The cost of networks

Not all networks are created equal. And I’ll take this moment to point out this more challenging aspect of innovation in general, and sustainable innovation in particular, having just ran across yet one more glaring example. Everyone, myself included, talks about the critical role of networks in the innovation process. We rarely talk about how those same networks go bad.

In this case, it’s through what I’d call celebrity meddling—when a celebrity uses his or her pulpit, her network position connecting to a larger audience, to boost an idea or initiative they find particularly interesting and valuable. And I’ve seen my share of corporate leaders do the same. This can help—in fact, it’s one of the ways networks work. It’s also one of the ways networks steer us wrong, allowing the uninformed but well-connected to shape public understanding and opinion.

It also reflects how progress happens (or does’t) in other fields, like sustainability. Take Al Gore, who for telling us about global warming won the Nobel prize, splitting it with the 2,500 scientists (who worked for almost 20 years as part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). He got half, they got half. Or take Bill Gates, who appeared on TED to tell us about climate change, which as CEO of a software company and a high-school graduate, he would know better than those self-same scientists.

I caught a fine example of celebrity meddling on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon (hang in through part 2), a clip someone forwarded as it was about both innovation and energy efficiency. Dylan Ratigan, the host of MSNBC’s The Dylan Ratigan Show breathlessly tells Jimmy Fallon about a brilliant young inventor and his new LED lightbulb with heat-dissipating fins and a 90% reduction in energy use.

E3f56e86b6176d96b9f48f003e1adbb2Having spent time around many smart people in energy efficiency and in the California Lighting Technology Center, I know a little about the subject. Having walked the aisles at Home Depot, I know a little more. In fact, I know the folks who’ve been working on these technologies for years and helped the major lighting manufacturers (like the Sylvania bulbs pictured here) introduce it to the mass market about 2 years ago.

Ratigan was introducing the idea as an invention, when in fact it’s already widely available (if not widely known, obviously). In Ratigan’s defense, how’s he to know what’s been done in LED lighting already? On the other hand, if that’s the case, what’s he doing talking about it?

His particular network didn’t expose him to the existing solutions.  Instead, it allowed him to appear on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon and distort the world of energy efficiency and innovation for millions of even less-informed viewers (though I hope enough of them have actually walked the hardware store aisles and seen these bulbs already).

This is the delicate relationship between innovations and networks. A great idea goes nowhere without the right network to spread awareness and spur adoption. Another idea, neither new nor better, can spread because it falls into the hands of those less-informed but better connected.

This isn’t a rant so much as a critical observation of the innovation process. I work with scientists and engineering researchers all the time. One of their greatest frustrations comes from watching other, older, less informed ideas shape the world markets and distort federal policies (think corn-ethanol or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles).  And yet, without cultivating their own networks, they are as much to blame as the uninformed but well-connected Dylan Ratigan’s of the world.

4ba622f8191fda96e9ac45f4a5e0290eDoes it help the cause or hurt it when celebrities meddle—as Dylan Ratigan did while (re)discovering LED lighting?

I honestly don’t know—maybe the added attention is better in the long run. But I do know that it can sure muddy the waters while they’re there.