Stephen Douglas




United States


Public Administration


Jan 2016 - Sep 2017

By Stephen Douglas

What’s Inevitable About Innovation? (Part II)

Reading the FT yesterday, I noticed the following paragraph in a story about a letter Apple wrote to regulators recently (attempting to sculpt laws governing nascent innovations and markets is just as important to innovators and inventors as the technology itself, so we have been learning – see “What’s Inevitable About Innovation? (Part I)”):

“…Despite its current focus on the systems underlying a self-driving vehicle, the letter leaves open the possibility that Apple will go on to design and produce a car of its own, rather than merely provide its technology to an existing manufacturer…”
FT December 3, 2016

Now, after the readings and classes for half of our “Strategy and Innovation” module of our Executive MBA at Oxford University’s Saïd Business School, I have some new tools to apply in the real world.

What these few sentences in the FT tell me is that Apple is, apparently, not yet certain where the value it will capture from a potential driverless car future will come from. It’s hedging. It may be the systems, which are second order innovations, or it may be the cars themselves.

But, as time and innovations persist, driverless cars may well go the same way as those Sci Fi dreams of Fifth Element-like flying cars, or the same way as the “horseless carriages” of yore.

We’re simply not yet sure of what the correct unit of analysis is: is it “cars” or “driverless,” or something else entirely?

What is certain, though, is that, given the investment in innovation by companies like Alphabet, Apple and Mercedes Benz, “something” will come out of this foment. It just may not be a marketplace that we, or even these companies, can imagine today.

One clue for the trajectory this “something other” might come from is included in that FT article. Apple, it seems, in the letter there quoted, is offering its view that all actors in the nascent driverless car marketplace should share their data about crashes and how to prevent them (incidentally, we learned during our “Strategy and Innovation” course (see “What’s Inevitable About Innovation? (Part I)”) that questions about how to put together coalitions within your own firm, among other firms in the same market and with regulators are core elements in any innovation strategy and its implementation).

Perhaps, the research which Apple, Alphabet and co are currently doing into predicting human behavior so that machines can respond to it appropriately will find applications outside of the paradigm of “driverless cars”?

Such a trajectory, branching off from the mainstream innovation vectors of the driverless cars “industry”, may well become the future, rather than the driverless cars themselves. Driverless cars, if former innovation trajectories we have analysed are anything to go by, may well be an incorrect unit of analysis; a red herring.

What we’re left with, then, is the idea of “variance,” which is borrowed from Darwinian biology. Out of variance from fluid mainstream innovational trajectories (such as “driverless cars”) comes the unpredictable future. Our beginnings, as TS Eliot put it truly, never know our ends.

So, the next time we encounter a great idea in work or in the business newspapers or from a pitching entrepreneur, we’ll be better able to begin asking the kinds of “due diligence” questions that will help us avoid being swept up blindly in some pro-innovation hysteria. This is not a recipe for standing back, while others innovate. Rather, it is a strategy for maintaining composure, for resisting hysteria and for entering and perhaps consciously choosing to sculpt nascent marketplaces while remaining aware of the risks, even when some tech evangelist in your company simply knows what the next Big Thing definitely is.

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