EVs, Electric Lights, and iPhones

When new technologies compete, what tips the scale toward one or the other?  Maggie Koerth-Baker wrote a terrific article in the New York Times, Why Your Car Isn't Electric, which captures some of the social dimensions of technological innovation by looking at the dominance and demise of the electric vehicle in the first decade of the 20th century. If only inventors, entrepreneurs, and policy makers could spare the time to consider these dimensions before rushing off to change the world.

(to read more, jump to the post EV's, Electric Lights, and iPhones, at The Hargadon Files)


GE’s New Durathon Battery and the Challenge of Faster, Better, Cheaper

General Electric has just introduced its new Durathon molten salt battery. The battery illustrates the unique challenges of developing sustaining innovations – and particularly the Faster, Better, Cheaper challenge I've described earlier. In doing so, it offers insights for both innovators and policy makers pursuing similar efforts. (to read more on The Hargadon Files, follow the link


Reserve Accounting for ski days

Setting innovation strategies to deal with declining resource stocks sounds like the kind of long-range planning that’s only good for oil, mining, timber, and other companies in the extraction business. But as I mention in an earlier post, the Innovating against Declining Resources, that’s changing. In Getting Green Done, Auden Schendler describes how his company, the Aspen Skiing Company, and the City of Aspen are recognizing the same need in setting their own strategic planning.

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The Challenge of Innovating against declining resources

Anyone pursuing sustainability through innovation faces the defining challenge of finding growth in the face of declining resource stocks. It’s not a new challenge, by any means, but it is at the core of pursuing sustainable innovaitons. And you won’t find it in the typical narratives celebrating innovation or understanding how to manage it.

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The challenge of innovating in brownfield versus greenfield markets

Across the globe, many of the opportunities for sustainable innovation will be in mature markets like energy, transportation, agriculture, construction and will present very different challenges from those of innovating in information technology, Internet applicaitons, or social media. The differences between driving change in these different conditions is a defining characteristic of each—something that entrepreneurs, investors, and policy makers alike seem to forget.

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The Breakthrough Bias

We associate innovation with dramatic technological or market breakthroughs that revolutionize industries overnight. So much so that despite continuing evidence to the contrary—that both today’s most succcessful organizations and most revolutionary technologies were not new—organizations, policy makers, and the public show a breakthrough bias when pursuing, funding, or anticipating innovation. This bias becomes even more salient in the pursuit of sustainability, reflected in outrageously ambitious “goals” that, as a result, create significant challenges for those trying to manage the innovation process.

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Risk, Uncertainty, and the Challenge of Sustainable Innovation

Innovation is risky business. For companies pursuing sustainable innovations, these risks take on the scale of the effort and the context of the problems, the politics, and the markets involved. The most important aspect of this challenge to sustainable innovation is understanding the nature of risk at work. Without this understanding, innovation efforts are paralyzed and innovation policies—especially those intending to promote new investments—stifle them instead.

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The Challenges of Sustainable Innovation

Pick up any list of “most innovative companies” (there are dozens published each year) and three things become immediately apparent. First, there is no shortage of role models for innovation. In fact, outside the crowd favorites (Apple, Google, and Facebook) there is not much overlap between lists. Second, there is no singular definition of innovation that fits all of these companies—some of behemoth multinationals employing hundreds of thousands while others are startups with less than hundred; some are in heavy industries and others are iPhone apps; some in the US and others in developing countries. Finally, there are very few—no more than 2 or 3 on most lists—that are there because they’ve developed and launched sustainable solutions. Should we really treat the best practices of innovation as if they applied equally to all companies?

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