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.


  1. 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.

    This statement would mean that only 1% of innovators succeed or that each innovator just makes 1 innovation in his lifetime.

    Don't you think that the sort of delayed return we have right now makes some innovate more (leading to patents, and a host of other problems of its own) and having a steady paycheck may actually reduce the incentive to innovate?


  2. Incentives are a complex mix of things of which money is only a small part. I, personally, am motivated to do the work I do because:

    1) I genuinely love what I do
    2) I believe what I do is an important contribution to humanity
    3) I state my intentions to a community of peers, and put my reputation on the line to follow through with those intentions.

    I don't see how adding an additional worry about meeting basic survival needs like food and shelter would make me perform any better. If anything, during the times when I have been worried about making rent, I was less able to concentrate on doing good work.

    I am pretty sure I know quite a few people who are or have been in similar circumstances. Again, I am not saying that this approach would work for everyone, but I do believe there are many people who are sufficiently motivated as is to not need the added pressure of meeting their basic needs.

    Also, I am not saying money couldn't be part of the equation. Perhaps success means an innovator can take a vacation... :)

    A great TED talk about all this by Dan Pink: