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Saturday, 18 October 2014

The innovation champs for 2014; the best of times or the worst of times?

First, a Dickensian moment, from "A Tale of Two Cities":
"It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way - in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only".
As so it may be said about innovation. The word is seemingly ubiquitous. Almost everyone agrees that we need more of it, but views differ on whether we are in a boom or bust innovation era and, indeed, views even differ as to how to define it. Against this backdrop, this Kat was fascinated by the full-page announcement that appeared in the October 4th issue of The Economist, in which the magazine announced the 2014 winners of its Innovation Awards (the ceremony took place in Hong Kong on 9 October). More precisely, winners of two categories were displayed on the page—Kickstarter for the "Process and Service Innovation" category (Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler and Charles Adler) and Twitter (Jack Dorsey, Chairman, Evan Williams), for the "No Boundaries" category.

For Kat readers who may not be familiar with Kickstarter, it is a crowdsourcing model of funding for, as the announcement describes, "art, comics, crafts, dance design, fashion, film and video, food, games, journalism, music, photography, publishing, technology and theatre." Pledges are collected via the website; if the creator achieves its goal within the time allotted, it receives these funds, subject to credit-card processing charges and a 5% fee for Kickstarter. The announcement states that, since 2009, more than seven million persons have contributed more than $1.3 billion dollars, three million having contributed $480 million dollars in the year 2013 alone. Indeed, more than 10% of the movies screened at the latest Sundance Film Festival were funded through Kickstarter.

Twitter needs no introduction, enabling short messages of up to 140 characters (including links to other sites) to be sent. Currently the site claims 271 million active users who send more than 500 million Tweets daily in 35 different languages. As stated in the announcement, Twitter "has become a popular way to disseminate news and information in real time about everything from political protests to reality-TV shows."

Just for the record, the other winners (which the reader can only discover by going to a link) are as follows:
* Consumer Products: Renaud Laplanche, Founder and CEO, Lending Club, for pioneering peer-to-peer consumer lending.

* Energy and the Environment: Urs H√∂lzle, Senior Vice President, Technical Infrastructure, Google, for techniques used to create energy-efficient data centres.

*Bioscience: Jay Keasling--Professor of Chemical Engineering, University of California, Berkeley and Senior Faculty Scientist, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, for synthetic artemisinin used to treat malaria.

* Computing and Telecommunications: Andrew Rubin, Senior Vice President, Google, for producing the world's most widely used smartphone operating system, Android.

* Corporate: Pixar Animation Studios, for its groundbreaking computer animation tools, technology and feature films.

* Social and Economic: Nandan Nilekaniformer, head, the Unique Identification Authority of India (UIDAI), for his leadership of the country’s national identity scheme.
The innovation trough: have
we nearly reached the bottom?
While one cannot gainsay that the list is impressive, still something gnaws at this Kat: is this really the best of the innovation lot? The national identify scheme for India is noteworthy and this Kat assumes that Professor Keasling's laboratory is doing world-class research. But can it really be that Google is the innovation leader in two categories (or maybe it is?), that innovative success is so concentrated that five winners are located in California alone (or maybe it is?), that the most significant innovation in finance is peer-to-peer consumer lending (or maybe it is?), that computer animation is the most significant innovation to come from "Corporate" (or maybe it is?) and that the percentage of films funded at the Sundance Festival is demonstrable evidence of Kickstarter's innovative success (or maybe it is)?

Lurking behind this Kat's reflections is the question of whether this list reflects the idiosyncrasies of The Economist as much as the objective indicia considered, or whether we are, as some have claimed, in an innovation trough. Kat readers are encouraged to opine.

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