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Innovation in an Age of Disruption

By Joanne Jacobs

Train JunctionA cursory glance at Google will provide you with dozens of articles and blog posts calling for greater innovation in a post resources boom, decrying the lack of innovation in government, proclaiming world cities as global innovation powerhouses, and damning businesses attempting innovation without the right leadership. One could well assume that there was a recipe for business innovation based on ingredients of leadership, location, economic conditions and industry context.

Only there isn’t a recipe. There’s just disruption. And without innovation, businesses are dying.

Billionaire PayPal founder and Facebook investor, Peter Thiele, has noted that the disruption that’s happening in business is a result of fast change in the largely unregulated world of bits, impacting on the slow and highly regulated world of atoms. He’s right that regulation and digital breakthroughs are rapidly changing the way we work. But it’s not the whole story. The disruption happening to business is also a result of attitudinal change. Consumers expect more from companies, they have greater skepticism of marketing messaging, and both as citizens of a polity and communicators in networks, they are increasingly dissatisfied and rejecting of any methods of coercion. Disruption is happening because governments and firms alike have become awfully good at control.

And this is where innovation has to come in. It’s not a matter of avoiding the disruption, but moving with it. Resisting disruption is a key to failure. Embracing it enables greater consumer trust, higher productivity, and greater autonomy for citizens.

It can be hard for businesses so used to ‘controlling the message’ to get their heads around the concept of enabling greater consumer and citizen autonomy, but it is a far more effective means of remaining relevant to consumers than trying to control behaviours, because firms can be responsive and reactive rather than directing attention where it is unwonted.  And while the marketing sector may consider themselves already focused on acting in a responsive fashion, they are more focused on attracting attention than innovating around their products, business structure and operations to respond to market needs.

Innovation in an age of disruption should always be focused on rapid prototyping and rapid response to needs.  If consumer opinion is swaying in one direction, it should not be the focus of industry to drag it back another way (with everything from advertising gimmicks to legal threats), but rather to adapt to that opinion as a guide to human needs.  It requires firms to be much more slick in their business structure and operations, and much more tolerant of experimental failures.  But it enables continuous business renewal, with less dependence on regulation, litigation and favourable economic conditions.  Leaders must indeed be flexible, encouraging and visionary, but there is no need for them to be experts in digital; they just need the right advice.

So innovation is vital to the future of cities, industries and economies, but in an age of disruption, innovation requires a sensitivity to cultural rejection of control.  It’s not about technology adoption.  It’s not even about changing regulation.  It’s about enabling choice and opportunities.  And as both a business owner and a consumer, I can’t think of anything more valuable than that.

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