The Often-Elusive Value of Tech Innovation

Steve Diller

Sitting here in downtown San Francisco, we’re all swimming in a never-ending stream of tech innovations disgorged from digital factories stretching from here to San Diego. As the Mayor likes to call us, San Francisco is “The City of Innovation.” At the same time, there’s a sentimentality in our politics that evokes the heroic, self-expressive spirit of the Flower Children, the Beats, and other assorted cultural visionaries, one that seems to be speaking to a totally different set of values than those of the techies reinventing everything. Political skirmishes between the two groups happen frequently here.

One can make the argument, however, that the counter-culturalists and the techies are operating from similar assumptions about what belongs at the center of the innovation process. And that those assumptions are frequently inadequate and needlessly wasteful.

Our region’s approach to business innovation has produced massive wealth here and significantly improved products and services for many. At the same time, thousands of start-ups struggle to survive, the vast majority using and inventing tech based on their founders’ visions, and usually burning through other people’s cash and labor shockingly fast. The overwhelming majority will fail in the market, but those who succeed are believed to make up for the carnage along the way. However, it’s not clear that the waste involved in placing these visions at the center of the innovation process is necessary to obtain increased value for customers overall.

These founders’; visions are overwhelmingly tech-centered, in that they imagine new ways of doing something, and then, almost as an afterthought, try to find ways to convince people to buy these new something’s. This approach of “invent first, convince later”; is based partly on a romanticized sense of entrepreneurial heroism–the “take a risk on your own vision”; thing isn’t limited to the Beats. It’s also based on a belief that “consumers” don’t really know what they want today, much less tomorrow. So the technological visionaries need to invent it for them based on their own insights and desires, and then show people why they should want it.

Tech innovation suits us here in San Francisco because it’s been framed in ways that’s typical of the city’s creative impulse– it flatters our desire for self-expression. It has, when it’s worked, created massive fortunes and changed the way we do everything, from hailing a cab to controlling the heat in our living rooms. More often, it has wasted the time and money of millions.

Self-expression in tech creativity is a great thing when there’s cash and people’s time to burn. But in most of the world, we need better than "invent first, convince later." Is there a way to make better use of these tech tools? Companies the world over who can't simply re-invent themselves from the ground up may have the greatest need to do so.

To be less wasteful, we need an approach to innovation that’s grounded in something in addition to the self-expressive instincts and desires of tech entrepreneurs and engineers. Perhaps something that makes tech the servant of people’s needs, instead of the center of the innovation process. But what could that be?

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