Innovation Toward a Better Quality Life

Consider this: In his 1982 book Critical Path, futurist and inventor R. Buckminster Fuller introduced the "Knowledge Doubling Curve." He noticed that until 1900 human knowledge doubled approximately every century and by the end of World War II knowledge was doubling every 25 years. When Fuller delivered his work there was no World Wide Web, iPhone or iWatch. In a 2006 report issued by IBM, they projected that by 2010, the world's information base would double in size every 11 hours.

As leaders we must ask ourselves, with the pace of technology and information growing exponentially, have we considered the implications for humanity? And if knowledge has doubled every 11 hours, will our sense of responsibility keep up?

Returning from Davos
My time at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland, gave me the opportunity to reflect on the disparities between short-term pressures and long-term strategic thinking. I left Davos more concerned with how we're going to utilize existing technology in a way that is useful to all of us -- not just in an effort to move further and faster.

According to the Global CEO Survey, launched at Davos by PricewaterhouseCoopers, 86 percent of respondents are making changes to how they measure success. Considering their place in a globalized world, these leaders said success must not be measured by profit alone. Said Don Lam, CEO of VinaCapital in a WEF article, "A measure of success is how you give back to society."

This still left me wondering if leaders are prepared to expand the definition of "giving back to society" beyond dollars donated to charity, and if they are, what might the new definition be?

Transparency in Innovation
"Transparency" has become an oft-used word in business to appeal to an evolving consumer demand to know everything from how their data is used to understanding what goes into their food. However, its significance is more than a buzz word used in marketing materials.

If the world's CEOs are committed to measuring success by the role their organizations play in humanity at-large, then transparency should be the guide. As leaders we must ask ourselves:

  • How are we considering and communicating the opportunities -- and risks -- of our products?
  • What steps have we taken to ensure people, from employees to business partners, are treated ethically and humanely?
  • Can we answer honestly that our innovation addresses a need and offers a human solution to an important cause -- or is what we do only for our own vanity and profit?

Walking the Talk
A number of organizations are leading the way in innovation through the lens of humanity and transparency.

U.S.-based outdoor retailer Patagonia was elevated for its transparency with the release of a Cyber Monday campaign, "Don't Buy This Jacket." The ad challenges and encourages consumers to rethink consumption, citing "environmental bankruptcy" and a desire to leave a world inhabitable for future generations. The company goes further by providing a breakdown of the environmental cost of their popular R2 Jacket.

To make it required 135 liters of water, enough to meet the daily needs (three glasses a day) of 45 people. Its journey from its origin as 60 percent recycled polyester to our Reno warehouse generated nearly 20 pounds of carbon dioxide, 24 times the weight of the finished product. This jacket left behind, on its way to Reno, two-thirds its weight in waste.

Let's also consider Kaggle, a community of data scientists from over 100 countries and 200 universities, brought together to bridge the gap between data problems and solutions. The community is open to all data scientists at no charge, who are then given opportunities to solve complex problems from some of the world's biggest companies through master's competitions. In turn, Kaggle is able to aggregate and share the very best thinking from its community.

Another well-known example is Tesla, who in 2014 famously released its battery patents for open source use to advance electric vehicle technology. In a public letter, CEO Elon Musk cited that, "We believe that applying the open source philosophy to our patents will strengthen rather than diminish Tesla's position..."

Finally, inspired by these and similar organizations, Solar Impulse has offered its work as scientific learning for researchers to explore the body's response to sleep deficiency, long duration flights (five days and five nights!), high altitude conditions, and exposure to non-pressurized environments. This information will provide current and future innovators with data to help drive ongoing solar discovery, space exploration and revolutions in air travel.

What can a leader do?
The culture of transparency the companies above adopted is part of their DNA. It is weaved into the fabric of the organization and encompasses all operations including hiring decisions and leadership management and behavior.

While many leaders are not in a position to change their entire business model, there are still small steps that can be taken to create a more transparent and humanitarian organization:

  1. It starts from the inside out -- employees should be the first to know
  2. Check ego -- question the root of decision-making to ensure it's to better the organizations and those it touches, rather than personal desire for accolades
  3. Be deliberate -- make thoughtful choices for the business that respect immediate shareholders and everyone touched by the product downstream
  4. Remain centered -- meditative practices give leaders the aptitude to be open and intentional

As a concluding thought, I am reminded by John Gerzema, pioneer in the use of data to identify social change, in one of his TED talks "Companies have to be innovative in leading with values the same way they have to be innovative in their products and services."

An engineer by education, a graduate of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and an entrepreneur, André Borschberg has solid experience in creating and managing companies, as well as in flying. As co-founder of Solar Impulse, his passion for aviation and his interest in innovative solutions have led him to develop the strategy to design and build the Solar Impulse airplanes.