This is the second part to my look into the maturing innovation technology industry. Part 1 here, in which I freaked out about Uber, and the general lack of maturity in innovation leadership.
In the time between that first post a few weeks ago and now, of course Uber has been through more. Driverless car crashed in Arizona, Jeff Jones quite as Uber’s President, they released a diversity report that was…kinda okay…but only because it was mostly on par with Silicon Valley, and Uber had another gender scandal about visiting escort bars in South Korea.
At this point I’m over the whole Uber thing. I’m spending more time wondering if Lyft can just go IPO already and evolve out of challenger.
Then in the land of Facebook, Palmer Luckey, the co-founder of Oculus (who Facebook own) and general all-round idiot in the vein of Kalanick, has left. Luckey was central to the Oculus-Zenimax lawsuit scandal, and has been seen as a combination of scapegoat and ‘he had it coming’ champion. In either case, it’s good that he’s out, as it displays a growing lack of acceptance of overriding ego in the call of innovation. A maturing and growing digital innovation industry is a good thing.
Is this maturity peak a GOOD THING?
First red flag on this concept is the idea that maturity kills innovation. The first evidence of this is that the big name innovation work going on – AI, robotics, IoT, driverless cars, AR/VR – are actually significantly same-same. There’s a lot of truth to this – the innovators are all making fairly similar assumptions and projects now that these projects are evolved beyond “experiment” into “live project” and get closer to being mainstream. Is this because there’s little innovation left? Hardly – it’s a cause/effect of maturity – the innovation displays the potential, while the maturity is necessary to slow down the craziness and make incremental, less risky, goals. The old world allegory for this would be the Gold Rush – the initial rush and lawless nature matured into a controlled industry as it grew.
I’m arguing that maturity is essential for industry. As the real world impact of the innovation industry starts to peak, we are seeing the reality check start to kick in – we are now asking the ‘right’ questions, rather than blindly bashing through. Is Snap worth that much money? Is Facebook responsible for fake news? Is Uber’s ambition to transform transport (is that it’s dream? I’m still not sure) founded on instability and toxicity? What is VR beyond a tech demo? What is the real impact of the ‘Internet of Things’?
Another danger follow up from the above industry wide maturity is that we’ll quash innovation by quashing personality. How much of our ability to innovate is unleashed (or hampered) by the freedom we are given in the workplace – to think, to move, to be entitled to be employed for how special we are rather than be special because of the company who employed us. Will this be lost if staff are no longer enabled to be special by turning a blind eye to their ‘eccentricities’? I would sincerely hope not, partly because the freedom of movement and personality is already strong enough in established industries, but also because there’s only so far that the individualist culture of opportunity can take a corporation. As many prominent CEOs and politicians could display right now – coming from a mature industry (politics, real estate, finance) really doesn’t quash that CEO’s personal…quirks…
I’m also generally quite wary of the unstable leaders. Compare the unstable WTF-ness of Kalanick with the congenial cool of Mike Cannon-Brookes, who was involved in a cool Twitter-based attempt to disrupt the South Australian energy grid when Elon Musk offered to install enough batteries to fix the energy grid in 100 days or it’s free.
A necessary side effect of industry maturity is increased controls around movement and IP freedoms – by which I mean that innovators will have to get used to less personal ownership of their IP in stricter contractual relationships. These already exist in established, regulated industries. The increased vigilance around the responsibilities is clearly having consequences – the fluidity of staff and knowledge will start to dry up as the current consolidation continues. Some like John Carmack, a highly respected mind in the industry and video gaming and rocketing pioneer, has taken a hit to his reputation as the main ‘thief’ in the Oculus-Zenimax lawsuit – the concept digs deep into the ownership of code and the borders of innovation.
As for ‘regulation’, it can reasonably be argued that regulation has both restricted innovation, or worse – enabled manipulation. The finance industry is ever present in the news for corruption, despite seemingly structured regulation. Could that be worth the price of admission into becoming as everyday as the financial institutions? We’re rapidly accepting innovation technology as such, which means that Bill Gates can recommend that we place income tax on robots, and the general reaction is that “wow, that’s a good line of thought” instead of “ROBOTS!!!???”
One side effect will be a slowing down of startup openness – or a general dispersion as the gold rush gets crushed by the natural cynicism of regulation and contractual obligation. I can see a slowdown, and small dip in quality – mainly as we see startups start to build around variations of existing innovations, rather than major innovations. This is a side effect of maturity – the consolidation. Longer term, the natural resilience and speed of innovation will work around the tendencies of structure to slow it down. Similarly, the diversification of the innovation technology conglomerates is already working around these regulatory structures as fast as the walls are coming up. We will likely see some sort of centralisation – perhaps an increase in startup regulatory and advocacy bodies to nurture and protect the innovation technology industry.
In fact, we’ve already seen this with groups like TechSydney taking a growing role, as well as the growing preponderance of internalised innovation and technology roles in traditional corporates.
The positivist zeitgeist approach is to say that – as an industry, the tech innovation is the world’s ‘fail fast’ industry. Blockchain may not have gotten the broad audience some were hoping, but that general failure doesn’t exclude it from being a GOOD technology – for the right purposes. Fail fast, learn lessons, move on. By its nature, innovation is a disruption of the existing. In this case, it cannot be constrained by existing industry and the innovation cycle starts again.