Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Innovation and Compensation

Here's one thing I know: in the next hundred years we have to fundamentally remake civilization to live in harmony with the planet while 2 billion people climb out of poverty. This is, without a doubt, the biggest challenge humanity has EVER faced, and no one really knows how to get from here to there. There has never been a greater need for innovation, redesigning, rethinking, and experimentation in all realms of knowledge and society.

Here's another thing I know: 99% or more of innovations fail. There is nothing wrong with that; it's just the way innovation works. In nature, 99% or more of biological experiments fail, so why should cultural evolution be any different?

Let's connect these two thoughts. We need vast amounts of innovation if we are to survive the next hundred years, and most attempts at this innovation will fail. It should follow from this that we need to attract as many people as possible to innovation, since only 1% will wind up producing innovations that are adopted. As anyone who has tried to support themselves by thinking outside the box knows, these are not attractive odds.

What we need more than ever is to relieve some of this pressure on the very people who may come up with the solutions we so badly need. If 99% of innovations fail simply because that's what innovation is, then perhaps we should think about decoupling the success of innovations from the compensation people receive to take care of their basic needs.

Also, we know that releasing innovations into the commons allows them to spread and adapt most efficiently. Why then are we hobbling potential innovators by forcing them to create an artificial scarcity of access to their innovations just so they can take care of their basic needs? Shouldn’t we be providing the support these people need to do their work and contribute to the collective good?

I believe that we need to develop some kind of innovators stipend, that can take the pressure of meeting basic needs off those who would devote themselves to helping us survive the next 100 years. What's more, receiving support from this stipend should NOT be dependent on success, since if it were only 1% would actually receive the compensation they need to survive. Instead, people should be encouraged to grow and develop as whole people. After all, it's never easy to admit failure when your paycheck is riding on success.

I don't pretend that this kind of support would work for everyone. Some people really do need incentives to do more than play kickball in the park. However, I know dozens if not hundreds of people who want nothing more than the freedom to be tackling our most pressing challenges. It's time to remove the monetary tit-for-tat boot from our throats, and embrace the fact that while most of what innovators come up with will be total fluff, a little tiny bit might actually save the world. It’s really anyone’s guess where and when it may emerge.