What is “Meaningful Innovation?” Is it Dead?

Let the debate begin.

During my time as director of the MIT Media Lab, I witnessed first-hand what radical innovation looks like, I describe it in my forthcoming book The Sorcerers and Their Apprentices. However, while writing the book, I came to believe that the type of curiosity- and passion-driven research that thrives at the MIT Media Lab today has all but disappeared elsewhere. The seeds of creative ideas and novel inventions that grow into meaningful innovations are no longer being planted at nearly the rate they were before.

By “meaningful innovations,” I mean those that improve our lives and improve society much more dramatically than the “digital affordances” that have proliferated in society today.

Sure, today we can shop for anything, connect with anyone and find just about any information, any time and anywhere, on our mobile devices. But for all these conveniences and connections, people feel less in control of their lives than ever before. I believe we need much more radical innovations that empower people with “digital agency,” enabling them to take control of their health, wealth and happiness in ways previously thought impossible.

In my view, Americans are still as adventurous and innovative as ever, but the system that supports them has become timid and risk-averse. The highly productive innovation ecosystem that thrived in the US in the late 20th century – a synergistic arrangement among academia, government and industry – is now broken. Given the prodigious challenges that face society today, this is a tragedy.

Until recently, I thought that I was alone in expressing these concerns. I found myself out of step with the current huge wave of excitement about social media and consumer web technologies and large investments in these technologies. But things are changing.

In his new book, The Great Stagnation, professor of economics Tyler Cowen explains that technological developments of recent times have made us happier, but done little to create new jobs. A recent article in The New York Times profiles entrepreneur and investor Peter Thiel, who contends that the culture of innovation in the country has been on the decline since the 1960s. Thiel points to universities as lulling us into a false sense of security that results in a society that is simply coasting.

I applaud Cowen and Thiel on their courage to declare that the “Emperor has no clothes” and to offer their own solutions. As a society, we are collectively in a state of denial about the meaningful innovations that are essential if we are not only to survive, but also to thrive in the 21st century.

I intend to add my voice to this emerging dialogue and hope others will, too. In the weeks and months ahead, I will also offer possible solutions on this blog, using the valuable lessons I learned at the MIT Media Lab as a starting point.

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