What do you visualize when you hear the word ‘innovation’?
We often think forward to some cool new thing that we can imagine but isn’t yet perfected and available to us. Some current innovations – cool new things for which there are prototypes but aren’t yet commercially available, include artificial eyes that restore sight to the seeing impaired; 'living concrete' made of sand, gel and bacteria that can suck up toxins from the air and heal its own cracks; and invisibility cloaks for … well … I’m not sure of any ethical purposes for an invisibility cloak.
By training and license I’m a patent attorney. That part of my professional journey has provided me the privilege of helping many inventors breathe life into their imaginations and innovations. When I hear the word innovation, in addition to imagining cool things not yet available, I remember the inventors I’ve helped to transform their imagination into cool things that are now in use. More specifically, I remember talking with them about the problem(s) they were trying to solve and their disruptive thinking that led them to their solutions.
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The inventor and futurist Buckminster Fuller (1895 – 1983) was a friend and partner of disruptive thinking. Buckminster is credited with several quotes, all of which speak to this genius’s disruptive thinking. Those include, “We are called to be architects of the future, not its victims” and “Humanity is acquiring all the right technology for all the wrong reasons.” Perhaps his most famous quote regarding disruptive thinking reads, “You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build a new model [reality] that makes the existing model [reality] obsolete.”
Reflect on Fuller’s insights and wisdom for a moment. Then go deeper and reflect on the disruptive thinking he points to that is needed to build a new reality. As others have observed, “You can’t solve a problem with the same thinking that created it.”
Inventors come in all forms, as do their innovations. Most of the time the innovations we think of are physically tangible things like steam engines, airplane, and computers. Perhaps because those are the kinds of inventions we’re usually taught about in our lower schools, and we can easily see out in the world. Less often do we think of innovations at the systems or cultural levels. Inventions and constructs such as culture, economic exchange, and government are more difficult to wrap our minds around. In part because these systemic inventions are so large and pervasive that it’s difficult to accurately see and understand the internal flaws that lead to the problems they create, let alone how to use our imaginations to fix those problems.
Fuller was also a systems theorist – a strong and deep thinker – bold, capable, and fearless enough to be willing to tackle big issues. Nevertheless, he was human and like the rest of us couldn’t necessarily foresee the ultimate solution to the problem he was working on. But he had a test for the right solution. “When I am working on a problem, I never think about beauty but when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.” The inventors I worked with were typically most satisfied about their invention when they could say they had hit on “an elegant solution.”
As the architects of Partnership Economics and authors of Better Capitalism, the systemic problem we sought to address was what we identified as the plantation economics aspect of the current form of American capitalism. Recognizing the scale of such a challenge we wrote, “We are innovating in both theory and practice for a mutual economy … an entire economy and culture of mutuality and mutual benefit. This is no small undertaking, we realize, but is a worthwhile one, and regardless of the odds, we have to start somewhere” (pg. 5).
Our disruptive thinking led us to the individually elegant observations and solutions of Relentless Rules of Economics, Mutuality, Partnership Ethic, Enough Ratios, and more. We didn’t foresee the ultimate solution to plantation economics when we started crafting our innovation. But as we innovated and wrote we were encouraged as we witnessed the elegant solution of Partnership Economics emerge.
We invite you to pick up a copy of Better Capitalism and give it a thoughtful and critical read. And then we invite you to join us “as architects of the future, not its victims” in developing and implementing Partnership Economics as “a new model that makes the existing model [of plantation economics] obsolete.”
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