Last week SD Forum hosted a second of their innovation series, Foundations of Innovation II. Judy Estrin, CEO of PacketDesign and former CTO of Cisco gave the keynote. There's been a lot of press and hype about innovation lately, but Judy gave a thoughtful analysis and commentary on the topic. Estrin is beginning to write a book on entreprenuerialism and innovation.
Silicon Valley is considered a hotbed of innovation, but Estrin is concerned that the climate of high tech innovation has cooled from a peak era of the 1960s to the 1990s when there were major breakthroughs in computing (CPUs), PCs, networking and the basic Web. According to Estrin that era of innovation was supported by a greater alignment of capital investment via research funding, venture and capital markets, and a greater acceptability of risk by entrepreneurs, VCs and larger companies.
The futurist, Paul Saffo, sees this transition from basic innovation in high technology as more fundamental, that the age of electronics is past, and that we are now in an emerging 30 year cycle of innovation in biology. Certain breakthroughs in basic research and science, such as chemisty, physics and electronics, were followed, according to Saffo by a 30-year dominance in industry.
Saffo's notion may dovetail with Estrin's classification of innovation. Breakthrough innovation is creating something completely new, as the transitor, or credit card. Incremental innovation is a product manager's stock in trade - enhancements to current products or process, as in debit cards. The last type of Estrin's innovation types seems to be the one permeating the "new media" these days: orthoganol innovation; using a combination of existing innovations in a completely new way, as in the IPod and ITunes market. It's the breakthrough and orthogonal innovations that create new markets. Incremental innovation advances or extends markets.
Innovation, according to Estrin, is a process, and an interative one, not one "a-ha" moment. It's about thinking differently, questioning, experimenting, learning and adapting. The only quality I would add is that it is a collaborative process.