As oil continues to fill the waters off my wife’s home state, Louisiana, inventors around the world are surely scheming up new technologies to prevent such catastrophes from happening again. While I wish for their success and am thankful for their efforts, history says their energy would be better spent engineering a different kind of innovation. The kind of innovation we cannot see.
The innovations that have most affected our world are invisible. We cannot touch, feel or smell them. But they nonetheless exert a transformative force on the world.
Take, for example, mankind’s original innovation: the scratch plough. Five thousand years ago a farmer picked up a three-prong stick and saw it not as “firewood” but as a “plough,” and he did what we do with a plough. He stuck one prong into the ground, tied the other prong to an ox, used the third prong to guide a line that he dug through the dirt. He then planted seeds and, at the end of the season, when he for the first time enjoyed having more food than he needed, he realized this was a good thing. Farming was born. Over time this “invention” transformed most of humankind from hunter-gatherers into farmers.
Take a look at that first stick, though. It looked physically unlike any other three-prong stick. What triggered the innovation, which led to an agrarian society, was the concept of a “plough,” not the physical artifact.
If this concept—which I think holds the key to innovation—seems too abstract, let’s take a look at an invention a little closer to home. This invention began in China around 3,000 B.C. when merchants started collaborating by mingling their goods, distributing them across many different boats, rather than each merchant loading all his goods onto one boat. This way, if a boat sunk, the loss to any one merchant would be minimal. In other words, merchants bound together to spread the risk of losing goods to the sea. Insurance was born.
About 2,400 years later, ancient Greeks and later Romans formed “benevolent societies.” If a member of such a society died, the society would pay for that member’s funeral costs and take care of the family left behind. Death insurance was born. Death insurance gained much greater popularity in the 1700s when it sold under the more palatable name, “life insurance.”
Without such invisible inventions, civilization would surely not exist. We would not have evolved from small bands of hunter-gatherers into communities of farmers and then into the highly interdependent, specialized societies we live in today.
The pattern is clear, in each case. Someone experiences some pain (they starve through a bad hunting season, they lose a ship). They invent something invisible, a new concept, a new social construction, like “farming” or “insurance.” This new concept brings people together to make the world more predictable. Society evolves.
On a smaller scale we see great companies do this well. Apple creates the “iPod”—which it claims is not an MP3 player but an entirely new concept—and millions flock to it generating billions of dollars in revenue.
Right now we have an opportunity to create something evolutionary and revolutionary. There are people hurting in the Gulf. They are bearing an unfair burden based on our world’s dependence on oil. It is time to create a new concept, a new social construction that can save an entire region while bringing us closer as a nation.
Ask yourself the questions below to see how you can create a new concept or service.
1. Where do you see a need, or pain or an unfulfilled desire?
2. How could society come together to address this?
3. What invisible innovation—what social construction—could you create to make this happen?
Kaihan Krippendorf (www.kaihan.net), a founding Fellow of the Center for Leadership and an adjunct professor in the College of Business Administration, is the author of Hide a Dagger Behind a Smile and The Way of Innovation. This article was originally written as an entry for his FastCompany.com blog “The Outthinker: Mavericks that Out Innovate the Competition.” The opinions expressed in this column are the writer’s and do not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of either FIU or the College of Business Administration.
View all articles by Kaihan Krippendorff.