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Innovate for Humanity

After going through a startup acquisition in San Francisco, I found myself being asked the same question over and over — what’s next?

While I’m not immediately looking to move onto something new, it did get me thinking about what I would do if I was ready. I started to wonder about what the exciting opportunities of today were. After all, I lived in Silicon Valley, the reputed nexus of all innovation and technical achievement. If I was going to do something great, that was the place to do it.

Somehow, though, I found myself a bit disappointed by the conversations I was having, and the articles I was reading. I felt that more than anything, there was a trend of startups today that seemed to follow one of two paths:

  1. take an offline solution => make it online.
  2. take an online solution => make it simpler/faster.

Each of these approaches can indeed yield valuable results — recent examples include mobile apps such as Mailbox. These applications recognize that while there are already solutions, they can be improved from a user experience perspective. I applaud these solutions, and I believe there will always be room for them.

Still, neither of those approaches felt to me like they fit the “greater purpose” of the Valley as we described it at the beginning of the article: the nexus of all innovation. Instead, they were merely iterations (albeit good ones).

When you really think about the volume, variety, depth and dearth of talent that blesses the Bay Area community, one quickly realizes that such a group has a pretty high set of expectations to live up to. Iterating alone is simply not enough, we need to push the boundaries of innovation.

Typically, at this stage in the discussion, we hear references to companies like Google. Certainly, products such as Google Glass would pass all tests with respect to its ground-breaking nature, lack of competitive product offering, and so on. However, I would ask the following question of such products: do they serve a greater purpose to the common good, or are they just specialized products that serve a niche market? A preview of Sergey Brin’s (unrehearsed) answer to that question was recently presented at TED. Overall, I was unconvinced of its real value proposition to society as a whole, even if the scattered nature of the talk were to be put aside.

So, if iterating is not enough, and even innovating without a greater purpose is not enough, what does it really take?

I believe the problem lies in the growing disconnect between the best talent available and the problems that they are working on. If life was a strategy game and society was the player, we would be allocating our best men and women to work on the problems that society needs most. Logically, this would mean taking humanity’s greatest challenges (such as world hunger, global warming, and so on) and dedicating ourselves to those.

Of course, reality is not a strategy game, and that theoretical game is missing the key motivational component for any allocation scheme — money. Until the ideation community and the investment community both decide to prioritize those kinds of problems, we simply won’t see innovation in those areas.

This disconnect is particularly evident in the media — Fortune just published an article highlighting the fact that the Tumblr acquisition by Yahoo! highly overshadowed another (much larger) acquisition which was in the health care space. If we are to assume that consumer interest drives the media, then one would conclude that even today’s consumers (let alone the innovators and investors) are still largely disinterested in humanity’s biggest problems.

I am no exception — what I do every day is certainly not solving the most important problems of society, and there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. We all need to make a living, and not everyone gets to change the world every day. Yet, there was still a part of me that was restless about the true potential of our community’s talent, and it made me think about what we could accomplish if we prioritized differently.

My hope is that this article can at the very least provoke some thought, ideally engage some dialogue, and in a utopian world, perhaps even inspire some folks to act on ideas they’ve had all along.

Who knows? One day, we might just find ourselves innovating for the world’s biggest organization: humanity itself.

This post was originally published on October 12, 2013.

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