Innovation to the Rescue

by Michael W. Golway, P.E. President & CEO – September 23, 2008

Bad news about the economy and the state of our world seems to be everywhere. It’s hard to pick up a newspaper, turn on a news channel, or log on to a news website without getting clobbered with depressing reports on the state of our economy or world affairs. It’s a seemingly endless list of headlines focused on highly volatile energy prices, food shortages, housing, global warming, and financial markets in turmoil, among others. The pundits are rampant with opinions about who’s to blame and how bad conditions will further deteriorate.

The good news is that human innovation will be a key driver in solving the major problems our generation faces. Innovation is an inspiring word that refers to a radical and substantial positive change through invention. It’s the making of processes, products and ways of thinking that are significantly better than the prior state or condition. The innate human quality to improve upon our current position has certainly led to our present day quality of life, standard of living, and greater understanding of our world.

Our history is rich with innovation built by empowering human ingenuity. The reality, however, is that we are not always perfect in how we manage technological advances and we hardly ever get it right the first time. Innovation inspired and accelerated through a free market system often leads to excess. Mix a little greed into the equation and the consequence is that an innovation of one generation typically results in a burden for another.

The internal combustion engine is a prime example. Records for this innovation date back to 1680 when Dutch physicist, Christian Huygens, designed (but never built) an internal combustion engine that was to be fueled with gunpowder. Innovation for internal combustion engines accelerated through the 1800’s and spawned an industrial revolution in the 20th Century that has transformed human quality of life unlike any other time period. The burden of this innovation today is obviously an excess of waste on our environment that threatens our current quality of life.

This cyclical balance between the benefits in improved quality of life, realized through innovation, and the burden of excess that ends up breaking down these advances over time creates a shifting of priorities. When human priorities shift, innovation is what delivers new and improved results.

There is a sense of renewed innovation and urgency that has taken hold in our world today as a result of our shifting priorities. Architects, engineers, and businesses across the globe are accelerating efforts to innovate. From garage and college dorm experiments, to leading global companies you see an inspiration to eliminate our burdens of excess today, while maintaining or improving our quality of life.

A powerful difference with the innovation processes today compared to other time periods is the speed in which ideas are transformed from concept to reality. Today’s technology enables us to quickly develop a design, test and validate through digital prototyping, and rapidly bring the innovation to practical application. In the example of the combustion engine that took over 200 years to realize the benefits of innovation, we now see comparable levels of effort transpiring in a matter of months.

Another piece of good news is that this increased speed and capability to innovate will mean that our generation will realize the benefits, and will likely witness the transformation, in a way that is less of a burden on future generations. We will not only see innovation that leads us out of the fossil fuel dependency but innovation that will reshape how we live and interact in our world responsibly and with longer term sustainable designs.

The chances are good that if you’re reading this article you’re involved with a company that directly or indirectly influences innovation. In a world in which we are bombarded with bad news, take some comfort that you are a part of the solution and deepen your resolve that the innovation you deliver will lead to results that make this world a better place. The best news of all is that every one of us plays an important role, and collectively we are going to do this together. There’s an exciting future waiting for us.