The Role of Imagination in Creating The Next Set of Breakthrough Innovations

I stumbled across the article that Vannevar Bush wrote in 1945 for the Atlantic. You can read the entire post here.

The reason I am interested in the post is because this post is a living proof about the role that imagination can play in the innovation process. He was able to predict in part what would the world look and feel like much ahead of his own time. What is interesting is also the method that he uses in order to come up with his ideas. Let me try to share what i learnt from his approach and how we can use this to assist in our own quest for using imagination to come up with innovations of the future.

Before trying to Predict the Future, Understand the Present:

The first thing that he does in his article is to do a thorough analysis of the present day situation, including what the world war had fostered and what it hindered, from the perspective of scientific inquiry and progress. He shares his thoughts on the state of scientific research and where has science seen progress and where it stands still.

Identify potentialities by extrapolation:

He then goes on to extrapolate the present by identifying the potentialities in the progress made. This is where is thinks and shares about what would happen if things were to continue on the same trajectory in the near-to-short term. He talks about improvement in the photographic process and lenses. This is when he is talking about immediate and imminent progress based on what is already happening. Most futurists and trend predictors use this process to forecast their trends.

Now, Let Your Imagination Fly:

Once he has built a good solid foundation by identifying the progress already made and what is expected in the near-to-short term, he then allows his imagination to take flight. He talks about the camera becoming so small that someone would be able to carry a small little camera on strapped onto their foreheads (sounds to me like GoPro).

The camera hound of the future wears on his forehead a lump a little larger than a walnut.

He then goes to explore and explain how the film would look like.

Often it would be advantageous to be able to snap the camera and to look at the picture immediately.

He then connects the development of a photograph to that of a fax machine and imagines that just like fax machine is able to print documents with depth or intensity of the words, the photographs will also be printed in a way that the entire picture is visible with its depth in colours.

He then goes on to imagine the advances in micro-film technology that would enable the whole of Encyclopedia Britannia (one of the largest book collections at that time) could be made available in the size of a match stick (sounds like a DVD of Encyclopedia Britannia to me).

The encyclopedia Britannica could be reduced to the volume of a matchbox. A library of a million volumes could be compressed into one end of a desk. If the human race has produced since the invention of movable type a total record, in the form of magazines, newspapers, books, tracts, advertising blurbs, correspondence, having a volume corresponding to a billion books, the whole affair, assembled and compressed, could be lugged off in a moving van.

The material for the microfilm Britannica would cost a nickel, and it could be mailed anywhere for a cent.

He doesn’t stop there, he then goes on to talk about the fact that it is not enough to store all of this knowledge in such a small size. It is also important to be able to create new knowledge and do so in an easy and simple way. He talks about a device into which someone speaks (in a specific way) and the device converts this into the appropriate text (sounds a lot like voice to text devices – Siri?)

To make the record, we now push a pencil or tap a typewriter. Then comes the process of digestion and correction, followed by an intricate process of typesetting, printing, and distribution. To consider the first stage of the procedure, will the author of the future cease writing by hand or typewriter and talk directly to the record? He does so indirectly, by talking to a stenographer or a wax cylinder; but the elements are all present if he wishes to have his talk directly produce a typed record. All he needs to do is to take advantage of existing mechanisms and to alter his language.

He then takes flight in his imagination to put all of this together and what would it feel like to live in an era with such devices:

One can now picture a future investigator in his laboratory. His hands are free, and he is not anchored. As he moves about and observes, he photographs and comments. Time is automatically recorded to tie the two records together. If he goes into the field, he may be connected by radio to his recorder. As he ponders over his notes in the evening, he again talks his comments into the record. His typed record, as well as his photographs, may both be in miniature, so that he projects them for examination.

He then comes back to reality and understands that a lot needs to happen between his current reality and his imagined reality, but is also hopeful and confident that this is not impossible and goes on to show progress from the past and how that implies that in the future the pace of innovation and creativity will only accelerate and hence, the imagined reality is not very far from the time that he was writing the piece.

He goes on to think about mathematical inquiry and tries to define who a mathematician really is:

A mathematician is not a man who can readily manipulate figures; often he cannot. He is not even a man who can readily perform the transformations of equations by the use of calculus. He is primarily an individual who is skilled in the use of symbolic logic on a high plane, and especially he is a man of intuitive judgment in the choice of the manipulative processes he employs.

This is probably the closest definition that I have come across for a data scientist. He also argues that there will be machines which will do the actual mathematical calculations and enable the mathematician to think about a higher order of logic. He also understood that improvement in one field will impact all the other surround fields of inquiry and hence there will be lots of progress across all the fields of enquiry.

He also understood that the potential of such a machine is not limited to the scientist.

The scientist, however, is not the only person who manipulates data and examines the world about him by the use of logical processes, although he sometimes preserves this appearance by adopting into the fold anyone who becomes logical, much in the manner in which a British labor leader is elevated to knighthood. Whenever logical processes of thought are employed—that is, whenever thought for a time runs along an accepted groove—there is an opportunity for the machine. Formal logic used to be a keen instrument in the hands of the teacher in his trying of students’ souls. It is readily possible to construct a machine which will manipulate premises in accordance with formal logic, simply by the clever use of relay circuits. Put a set of premises into such a device and turn the crank, and it will readily pass out conclusion after conclusion, all in accordance with logical law, and with no more slips than would be expected of a keyboard adding machine.

I think this sounds too much like a general purpose computer to me or even a smart phone. He then goes on to imagine how a retail store could be run if all these innovations become a reality. It sounds a lot like an ERP system running the entire store and its operations.

In the same article he also predicts that we can actually teach a machine to learn and operate not just on selection by indexing but by association and that machines would be able to beat humans (sounds like a prediction that seems like the story of IBM’s Watson winning Jeopardy to me) – machine learning.

Man cannot hope fully to duplicate this mental process artificially, but he certainly ought to be able to learn from it. In minor ways he may even improve, for his records have relative permanency. The first idea, however, to be drawn from the analogy concerns selection. Selection by association, rather than indexing, may yet be mechanized. One cannot hope thus to equal the speed and flexibility with which the mind follows an associative trail, but it should be possible to beat the mind decisively in regard to the permanence and clarity of the items resurrected from storage.

He then goes on to talk about a personal machine, he calls it “memex”, that stores all the information and data that we need as individuals (including all the knowledge that humans have accumulated over the centuries) and is made available to the individual to access and learn, whenever he or she wants to. He also talks about associative indexing of information (sounds like hyper-linking to me), which will allow us to move from a particular topic to any topic that is connected and relevant to the topic being considered.

He then imagines what would it be like to have and use such a personal device.

The owner of the memex, let us say, is interested in the origin and properties of the bow and arrow. Specifically he is studying why the short Turkish bow was apparently superior to the English long bow in the skirmishes of the Crusades. He has dozens of possibly pertinent books and articles in his memex. First he runs through an encyclopedia, finds an interesting but sketchy article, leaves it projected. Next, in a history, he finds another pertinent item, and ties the two together. Thus he goes, building a trail of many items. Occasionally he inserts a comment of his own, either linking it into the main trail or joining it by a side trail to a particular item. When it becomes evident that the elastic properties of available materials had a great deal to do with the bow, he branches off on a side trail which takes him through textbooks on elasticity and tables of physical constants. He inserts a page of longhand analysis of his own. Thus he builds a trail of his interest through the maze of materials available to him.

And his trails do not fade. Several years later, his talk with a friend turns to the queer ways in which a people resist innovations, even of vital interest. He has an example, in the fact that the outraged Europeans still failed to adopt the Turkish bow. In fact he has a trail on it. A touch brings up the code book. Tapping a few keys projects the head of the trail. A lever runs through it at will, stopping at interesting items, going off on side excursions. It is an interesting trail, pertinent to the discussion. So he sets a reproducer in action, photographs the whole trail out, and passes it to his friend for insertion in his own memex, there to be linked into the more general trail.

Sounds a lot like a combination of Google, Wikipedia and Evernote to me.

He then goes on to talk about the fact that science is a tool that could throw up weapons and at the same time throw up innovations that can enable humanity to keep track of its history and create a completely new future as well.

Applied Imagination:

In a single article, Vannevar Bush has imagined so many innovations that we enjoy today, almost 7 decades from the time that he imagined them. He imagined something similar to GoPro, selfie sticks, Google Glass, ERP systems, Encyclopedia Britannica on DVD’s, -, Search Engines, note taking on the cloud, voice to text and text to voice conversion machines, personal computers, mobile phones and many more.

This goes on to show that if we apply our imagination and start from the place where we are today, and take leaps of faiths, we can imagine what could future look like and then go after this future with all our current strengths.

This ability to imagine is critical for all of us who wish to be part of the generation of innovators who will define what and how our future shapes up.

How to Develop this ability to Imagine:

In his blog post “The Real Neuroscience of Creativity, Scott Barry Kaufman, talks about 3 kinds of neural networks – The executive Attention Network (this is activated when we need focused attention to do something specific), The imagination Network, also called as the default network and the Salience Network (is like the switching network and decides which neural network needs to be activated when).

The Imagination network or the default network is the neural network that

According to Randy Buckner and colleagues,

the Default Network (referred to here as the Imagination Network) is involved in “constructing dynamic mental simulations based on personal past experiences such as used during remembering, thinking about the future, and generally when imagining alternative perspectives and scenarios to the present.” The Imagination Network is also involved in social cognition. For instance, when we are imagining what someone else is thinking, this brain network is active. The Imagination Network involves areas deep inside the prefrontal cortex and temporal lobe (medial regions), along with communication with various outer and inner regions of the parietal cortex.

Conclusion:

What this informs me is that the ability to imagine is inherently human and we are all capable of letting our imagination sour, if we want to.

So, the inability to imagine new or alternate realities is totally self-induced and sometimes induced by our systems (education and even the culture of our organisations). This also means that it is in our very hands to set this right and start imagining alternate realities. The more we practice this, the better we will get at it.

The more important it is for us to innovate and be creative, the more critical is the skill to imagine alternate realities.

The time when Vannevar wrote this piece, it was a point in time where technological breakthrough’s were imminent.

We are again at the same crossroads & technological breakthroughs are imminent. The question we need to now ask is the following:

Will we bring in the breakthrough's or will we stand and wait for someone to do it for us. Click To Tweet

PS: You can view a visual tour of Vannevar Bush’s Work below:

You can also find all my posts on creativity and innovation.

Google to Alphabet and a New Model for Organisational Growth

Larry and Sergey

Google founders Sergey and Larry have the knack of doing unconventional things. They have done it again by giving birth to a parent company for GoogleAlphabet.

In a blog post, that seems to have surprised almost everyone, Larry explains their reasoning behind the need to create Alphabet and how the new structure will provide focus, leadership and independence to all their businesses, while allowing both Sergey and Larry the time and latitude to focus on their moonshots or the big bets that they are going after.

In my opinion, the move is a good move because of the following reasons:

  1. This move brings clear focus to each of the lines of businesses, as they will all be run almost like independent businesses, with strong leaders. This allows for the company to not only focus, be creative and push the limits in each of these companies.
  2. This also means that there will be some of these moonshots which could potentially get killed along the way as they will no longer have the large umbrella and the cushion of the billions of dollars of profits and will now move to be truly operated like startups. This is a good thing for the ideas that Google is going after.
  3. This move also ensures that the leadership strength of the company will be really strong and when they need a replacement for Sergey or Larry, there will not be any dearth of leaders around.
  4. This also means that Sergey and Larry can continue to focus their energies and thoughts on pushing the limits on their moonshots, which is where they can have the biggest impact, both on the company, their investors and the larger world for that matter.

It is a well known fact that as companies become bigger, it gets difficult to sustain the culture and innovation becomes difficult as teams become bigger, budgets become bigger & inertia kicks in. Though Google has, for a long period of time, managed to stay innovative, it was time for them to shake things up at the first signs of decay.

Most organisations tend to ignore this and go out an buy companies to continue to grow, if organic growth slows down. There comes a time in the life of such organisations, when the burden of keeping the lights on becomes more and more tougher and slowly but surely the organisation dies.

This is very similar to the human life-cycle. When you are a kid (startup), you are all excited and curious and open to new ideas and learn stuff. As you grow older, you start to curb your natural tendencies to be curious and start to conform to social norms. At some point in time, you completely lose touch with that curious and open part of you. You slowly age and at one point in time, you die. As with people, some die young, some live long and some live to be even a century old. Also, seems to be the time frame that companies typically live.

Typically, this is the model that almost all organisations follow. By being unconventional in their growth strategy, Google have started to pave the path to a radically different model for growth.

One such model that i would like to propose is based on the bacteria life-cycle.

In this model, companies typically continue to divide and create new organisations as they grow bigger. Just like there are bacterias which will go on to create new life form like dinosaurs, plants, animals, but  at the same time continue to live in their most basic forms. Similarly, some of these companies that split, might go on to become large companies as well, but most of them will continue to remain as these small companies that are growing rapidly and continue to give birth to many more companies.

Just like this life-cycle of bacterias have allowed them to continue to grow, give birth to other life forms and remain relevant, this model of organisational growth allows the companies to continue to grow and stay relevant for unbelievably long periods of times. There are not many companies that have followed this path as this is no where close to the conventional approach to run a company.

This in my opinion, will be the model that future companies will experiment and learn from to stay relevant for long periods of times.

What is your thought on this?

PBTO20: A Crash Course in Digital Marketing for Entrepreneurs by Mitch Joel (@MitchJoel)

Mitch JoelWho is on the show today:

In today’s episode, we host Mitch Joel. Mitch is the President of a Digital media agency – Mirium. He is the author of two books –Ctrl Alt Delete and Six Pixels of Separation.
He was a part of my list of insanely interesting people I discovered in 2014. He hosts a podcast called the Six Pixels of Seperation and blogs every single day here.

Why is he on the show

When Google wants someone to explain the latest developments in marketing to the top brands in the world, they bring Mitch Joel to the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

Marketing Magazine dubbed him the “Rock Star of Digital Marketing” and called him, “one of North America’s leading digital visionaries.”

Back in 2006 he was named one of the most influential authorities on blog marketing in the world. Mitch Joel is President of Mirum – a global digital marketing agency operating in close to 20 countries with over 2000 employees (although he prefers the title, Media Hacker)

What are we talking about

In this free wheeling conversation, we talk about a wide range of topics around digital marketing for not digital savvy entrepreneurs and CEO’s. He gives us a work book on how to go about crafting a digital marketing strategy and succeed.

Most important learnings from the conversation:

  • The importance of doing the basics right – Know who your customers are and what they like and don’t like, where they hang out and what are they concerned about.
  • He also shares that digital strategy is not separate from the marketing strategy and it is just a part of the overall marketing plan.
  • He also talks about how CEO’s and business owners need to engage with multiple agencies and know clearly what they want to.

You can reach Mitch on Twitter,  Facebook and Google+.

 

Helping Google improve its search results ….

Simple solutions for the troubles Google is facing on its search results: 

Add a spam button to the search results which users can use to indicate that the result is a spam and change the search algorithm to be influenced by users marking a search result as spam.

In true Google tradition, it can roll out a beta version and check if this works to improve the usability of the search and then continuously improve the beta. 


What else do you think can solve Google’s trouble on the quality of search results. 

Does Google really need Sex ?

Paul Krugman wrote a post titled “Google Needs Sex” which was interesting to read. Lately, Google bashing has become fashionable. Everyone is complaining about the issues that Google has and why it is in its decline. I am sure that this will increase in ferver and quantity.

Everyone has been complaining about the quality of results of search being the trouble at Google.

My personal opinion is that the actual culprit is Google’s business model based on the Adsense program. It is because of this business model that the entire SEO industry cropped up and created a mess of their search algorithm.

In one of my previous blogs (Google on its way downhill?), I did mention that anyone who has to beat Google will have to do so, not only by technological innovation (aka better search) but more so by business model innovation. 

Now, it is up to Google itself to innovate on their business model in order to come out trumps. So, I think this is a wonderful opportunity for Google to re-invent their business model and continue their dominance in the search category.  

Meanwhile, Google is also coping with a lot of other issues like

  1. Increase competition from the Facebook’s, Bing’s and other search engines in the market
  2. Loss of talent to competition
No matter, what happens, this will be an interesting space to watch out for.