Thomas Ramge is a non-fiction writer and keynote speaker. He is a Fellow at the Einstein Center Digital Future in Berlin and Alumni Senior Research Fellow at the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society.
Rafael Laguna de la Vera is an entrepreneur, investor, and a founding director of the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation (SPRIND). He is a visiting professor at several universities and co-founded CODE University of Applied Sciences.
Below, co-authors Thomas and Rafael share 5 key insights from their new book, On the Brink of Utopia: Reinventing Innovation to Solve the World’s Largest Problems. Listen to the audio version—read by Thomas and Rafael—in the Next Big Idea App.
1. We live in a time of innovation theater.
This isn’t about the next TikTok or Instacart: Silicon Valley and China’s platforms may well make lives more convenient, but are they as “disruptive” as they claim? We knew how to shop before Amazon, and order taxis without Uber, and hasn’t political discourse become much more divisive thanks to a platform formerly known as Twitter?
In the last two decades, science and technology have failed to create the radical advancements we crave. We have made little progress fighting cancer and basically none to stop dementia. Mental health is getting worse, not better, and we entered a pandemic age with few antiviral drugs. We don’t have enough green energy and there is no technology that could suck enough CO2 out of the air to restore the climate’s balance by a long way. According to the UN, more than 800 million people are undernourished today—a tenth of the global population. Meanwhile, we don’t know how to cope with a growing world population and end the overexploitation of Earth’s now rapidly depleting resources. All this needs to change fast.
What holds us back are technological incrementalism, fake innovation, and the lack of an optimistic vision of a greener, healthier, and wealthier future. To cross the brink to utopia, we must reinvent innovation; we must think in leaps, not steps. A genuinely innovative leap does more than make our lives a little easier—it fundamentally improves living conditions for humankind.
Think of the cultivation of einkorn wheat, the first sailboat, or the printing press. Think of the water closet’s effect on the spread of disease, how the use of fertilizers made urban living sustainable. Or the way computers and the World Wide Web have affected just about everything. Then think 10 years ahead about how mRNA, nuclear fusion, and vertical farming might make just as big an impact.
2. The Maslowian innovation pyramid.
Climate change, health, poverty—there is no shortage of big challenges where innovation leaps are dearly needed. Indeed, incrementalism can be counterproductive by deepening path dependencies: technology must finally focus on solving real problems for true human needs. This could be considered “Maslow’s hierarchy of innovation” and be tied to the UN’s 17 sustainable development goals.
We can deduce from a Maslowian innovation pyramid that technological progress helps to secure our basic needs, strengthens our social relationships, and enables us more freedom and independence. With this, it creates the basis for more people to be able to strive and develop their own talents, potential and creativity—to shape their own lives.
“Incrementalism can be counterproductive by deepening path dependencies.”
To maximize the happiness of as many people as possible, rather than having a profit-orientated culture of the Big Tech companies, you must have a mission-oriented culture of innovation. In this culture, citizens are involved in identifying the challenges, and governments play a far more active role in helping make them a reality.
3. Nerds with a mission.
Who is able to make an innovation leap? At the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation (SPRIND), they search for nerds with a mission, or “HiPos.” People with a high potential for radical innovation almost always have common characteristics. Intelligence, a talent for abstraction, and combinatorial thinking are part of it, but these are more like hygiene factors—necessary but not sufficient prerequisites that many talented people and top performers fulfill.
Those who make innovative leaps, however, usually show high levels of five additional personality traits or behaviors:
- An interest, barely comprehensible to others, in a specialized area, sometimes bordering on manic obsession
- An unusually high level of tenacity and resilience in the face of setbacks, combined with steadfast independence of mind in response to criticism or even ostracism
- Openness toward recognizing and accepting important ideas and impetuses from other people
- The ability to transmit their own enthusiasm to others and to build and lead teams without descending into micromanagement
- The desire for one’s own work to actually have an impact.
This combination is rare. Societies must offer nerds with a mission and the teams around them the best possible opportunities for tech-development: with freedom, recognition and, of course, funding.
4. Crossing the Death Valley of innovation.
Radical innovation must always solve a chicken-and-egg-problem. When left alone, markets often fail, therefore governments must embrace their role as boosters of technology readiness. They must make use of their purchasing power to leap through the “Valley of Death” of radical innovation in which essential ideas die due to lack of a secure ROI. That doesn’t necessarily imply rocket science. A thousand miles of road surfacing that resists cracking during cold winters or 100,000 environmentally-friendly apartments for $165 per square foot would represent an innovative breakthrough for society. New government involvement can also mean less involvement through regulation, especially in Europe; radically removing red tape from state innovation funding can lead to great advancement.
“Radical innovation must always solve a chicken-and-egg-problem.”
Meanwhile, we will also have to reinvent Venture capital (VC). We have an abundance of VC for ventures that are not that risky. Most of this money goes to digital services and platforms that have already been proven to work elsewhere. Venture capitalists who want to make a dent must relearn to take risks and have a closer look at deep-tech investments aligned with serving humankind in significant and urgent ways. In the long run, that will pay off for them —and for humanity’s future. First movers in VC have already realized that in times of technological paradigm shifts, the biggest risk lies in not taking high risks and instead relying on the linear continuation of present trends.
5. Picturing Utopia.
The purpose and objective of innovation is the greatest possible happiness for the greatest possible number of people. We are rationally optimistic that, in the year 2050, with radically better technology, humanity will have many of today’s problems under control. Problems that seem almost impossible to solve, and sometimes even seem to threaten our continued existence, will have been solved if we believe in the will and ability of human creation.
Pessimism, with or without technology, is essentially a waste of mental energy. Maybe here or there you can find positive side effects of the world-is-ending attitude but managers in the tech industry like to quote Only the Paranoid Survive, the book by Intel co-founder Andy Grove. Apocalyptic attitudes have seemed to have reached their point of marginal utility a few years ago. Anxiety disorders will not show us the path to a successful future; they lead instead to status quo bias and unhealthy risk aversion. Fear of the future is also at the root of excessive regulation.
Another concept from psychology that can be more helpful to us is the need to develop more collective self-efficacy in technological development, because self-efficacy has self-reinforcing effects. We achieve innovative leaps because we believe in ourselves, and because we believe in ourselves, we achieve innovative leaps. An optimistic vision of the future and a positive self-image go hand in hand with a bright future. This will also help us reduce excessive regulation and red tape.
Techno-optimism is not an end in itself, but an ethical imperative, the goal is not as difficult to define as we often think. Jonas Salk, the American physician, immunologist, and developer of the inactivated polio vaccine, described the goal as follows: “Our greatest responsibility is to be good ancestors.” Our descendants should have an even better life than we do, but to accomplish this, we have to be optimistic and set out for a leap over the brink of utopia to make the world greener, healthier, and wealthier.
To listen to the audio version read by co-authors Thomas Ramge and Rafael Laguna de la Vera, download the Next Big Idea App today: