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Innovation requires more than technology

The following is a post I wrote for Innovate Masstech (http://innovate.masstech.org/), a blog/site/discussion about the future of technology in Massachusetts.  The site was launched by a friend/former employer.   The post hasn’t gone live yet (and I don’t know if/when it will), so I thought I would share it here as well.


The following is a post I wrote for Innovate Masstech (http://innovate.masstech.org/), a blog/site/discussion about the future of technology in Massachusetts.  The site was launched by a friend/former employer.  

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The post hasn’t gone live yet (and I don’t know if/when it will), so I thought I would share it here as well.

Governor Deval Patrick wants Massachusetts to be more competitive – in terms of jobs, and standard of living, healthcare, and education.  He wants to bolster our university system so that students, professors, and researchers see Massachusetts as the base for their learning and exploration.  The Governor wants the economic benefits that derive from having vibrant industries and successful companies operating in the Commonwealth to benefit everyone.  And the Governor has challenged the technology industry in Massachusetts to lead the effort to meet these challenges. 

Governor Patrick is pinning his hopes on the technology industry to drive the necessary growth and innovation to sustain everything else that his agenda includes.  He has challenged local companies, or those who want to establish a base in Massachusetts, to build the newest technology to address our energy, healthcare, and education challenges.  He has invited mobile, gaming, interactive marketing and other sectors to establish their base in Massachusetts and help contribute to the economic growth we need.  And to their credit, these groups have responded.   The strategy appears to be working.  

But, with all due respect to the Governor, I think the vision is too narrow, the measures of success are too short, and the opportunities are too great not to expand our view and try something different.  The energy and focus of the technology industry alone is not enough to deliver the kind of meaningful, measurable impact we need and expect.  Innovation requires more than technology.  And ensuring a bright future for Massachusetts will require contributions from everyone, working together, pursuing a shared set of interests and goals.

I am not the first, nor am I the only person, who has suggested that broader, and deeper, collaboration between government, the technology sector, media, educational and social/community leaders and others is necessary.  But I will do it again here, and now.  Why?  Because we continue to use roughly the same approach to addressing major challenges in our society.  Our political leader issue a challenge and provide incentives for industry to advance.  But the impact of that work is not felt by all, and many significant problems remain unsolved.  Our current focus in the economy, but education, healthcare, and everything else is still out there as well.   Why not try to solve many of the problems at the same time?  Why not look for new and different approaches, and invite more voices and perspectives, in hopes of finding better solutions?  The same old approach is not working, and everything around us continues to shift and change.  We have an opportunity, and an obligation, to do better.

The rise of internet and the ubiquity of technology has dramatically changed the way people get and share information, and the expectations of what audiences want when it comes to … well, everything.   Audiences do not rely on single source for information.  We do not live, or learn, or engage in our communities the same as we did in the past.  Technology gives each of us the opportunity to find or create our own personal connection to something, online and offline.  And while technology has driven much of that change, its not the technology that we can blame, or use alone, to drive our efforts going forward.  

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The internet has also taught us that we can get everything we want, customized to meet our personal needs or satisfy our particular interests, have it available on demand or delivered in near-real time, all in return for a price we want to pay (which is often very little).  Those high expectations apply to everything: retail, education, nonprofit organizations and charities, politics and government – and most especially to media – whether its online or offline.  Our relationships with institutions that have always led, driven innovation, and supported economic growth, provided critical services in our cities and towns, and the people whose voice and experience must be considered doesn’t fall into the same patterns we have seen before.
 
In short, everything must change.  And that includes our approach to innovation and our drive for changes in business, media, society, and everything else that will drive the Commonwealth towards success in the future.

The technology industry has embraced the challenge put forward by the governor, but they cannot lead our society towards true innovation on their own.  No tool, widget, application or robot will create jobs, feed hungry people, help educate our students better, or improve our energy efficiency without significant help.  No game, movie, handheld device or website will capture attention, deliver information, deepen learning, or motivate action from a sufficient number of people across Massachusetts (or the nation) to see significant change occur.  Revenue can be generated.  Jobs can be created.  New stories and research will result from all these innovations.  But there are larger, more important goals that we must reach, and the innovation in technology that we must pursue should be focused on meeting those needs above all.  We can develop all the technology we want, but for it to have a sustained impact, to improve society, and to meet the needs of our citizens, those technologies must be understood, used, and embraced by everyone (or the widest possible audience).  Only when that happens will everything come together.

How do we get there?  Cross-sector collaboration, as the Governor has demanded, is still critical — but we must broaden the definition of ‘cross sector’ to include those who are not just in the field of technology.  The people who lead business, media, education and culture, nonprofit and social change organizations across Massachusetts must all come together as a part of the discussion.  These audiences must understand and embrace technology, from the start, not left to figure out how to implement something once it is developed.  Even more importantly, the public, the end user, the customer, the audience – the students and teachers, parents and doctors, white collar and blue collar workers, seniors and young people… everyone… the people who live in our communities,, who face great challenges every day, and who increasingly find themselves struggling to stay afloat in the sea of media and technology that overwhelms our senses every day need to be listened to, and what they are asking for needs to be heard.  If they do not understand, use, and embrace new technology and the opportunities for changing how we live, and work, and learn, any successes will be short-lived.

In short, we must be careful not to over-estimate the impact that technology has on our society, and our economy.  Technology is important, but its just a tool.  Good technology is created to facilitate the solving of problems, meeting of goals, or pursuit of activities.  The technology industry creates jobs and generates revenue for the state.  But addressing the challenges that exist in all other aspects of our lives is equally important, and must be considered at the same time for everything to work.  I know that if you figure out how to develop new technologies that truly address the challenges that people in our society are facing – we will use them and we will pay for them.  Companies will make money.  Government will see new revenues.  People will find their lives easier to lead and the goals more attainable.  But do the opposite and you will create larger challenges — create new technologies that are innovative and generate revenue, but don’t aid us in our lives or bring us closer to addressing our needs, and we will not follow.

The challenge has been issued, and we all must rise up to meet it.  The technology industry has taken the first step, by offering its time and focus — but the effort must go further.  Government and technology leaders must invite and support true collaboration with other groups.  Government must show the leadership we all need to recognize the broader opportunities that true cross-sector collaboration can create.  Educators, social change and nonprofits, business leaders and others, must offer their contributions and expertise.  And we all, in the audience, as citizens, must make our voice known, hold our leaders accountable, and contribute our own energy and insights to ensure innovation is realized.  Only then will the challenge be met.