremental ideas. Incrementalism also suits investors and partners who would rather not bet the farm on an idea that is too far afield from what they already know.

For some investors, too much of the past carries into the future: The past has a way of sorting out some early winners and losers. A recent story in The New York Times noted a disturbing, but not altogether surprising, trend. "Start-ups, already flush with cash, are piling on the investment dollars," according to the article. This trend is an outcome of several drivers: the advantages to start-ups to remaining private longer, VCs looking for safer bets, particularly with the more risk-averse institutional investors also getting into the growth capital fray. The result is more money being concentrated on fewer ideas and many of the edgier ones - or even ones that do not follow mainstream directions -- get starved for resources in the process. Compounding these challenges is the problem that many ventures that do not fit the "VC model" fall through the cracks. Several of these non-conforming ventures may be in the much-needed bio sciences with very long payback timeframes or social ventures that may not deliver adequate returns or have serious obstacles to scaling up. The past, in other words, determines who or which types of innovations get disproportionate funding in the future, thereby creating a path dependency. The result: the future looks too much like an update on the past.

For other investors, too little of the past carries into the future: The 20th century was a period of extraordinary innovation. Having worked in the storied industrial R&D complex, as exemplified by Bell Labs, Bellcore, Xerox PARC or IBM's Watson Center, I have seen first-hand the power of innovations that are funded by "patient" corporate investments and public funding. In their glory days, the big corporate labs were gestating the foundational technologies that have shaped today's world: space, life sciences, information and nuclear technologies spanning the Internet and telecommunications, computing, materials and alternative energy. Many of these technologies were developed in the context of the greatest unmet needs of the time. Today, the majority of the most acute of unmet need has converged in the parts of the world where fast economic growth has collided with a slow moving context; so we have undeveloped infrastructure, congested cities, water, sanitation and environmental crises, poor public health and education -- all topped off by poor governance and the politics of exclusion.

Today's equivalents of patient investments, the 21st century Bell Labs or Xerox PARC, to my mind, are the M&A programs of well-resourced behemoths, such as Google and Facebook. With public sector funding of foundational technologies having been cut back, these are the primary channels of investment in R&D with broad applications. When I spoke with Google's Eric Schmidt during his recent visit to Fletcher, he was most excited about the possibilities of digital technologies producing innovations that helped close the gap between fast-moving economies and slow-moving context across the developing world. But if one looks at Google's acquisitions in the last 12 months alone, they point in a very different direction: Behavio (social prediction), Makani Power (airborne wind turbines), Waze (GPS navigation) Bump (mobile app), Flutter (gesture recognition), Schaft, Industrial Perception, Meka Robotics, Holomini, Boston Robotics (all robotics), Next (home automation), Impermium (Internet security), DeepMind (artificial intelligence), Green Throttle (gadgetry). Google's acquisition of Titan Aerospace may come closest to the argument for digital technologies contributing directly to development needs. Otherwise, the innovation roadmap for Google as measured by where the company is putting its money points in directions that lead away from the biggest global unmet needs. Similarly, Facebook's list of acquisitions do not provide any comfort either.

These are just some of the issues that worry me about our collective capacity to ensure that the 21st century can match and exceed the previous century in breakthrough innovation. To be sure, there is good news to consider as well. We are, indeed, in a rather unusually unprecedented window of opportunity. On the one hand, thanks to the emergence of the so-called global south, an industrial revolution is in motion with potential impact at least a thousand times that of the first industrial revolution. In parallel, there is an impressively large number of technologies with the capabilities of making the future very different from the past. There are exciting developments in health, agricultural, nano and materials sciences, energy, digital and communications, neuro and cognitive technologies. The applications of these technologies are vast and can take on problems in both advanced nations and nations on the newly-opening frontiers. There is a fascinating graphic that offers one view of how the array of nascent technologies line up and how close they might be to permeating our daily lives; see: http://envisioning.io/horizons/index.php. This work was done as a collaborative research and scenario mapping project between Envisioning Technology Research Foundation and Policy Horizons Canada.

I have my own picks and pans from this map, but I would be interested in getting your thoughts. Where do you agree or disagree with this map and why? Let us start a conversation. I am willing to bet that our opinions about the future are not evenly distributed. Even more, perhaps our opinions about the past -- and some of my skepticism about our experience with innovation in recent years -- are not evenly distributed either. This can be our first step towards the future and testing its uneven distribution.

So, turn up the music. Let the dance begin.

Bhaskar Chakravorti is the Senior Associate Dean of International Business & Finance at The Fletcher School at Tufts University and founding Executive Director of Fletcher's Institute for Business in the Global Context. He is the author of the book, The Slow Pace of Fast Change.