Lately I’ve been swept up in the startup fever that has captured the imagination of my town and many like it, all hoping for a taste of what Silicon Valley is having.
These encounters beg the question of why innovation matters, here and now, in the current context of our ecological, social and economic reality. For our innovations to truly matter, they will have to solve big, planetary problems and not just sell more stuff. To that end, here are some guidelines that I think we innovators should consider if we wish to shed our short-termism and innovate for the long haul.
First of all, we’re the startup. That’s right, we humanoids with the fancy eyewear and the opposable thumbs. We’ve only been at this upright thing for 200,000 years. This seems like an exceedingly long time for someone in the venture world, but when you hold it up to the history of life on the planet (3.8 billion years), it’s like we just got here. We’re a smart species, no question. We have invented the airplane and the atom bomb and the Internet, but we could still afford to learn a few things from the photosynthesizers, the pollinators, the oxygen-makers and the carbon-absorbers. It’s like we skipped to the cool design-thinking tutorial without learning the basics of the trade. So the first step in forming meaningful startups is the realization that we’re still young, and we should approach innovation from a place of humility rather than hubris.
Second, the real startup mentors don’t have PhDs or country houses. If we’re going to hang around to see the anthropocene through, we’ll need to take a few cues from the more established locals. The ferns and the starlings and those prickly ones, the tennenbaums, they’re the ones who really get the whole clean energy thing; who didn’t know you could use chemistry that wasns’t green (don’t tell them); who have only ever eaten slow food; who know how to run a share economy. And they’ve been perfecting it for a really, really long time in the R&D lab called “the woods behind your house.” You want next-generation photovoltaics? Spend some time with a leaf. You want an Internet of Things? Dig up some soil. You curious about Big Data? Stick your head in a beehive. (Okay, don’t do that part.)
If we have the will to look, nature can teach us how to innovate for good. Want to contribute to a future that works for the little guy? Do like Etsy did, and use a sophisticated social platform to pare retail down to its most fundamental ingredients: Makers and buyers talking about stuff online, period. No fancy retail concept, no franchise, no upselling or cross-selling by hovering sales associates. Etsy exemplifies the kind of elegant simplicity that nature models for us when it manufactures and exchanges stuff in the ecological marketplace, where the main currency is oxygen, hydrogen, carbon and nitrogen. No synthetic distractions, just high-performing, essential elements interfacing for shared benefit.
You want to change the face of energy use? Do like Nest did, and close the gap between signal and response, between “it’s hot in here” and “somebody turn the heat down!” Nobody bridges the feedback divide better than nature. Take how a leaf expands as the sun emerges not after the sun emerges, but at the same time. More time to photosynthesize, more shade for the undergrowth, no rays of sun wasted!
You want to rent a room in your house to a perfect stranger named Sven? Probably not… now, behave… Here’s the point: AirBnB realized that the only thing holding folks back from sharing that spare bedroom was a threshold of trust. Now they’ve got guests and hosts reviewing and referring each other all over the globe, like one big happy traveling family. Both guests and hosts are engaged in the kind of mutualism that exists between grass and grazers, between prey and predators, between plants and pollinators. By facilitating the mutualism between guest and host, AirBnB has given the collaborative economy a new take on hospitality.
What’s more, these innovations are creating real value…yes, the kind that grows on trees, literally and metaphorically. Nest fetched a tidy $3.2 billion from Google after a whopping three years in business, all while training a new generation of homeowners to live lightly. Founded in 2008, AirBnB has arrived in more than 34,000 cities, all without having to pave over paradise and put up another formula hotel. And Etsy, which transacted over $1.3 billion last year, keeps hinting at an IPO, all while facilitating a sustainable income for thousands of artisans worldwide. But despite their success, these start-ups just keep on innovating into new markets and new manifestations. It’s as if they know it’s up to them to the change the rules of the game, which brings me to my last point:
We’ve got to get our eyes off the exit sign. Why, I must ask, is the start-up community so enamored with quick and dirty exits? Why all the talk of “seminal” ideas, “seed” capital, and “incubation,” without an equal amount of lip service to seeing the enterprise through to adulthood? It seems like the start-up world is long on baby daddies but short on actual pay-for-the-wedding parentage.
As a mom and a nature nut and an entrepreneur, here’s my 2 cents: We innovators need to think as much about sticking around as we do about starting things up. We’re actually really good at getting things going — all 7 billion of us, and our 14 billion opposable thumbs. It’s in our nature to innovate and invent, but we also need to remember that ingenuity is only one small step in our evolutionary potential. When Darwin talked about survival of the fittest, he said this:
It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent that survives… It is the one that is the most adaptable to change.
Our true fitness test will be our ability to fit in on a grand scale, to truly internalize that we – the start-up species – are as connected to beehives as we are to business plans.
In the emerging economy, we won’t trade merely on our brawn, or even on our brains. To reach go-to-market for the human enterprise, and for that enterprise to be regenerative, we’re going to have to take a much wider view than our spreadsheets will allow.
Image credit: Ideapoke