A World Full of Ideas

Interview on Innovation

  • With Paul Pangaro, PhD by Thiago Rosenberg, Instituto ITAÚ Cultural, São Paulo, Brazil
  • This is the original English version of an interview that appeared in Continuum, the July, 2008 edition of Instituto ITAÚ Cultural magazine.

What is innovation? How does this concept fit in the debate on emergence, the topic of this issue Continuum Itaú Cultural magazine?

There has been a lot written about innovation in recent years. A definition is seldom offered, but, at least for me, an innovation is a new insight that leads to change that has real, positive value. Some innovations are small and some are large, but all involve carrying an insight forward until its benefit is widely felt. It usually takes a lot of passion—obsession even—to find the insight that unlocks possibilities. Then, it takes even more passion to achieve adoption, against the resistance to change that comes from those who have a vested interest in the status quo.

I don’t know of a better definition—one that distinguishes it from just an idea, or an invention, or an improvement in what is already happening. Innovation may involve some or all of these things, but these alone are not enough, in my view. Innovation may take place at any level of an organization, and in regard to new processes or old, large aspects or small. But unless there is a new insight that causes change that brings value, for me it is not an innovation.

Regarding emergence, there are a few places in the process of innovation where unexpected results can be recognized. I think emergence mostly occurs when the inventor recognizes there’s a problem to be solved (something that isn’t working right) and the task is to immerse in the problem and to hope for that flash of insight. When the insight comes, it emerges from ideas that the inventor brings together, but it cannot be predicted what the insight will be, or when it will occur (if at all!). Hence the insight is emergent.

Another place where emergence may occur during the innovation process is after the inventor’s work is mostly done, and work begins for the innovator—the individual whose obsession pushes to bring the value of the innovation to the world. (Sometimes, but rarely, is the inventor and innovator the same person, because the skills and types of creativity are very different.) Benefits will accrue as a result of implementing the insight and bringing it to the world—that’s the whole point, of course. However, there may be emergent effects, not predictable in advance, that are caused by interactions between the innovation and the world in which it operates. These emergent effects may be positive or negative. For example, the innovation of the automobile did, in fact, create huge value to individuals who were then free to live greater distances from work, and enjoy a richer lifestyle. However, the resulting urban sprawl of cities and pollution and snarling traffic are all negative emergent effects that were not predicted.

In your opinion, what was the last great innovation in the history of mankind?

This is a difficult question for me to answer, for two reasons. First, it requires a huge scope and depth of understanding of cultures, for which others have a greater grasp than I do. Second, and more important, is that every innovation builds on what came before. The invention of the wheel required knowledge of carving stone or timber. The telephone required knowledge of the electrical and magnetic properties of wire, and so on. Perhaps the “world wide web” is the most recent great invention, but what do we mean? The web’s computers are required to manipulate digital data that is the core of the web; no computers, no web. The web’s digital network was enabled by the innovation of packet-switched data, which provides automated, redundant routing around the globe; no packet-switching, no web. And so many innovations were required to create the web’s disk storage and user’s display screens (I was an early beneficiary of the innovation of color computer displays, having written software for one of the first of its kind). Finally, the content of the web is made available by browsers that utilize open standards and simple protocols (such as HTML) that encouraged the rapid spread of content and servers, and therefore gave access to large numbers of users in a short period of time.

Each of these pieces are necessary, pre-existing innovations for the web itself to come together in all the power we experience today. So, while I feel that the web is a great innovation, I’m not sure where it starts and where it stops. And so it is for any great innovation.

Perhaps the best answer of all is in the form of a question: For whom was the last great innovation great? If we name the beneficiary, we can more clearly name the innovation and explain why we think it is the greatest.

Could you give examples of innovation in the field of arts?

Every great art movement is an innovation, because some great insight opens up a space of new possibilities from which great change and value is derived. Once started, a movement creates huge opportunities for exploration and experimentation. Architecture and music are my favorite arts, but these are only two broad categories where innovation has occurred over many, many centuries. Whenever a problem is recognized and an insight leads to change, innovation follows: a building whose external walls were liberated to hold vast swaths of glass when curtain walls were created (think of the UN Secretariat building and Lever House, the first curtain-wall buildings) or a keyboard instrument that could play in any musical key without being retuned (think Bach’s “well-tempered klavier”). Perhaps one metric of “scale of innovation” would be the scope and depth of exploration that follows: how many important follow-on projects and significant works that come from an art movement. But again there is the subjectivity of deciding for whom the benefit accrues, and where a given innovation starts and stops.

In a text published in Interactions Magazine, you said that the innovation process “has to change a convention, and for the better. (‘Value’ means ‘positive value’)”. When we talk about innovation in the arts, doesn’t this positive value, or this change “for the better”, become rather subjective? What is the best and the worst for the arts?

This question gets to the heart of the difference between arts and technologies. Metrics to measure “best” are dangerous, because of the subjectivity you mention in your question. Even where technologies are concerned, imposing metrics brings judgment, but at least some measures are valid: “smaller, faster, cheaper” is perhaps the most famous example for the age of computers, when talking from a technology perspective.

But in the arts we need a human perspective to measure value, if it can be measured at all. For me, the value of the arts rests in the resonance that an individual work of art has for an individual human being. The stronger the resonance to daily living—the more the art deepens our feelings and enriches our understandings of life, and over a longer period of time—the “more important” the art.

Therefore, in my frame, the “best” for the arts is innovation that has the broadest impact. This may come immediately (as when boss nova spread across the world directly and in its own form) or years later as a result of knock-on influences (the electric guitar changed many genres of popular music across generations of players). By this I do not mean “popular art” only, but any art that extends experience. “Worst” for the arts would be innovations (or any new direction at all, innovations or not) that move away from resonance with daily living. But I realize this is a personal view.

Did the Internet represent an innovation in the communications area?

I answered earlier about the technological innovations of the web, which draws heavily from the Internet; here let me answer your question specifically about communications and the Internet. Yes, certainly the Internet delivers innovations to communications: email and content delivery is vastly faster, simpler, and lower cost than its predecessors. This is all to the good. But I’d like to make a distinction between communication and conversation. “Communication” pushes out content. “Conversation” requires an on-going, reciprocal exchange between participants, based on some common ground, and it continues because of agreement to continue (usually because of compatible goals). Conversation also implies evolving the point of view of one or both sides of the exchange; if nothing evolves, it is mere communication—that is, the exchange of messages already known to be possible. Conversation is an exploration of what is not yet known to be possible (and is therefore an excellent example of emergent systems).

Aside from the speed and volume of content, I don’t believe the Internet is—as yet—an innovation in communication because I don’t see the requirements of conversation being directly supported by the user interfaces. A browser, or email, or blog, or wiki (including Wikipedia) are no more than electronic forms of old media—books, letters, newspapers, town meetings—in elegant electronic form. While I think it’s possible that the Internet will come to support true conversation in its core design, I don’t see it yet.

And what could be an innovation on the Internet?

Following the line of argument above, I think that a conversational approach to Internet interfaces—a browser that helps create, sustain, and evolve a reciprocal relationship among participants in a true conversation—is not only possible but inevitable, because conversation is so central to living. I hope to see this within a generation, and perhaps to have some influence on it myself.

In a society where “new” things appear at every moment and in which obsolescence is almost instantaneous, it is not easy to innovate. Everything seems to have already been created and nothing else is a surprise. Do you agree with this premise? If yes, how can something genuinely new be created? Is this a utopia? Does something new need to be necessarily revolutionary?

I agree it seems surprising that more innovation is always possible, but this is the very nature of emergent systems: we get what we don’t expect. And I’m often surprised by a small innovation in something I use everyday, that lowers the bio-cost of getting what I want. For example, food packaging that I can open without a scissors, and which contains its own sealing mechanism to keep the contents fresh.

However, it is also true that the evolution of complex systems is “punctuated” with short phases of huge change, followed by long phases of small change. Perhaps the terms “revolutionary” and “evolutionary” apply to these different phases. The revolutionary phases of change can occur only when the new insight has great potential inherent in it; when it “opens up a new space of possibilities”. For example, the development of integrated circuits, allowed the previously-discrete components of resistors, capacitors, and transistors to be etched into a single surface of silicon. This opened up vast possibilities in areas of miniaturization, computing power, and economy (that “smaller, faster, cheaper” phrase again). Once conceived—and it was a massive insight—building the first version takes a great deal of sweat and dedication. Once built, that first version becomes a framework in which to make many improvements, each of which could involve an insight, a change, and new value: for example, even faster circuits, based on the same approach, which produce less heat, require less power, are cheaper to manufacture, etc. These are innovations too, even if they are smaller in scope or bring about less incremental change and incremental value. But they still qualify as moving through the phases of insight, change, and value.

So, creating something new is always possible. But some eras offer greater opportunities than others, depending on the current state of knowledge—on whether there are possibilities for a great leap, starting from now—and on those rare and amazing insights that create new worlds of value. We are lucky to be living in an era of many great insights. I hope we see more of them, and that they bring value to a complex and difficult world.


Paul Pangaro is the Chief Technology Officer of CyberneticLifestyles.com in New York City, where he consults at the intersection of product strategy, marketing, and conversational dynamics. He is recognized as an authority in conversation theory, which he has been applying to human-machine interaction and personal & organizational learning for 25 years. He was CTO of several startups, including Idealab’s Snap.com, and was senior director and distinguished market strategist at Sun Microsystems. Paul has taught a course at Stanford University since 2002 on the role of cybernetic models in the design of products, services, and teams. He holds a PhD from Brunel University (UK) in cybernetics and a BSci in Humanities/Computer Science from MIT.

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