We need a real, meaningful, actionable science of innovation systems, and we need the infrastructure that can support a shift in thinking to facilitate innovation at massive scale. That shift is away from reductionist piecemeal approaches to innovation, and toward holistic, system-based approaches. Both elements -- the science and the infrastructure to support it -- are necessary if we are to make progress. And this can only happen when we have a large-scale, extensive, ubiquitous innovation ecosystem in place.
In a sense, innovation is to the 21st century what the steam engine was to the industrial revolution. The various components of the steam engine -- fire, steam, metals, gears -- were there long before the steam engine existed. It was not until two things happened -- a science of heat and pressure that allowed us to capture productively the power of expanding gas, and the infrastructure to support the operation of steam engines -- that the breakthrough of broadly distributed, efficient, high-impact steam engines came to pass. Without the science, the engine itself could not be conceived or built; but without the infrastructure -- engineers, mechanics, operators, repair shops, and so on -- the steam engine would have been a curiosity only.
In very similar ways, we need to think about -- and build -- innovation infrastructure to support the rapidly growing science of innovation. We need innovation engineers and strategists and SMEs who have been trained in the science of innovation and complex systems and who understand and can propagate the system expertise necessary to engineer innovation. We already have many of the tools and the expertise that are supportive of innovation, but they are not connected properly and serve more as one-off tactical support, rather than as part of a deeply networked infrastructure. Accomplishing this will take many players working together collaboratively with an eye on the long haul, and it's one of those challenges that is especially suited to government participation. (EDITOR'S NOTE: i2 Technology supports The Job Factory Collective Impact. We believe in multi-sector Public-Private-Partnerships facilitated by local Benefit Corporations providing innovation infrastructure to cities.)
If we are going to be serious about innovation, and not nibble around the tactical edges of culture and organizations, we need to be serious about building the support structures necessary for real innovation. Just like the interstate highway system was never going to be built by fifty individual players, neither is an effective, system-based infrastructure of innovation. Creating a truly innovative society will require large-scale public and private support, with both parties equally committed to a long-term outcome. If we are serious as a business community, as a society and as individuals to recognize and optimize the potential for innovation to propel us into a more prosperous, sustainable, and equitable future, then it's time for the pubic and private sectors to come together and collaboratively build the real thing. Otherwise, we are just playing a fool's game and calling it innovation.
Henry Doss is a FORBES Contributor, former banker turned venture capitalist, musician, and over-committed volunteer. His firm, Rainforest Strategies, is dedicated to cultivating untapped innovation in cultures, strategies, & leaders. His role is managing partner.