Of all classes I took in high school history was probably my least favorite. I wanted to be an engineer. I was eager to create the future and not revisit the past. But over the years I learned a valuable lesson that all significant innovation is rooted in a long and often interesting history. For example, the ‘1G’ ancestor of our current 5G mobile phones was launched in 1979. Univac, the first commercial computer, dates back to 1951. The impressive James Webb space telescope is an offspring of the OAO-2 launched in 1968. Churchill once said ‘The longer you can look back, the farther you can look forward.’ The history lesson of innovation is that it is a long game.
In this Signal360 issue we have several articles focused on CO2 reduction, the main source of climate change. We collectively produce more than 37 billion tons of it, up from 15.5 billion tons 50 in 1971. The problem with CO2 is that it hangs around our planet and traps heat that would otherwise escape. That affects the delicate balance of our environmental ecosystem. There are two ‘simple’ solutions: either take CO2 out of the air (carbon capture) and/or produce less of it. Both are a rich field for ‘long game’ innovations.
Carbon capturing technologies have existed since the early 70’s. Oddly enough its main use was to enhance oil extraction. Technology innovation to capture carbon has progressed significantly, as has the business model to support it. Icelandic company Climeworks intends to make carbon capture a for-profit business. While the numbers are not anywhere near the CO2 reduction we need, history shows that breakthrough innovations always start small.
The other way to address CO2 reduction is by producing less of it. That’s where all of us have a role to play, especially by using less energy. But the hard truth is that people don’t like the trade-offs that come with this. We all want to keep our homes warm, go places to see people, and wear clean and fresh clothes. We’ve been taught that it takes warm or hot water for a washing machine to do its work properly. P&G Scientist Todd Cline explains how Tide Coldwater can reduce total CO2 emissions of washing clothes by over 70%. The challenge is to convince people to adjust the temperature setting on their washer.
Another under-appreciated source of CO2 emissions is all the computing power we use to write email, watch videos, and connect with each other. Increasingly this is provided through data centers somewhere around the world that we access through the ‘cloud’. It is estimated that data centers are responsible for 2% of CO2 emissions, nearly as much as aviation (2.5%). The automation of advertising is using a good part of this computing power. Brian O’Kelley, an ad tech industry luminary, has founded Scope3, a company focused on simplifying ad tech that will not only reduce computing power but also create a better advertising experience.
Many innovations don’t make money in their first iterations. While search engines existed well before Google, there was no proven business model at that time. The rise of Google as a front door to the internet, combined with a sophisticated search advertising business model, exploded its revenue over the years. Last year search advertising represented over 50% of Google’s $280 billion in revenue. With so much at stake, the arrival of a next generation of search with ChatGPT has many experts, including John Battelle, wondering how it will impact the business of search.
Technology progress, changing behaviors, and business models are three factors that drive how innovations evolve over time. Another factor is how innovators learn from history. One reason that P&G keeps a dedicated Archives space and staff for people to learn from previous generations. It often serves innovation teams to take a look back in history to learn and get inspired to invent the future. Another company that treasures its history is Lego. At Signal 2022 Lego’s CMO Julia Goldin declared that ‘Creativity is the essential 21st century skill,’ which the people at Lego have practiced for over 90 years.
Even though innovators are eager to pursue the future they should also be explorers of history. Not only does the past hold many interesting stories, it also opens the door to better ideas to pursue. Innovation is a long game, with many stops on the journey.
Stan Joosten & John Battelle,
Editors-In-Chief, Signal360 / Co-founders, Signal P&G