Noisy innovation

My sister-in-law, Kristin (check out her ceramics shop at www.krikri.com if you’re looking for really fantastic Christmas presents!) very kindly sent me an article from the New Yorker about James Dyson… I have been a long-time fan of his products (no pun intended… see article!).

Unlike most people these days, she actually ripped the article out of the paper and sent it to me, so it was a double treat as it involved opening an envelope containing something other than typed correspondence from a utility company for a change.

Dyson has been enlisted by the UK Government to help stir up innovation in this country, an aim which I wholly applaud… and a subject which I also probably have too much to say to fit neatly here.

While out on my run today (a record of which you can see at www.FosterRuns.com) it struck me that innovation, like creativity, is about being prepared to try stuff out… and despite not setting out with negativitous intentions (if you will excuse me trying a new word), being prepared to fail.

And seen to fail, which is often harder.

In a perfect example of connectedness, I then came across the London to Brighton Old Crocks rally, a collection of largely pretty old and weird cars and the first car I saw proved my point.

It had one axle in the middle connecting a wheel on each side and then a single wheel at each end, front and back.  Weird indeed!

Back in the days when this was designed, probably towards the beginning of the last century, there were literally hundreds of small manufacturers, each with their own ideas regarding the transportation of people and stuff.  It is from this period of voracious innovation that many of the auto technologies we use today stem, although they have been honed to the nth degree in the intervening period.

I think James Dyson has taken on a difficult task (I have yet to read his paper, though I intend to do so shortly) and whilst he is undoubtedly the best man in the UK to do so, his Executive Summary would suggest that there is yet more to say on the subject.  In my view, innovation is not just about well financed technology start-ups (though I have one of these in my portfolio), nor always about collaboration.

It is rather about noisy passion, overt competitiveness, lack of money.  For some reason I associate these attributes most with the UK of the fifties (although I wasn’t around then to witness whether I’m right), with the US to some extent and particularly with Australia.

Australia has always impressed me for its entrepreneurial culture… thousands of small upstarts, fighting tooth & nail for market share.  Cut-throat enmity, R&D (Rip-off & Duplicate), frugal inventiveness and a real sense of frontier spirit that is an anathema in the UK.  It’s almost a have-a-go attitude, about which it would be easy to be condescending: but it is this spirit that we currently lack in the UK and somehow need to tap in to.

The UK is very civilised (in the main) and we have honed our lives to the nth degree to eradicate as much disturbance as possible.  But it is in tension that creativity and innovation exist.  I know to my cost that trying to enhance the lives of employees, by shortening hours, reducing politics and so on, actually reduces the tension that enables people to have ground-breaking ideas.

James Dyson makes brilliant vacuum cleaners which are super quiet, but it is telling that in the US market he engineers in a louder soundtrack, as people there associate noise with power.

Silence is golden indeed, but I hanker after an environment where we can once more feel passion in the soundtrack of the machinery of life around us, of the cars that we drive.  This is not because I crave the inefficient, but because it is in this type of visceral connection to the stuff around us that new ideas abound.  Like a letter arriving in the post containing an article and a real letter, rather than an anodyne email with a hyper-link.

This is a hastily written post and there are many areas that could be improved on… but on this subject that doesn’t matter in the least.  The main thing is that I was prepared to thrown my ideas out, to be shot down, as I will then have a yet better grasp of the subject.

And who knows, one day I might even learn to be quiet.

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