The Future Depends on Developing Tomorrow’s Innovators

innovationBy Joe Lawless, Executive Director, Center for Leadership & Social Responsibility, Milgard School of Business – University of Washington Tacoma

These days there is a lot of talk about innovation and entrepreneurship driving the “new economy,” and I believe that in order to unlock this innovation in the private sector, we must foster a renewed partnership between legislative leaders and business entrepreneurs. Together, we need to pave the way for the entrepreneurs of tomorrow through an improved educational pathway – because as we all know, education is where innovation is born. Believe it or not, our environmental, social and economic futures depend on the education, support and development of tomorrow’s Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and Steve Jobs.

Our appetite for innovation has long been insatiable, and in the past 50 years we have seen unprecedented leaps in innovation and creativity.  But how many companies are truly innovative?  Try to name three companies who have developed breakthrough products or services recently.  The innovations are out there, but they are happening at a micro-level in response to our changing climate, changing social conditions and changing economies.  The innovations of tomorrow are going to be much more incremental and focused on breaking the unsustainable nature of our old model of extract, create, use, dispose. The internal (and global) cost savings of this type of innovation drives an organization’s success in a resource constrained world.

We’ve seen this play out through a few interesting examples:

Starbucks continues to make those incremental innovations as they work with farmers to educate about biodiversity and responsible farming practices, as they try to change consumer habits to use fewer cups, and as they strive to make their stores as energy efficient as possible.  Each of these on their own may not be earth-shattering innovations, but collectively they can have a massive impact on the planet and our communities.

A small firm called Hydrovolts developed a product that converts moving water to energy.  The innovation takes an old idea (hydroelectric power) to a micro scale and generates electricity in remote drainage ditches, waterfalls or other places where water is moving.  This new (green) power source is driven by energy that was previously untapped.

Microsoft has launched YouthSpark – an effort to put technology in the hands of teachers, schools and youth who would otherwise be unable to access the creative powers available to them through Microsoft’s technology. They are helping to give the next generation of innovators the tools and educational foundation necessary to make our planet a better place.

Joe Whinney founded Theo Chocolates with the belief that the world is interconnected and that making chocolate could have a positive impact. Theo’s chocolate is made from cocoa beans that are grown sustainably in ways that promote biodiversity and positively impact the lives of the farmers in Africa and South America they buy from. Theo has innovated through the social impact of their business, not to mention they make really exceptional chocolate!

Each of these is an example of how a focus on citizenship, sustainability or social responsibility drove an organization to innovate within the manufacturing process, supply chain or use cycles of its products.  Each of these innovations occurred because of a new mindset of social responsibility, citizenship and sustainability that is becoming an essential element of successful business – not just to attract new customers, but to drive innovative and creative thinking.

To some degree, the innovations of the past have contributed to setting us on a path of unsustainable global conditions. Environmentally, socially and economically, we need to make changes that will lead to a more sustainable world. We also need to improve the quality of education and access to higher education in order to tap into the creativity and innovation of a new generation.  It is the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit of private enterprise that has the most opportunity to make a positive impact. The innovations of today will ensure a better world for tomorrow’s children.

[image credit: Paul Hocksenar: Flickr cc]

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