Summer finds me south of

by francine Hardaway on July 6, 2006

Summer finds me south of San Francisco in Half Moon Bay, with almost immediate access to the entire Bay Area (I say almost because I have to get over the hill from the ocean on Route 92, whose traffic usually moves at 20 mph), and I already feel the difference.

Silicon Valley is always searching for innovation in a way that Arizona is not (yet). Tonight could go to a dinner about Internet advertising models– what works and what does not. This morning at breakfast I could have taken my business plan before a VC, because the Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs holds a breakfast every Thursday at which a VC listens to pitches from hopeful startups. And at the end of July, I will attend the AlwaysOn Innovation Summit,one of my favorite conferences. There is an air of seeking, looking, contemplating the future. And I mean a larger future than how many homes will be built next year.

This is not a judgment; it’s just an observation. Silicon Valley, too, has its issues. While Arizona is focused almost entirely on lifestyle (golf, gaming, mcMansions), Silicon Valley is focused almost entirely on technology. My life in Arizona is built of warm weather, a big yard, and the ability to park almost anywhere. In Palo Alto, unless I were a zillionaire, I’d be living in a tiny apartment. Somehow we need both lifestyles.

Last night I was watching the Bay Area local TV news, and there was a story about two entrepreneurs who want to change the future of writing with a new digital pen. Yes, there were the usual stories about fires, thefts, and people who let their kids drown, but there was actually an innovation story. To me, that says it all.

Yet both communities are facing similar difficulties — trying to figure out where innovation comes from, how to make it happen, how to create an environment in which it will happen. This is a huge issue.

I think it’s an overall American issue. Innovation comes from necessity, and from problems. It also happens serendipitously, while people are fooling around.

In America, we no longer have enough problems. I know that sounds silly, but it’s true. Compared to people in developing nations, we don’t have a need to innovate. Even if innovation means finding a way to pirate and sell software, as in China, or to sell opium, as in Afghanistan, hungry people innovate. Europe, largely socialist, has a very low rate of innovation. The population is taken care of, and innovation is rare � at least in Western Europe. I am told that in East Germany, an enterprising entrepreneur actually turned a former strip mine into an adventure park and it has become a big tourist attraction. People rock climb on the bare landscape.

We also don�t fool around enough. Every moment of our days is spoken for and scheduled, including the portions set aside for �brainstorming,� or trying to foster innovation.

It’s almost impossible to be innovative on demand. A group of corporate types sitting in a conference room, or even on retreat at the Ritz Carlton in Half Moon Bay, will not automatically be innovative. Innovation is problem-solving. How do I get this music without paying for it? (Napster) How do I get a cheap computer (Dell)? Young people innovate because they are hungry. They can’t afford a new car, so they put the old one together with spit and baling wire. They can’t afford a motel, so they sleep in the car, putting the seat back, when they’re on a road trip. And then a manufacturer notices this, and gives them a car with 60/40 split back seats.

At present, the biggest perceived problem in America is aging, with the age-related diseases. George Bush, who is in the top 1% of men his age aerobically, admitted on his 60th birthday that he is no longer running. His knees, he says, are like bald tires.

Real innovation is happening around this problem. How do we kill this cancer cell without killing the patient? How do we ream out this man’s arteries? These are real problems, and they give rise to blockbuster innovations.

However, social networking (for example) doesn’t solve a real problem. In my daily rounds of meetings, I see many business ideas that are solutions to non-existent problems. Today I read a review of three Bluetooth headsets that act as iPod headphones until your cell phone rings, when they switch to phone speakers. One of them is a pair of sunglasses. Yes, I will have one soon; but don�t think I have been fooled into thinking it solves any of my problems.

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