An evening of Innovation Hub, at Suffolk University's Modern Theatre. Credit: Samuel J. Brewer / WGBH
What do you get when you combine 3-D printers, floating tables, cell phone polling, and an enthusiastic audience? An Innovation Hub live event, of course.
We brought together a panel of experts to discuss what happens when the power to innovate shifts from big, traditional companies to individuals. Does the trend towards self-employment and startup culture benefit society as a whole?
A few decades ago, if you had an innovative idea, you would get a job at a big company like GE, and work your way up the ladder in order to see your invention come to life in a massive test lab.
Today, all you need is a website, a PayPal account, and a 3-D printer.
“Technology has, over the last thirty-five years, pushed power out of institutions to individuals,” says , author of The End of Big: How the Digital Revolution Makes David the New Goliath. As technology becomes more widespread, access to open-sourced software, venture capital, and other tools for creating successful business ventures is growing, as well.
“The GE’s of the world are saying, ‘how do I attract the best talent?’” says , professor at . “And the best talent is saying, ‘Why would I want to work for you when I can do my own thing?’”
With the advent of crowdsourcing ideas and crowdfunding startup capital, new communities of entrepreneurship are sprouting up around the country. “There’s a tremendous movement and a community of startups around me,” says , founder of the Brooklyn-based design company .
“You have whole communities of people creating,” says Lakhani. “Also, they can now rely on everybody else to help fund those creations.”
And for those struggling to make ends meet in the traditional economy, the growth of tech-supported alternative economies can be a lifesaver. “The more people get locked out of the traditional labor market, the more we see the rise of the barter economy, and apps used to circumvent currency almost entirely,” says Mele. “That creates all kinds of interesting underground economies.”
Cult of Entrepreneurship
While the maker movement and startup culture do signify a significant shift, there's also a tendency to overstate their strengths and get caught up in the “cult of entrepreneurship,” as Mele calls it.
For her part, Banks takes the current trendiness of the career field she’s chosen with a grain of salt. “When the wave is over,” she says, “I’m going to still be swimming here.”
And in the global economy, big companies still rule. “It’s not that institutions are powerless,” says , editor-in-chief of . “In some ways, they’ve never been so powerful.” The difference, however, lies in how quickly they can be disrupted by new technologies. “Twenty years ago, Kodak was a gigantic organization,” he says by way of example. “Now, it’s entirely gone.”
Where Are We Headed?
The divide between the rich and the poor has rarely been larger than it is today, and that dichotomy is fueled in part by the enormous wealth generated by a few startups with powerful leaders. “You go, oh my goodness, are we back at the start of the industrial revolution?” says Lakhani.
But that doesn’t mean that we should scapegoat technology, says Pontin. “We must use technology, rather than be used by it,” he says. “We’re not fated to have this dystopian future of the very rich and the very poor.”
One way to avoid that future, says Banks, is to place more value on the community you work in. “Collaboration is the next competition,” she says, “and figuring out the best ways to do that is probably the way forward.”
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