I would offer Facebook as an excellent example of harnessing society’s ability to influence innovation. “I could have never imagined all of the ways people would use Facebook when we were getting started 6 years ago,” founder Mark Zuckerberg wrote in July 2010, the day the company’s user base hit 500 million. Zuckerberg’s willingness to allow his customers to shape his site has been a key ingredient in Facebook’s runaway success.
My one disappointment with Shirky’s book is that it focuses only on new digital tools, and misses a parallel revolution that is enabling people to create and share in the physical world. The up-and-coming “maker” culture — highlighted in Cory Doctorow’s sci-fi novel Makers (Tor, 2009) and Chris Anderson’s article “In the Next Industrial Revolution, Atoms Are the New Bits” in Wired magazine in 2010 — is powered by a new box of tools accessible to practically anyone: US$2,000 CNC (computer numerical control) machines and $1,000 MakerBot 3-D printers, easy-to-program microcontrollers like the Arduino, public open-access workshops like TechShop, and micro-factories and global supply chains ready to manufacture and ship small batches of a new product anywhere around the world. Manufacturing is becoming democratized; your next-door neighbor might be building the next electric car or manufacturing and selling accessories for the iPad.
The implications of this mashup of free time and tools, whether physical or digital, should not be understated. Shirky demonstrates how a convergence of opportunity, means, and motivation will enlarge society’s role in innovation. The only question that remains: What benefit will emerge? Shirky wonders whether we will use our new digital tools for pursuits as trivial as lolcats — or for saving lives. He is optimistic about the answer. Let’s hope he is right.
The ultimate insight to be gained from this year’s best business books is that innovation is a team effort and we are all on the team. So although innovation concerns translating ideas into societal impact, it equally concerns the impact of society on the ideas. It is this complex interplay between people and ideas that makes the process of innovation so challenging — and so fascinating.
- Krisztina “Z” Holly is vice provost for innovation at the University of Southern California and executive director for the USC Stevens Institute for Innovation. She was the founding executive director of MIT’s Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, and has been an engineer and entrepreneur.