If you could only pick one to have for yourself for a year, which would it be: indoor plumbing or the Internet? This was one of several provocative questions raised at TED 2013 during talks by Erik Brynjolfsson, innovation researcher, and Robert J. Gordon, economist, as they asked, “Did there ‘used to be’ more innovation and now we’re slowing down? Or do we think innovation is still accelerating?” This question became all the more critical as we faced the issue again in a talk today by Rose George, author and activist, who works to raise awareness about the lack of basic sanitation worldwide.
Just so you know, with important caveats, my answer to the first question would be the Internet. And as it turns out, 60 percent of the TED audience agreed with me. Let’s be honest. I love the connections the Internet provides, allowing me to work and play in ways that are effective and enjoyable. But I interpreted the fundamental question as, “Is the invention of the Internet as important as the toilet?” One could debate this, day in and day out (as perhaps a number of TEDsters did). I’ve witnessed first-hand in my work and travels in Africa and India the many people around the world who still lack clean water and adequate sanitation. So at first glance, it’s a bit “cocooned” to choose the Internet. But stay with me and follow my logic: Those of us who believe technology is a huge enabler of innovation wouldn’t want the Internet taken away because, in turn, we believe it holds the power to solve so many big world problems through collaboration and transparency. So my mind went to, “If I had the toilet, I couldn’t invent the Internet. But if I had the Internet, I could certainly find plenty of smart and creative minds to outline the problem and work together to design a toilet.”
To the larger question — “Is the growth of innovation accelerating?” — my answer is a resounding yes. My view has always been that innovation comes in many forms and should be broadly defined and recognized. The examples this week at TED 2013 alone are staggering proof. The 15-year-old boy, Jack Andraka, who invented a test for early pancreatic cancer with the potential to increase survival rates dramatically. Musician Amanda Palmer, who has pioneered a whole new (albeit it controversial) business model that is grabbing industry attention. The 13-year-old Nairobian boy, Richard Turere, who invented “lion lights”— an elegant and effective way to protect his family’s cattle from lion attacks. BLACK, the young man from Tokyo who has turned his yo-yo skills into a true art form. Brilliant educator and TED Prize winner Sugata Mitra, who has conceived Self Organized Learning Environments, which he is advocating worldwide.
Perhaps those other 40 percent who voted to keep their toilets were more aligned with the person who said we have a crisis of imagination. Maybe they were concerned that even with some of the technology tools we have today, inventing indoor plumbing would have taken a really long time. I believe the Internet and other technologies enable creative and productive thinking. And I’m of the belief that so much of the world needs basic advancements to better their lives. So maybe it’s OK that I give up my toilet for a year to keep the Internet, where so much collaboration and invention is happening and helping the many communities in dire need see advancements. Maybe I voted for that because keeping a tool of progress and invention makes me feel that we’re working together a lot more across the globe to address huge, thorny world problems, including basic sanitation, indoor plumbing, clean water, electricity, global health and education. I just know when my hand shot up, I was thinking the trade-off seemed fair, given all the years I’ve had the chance to enjoy these basic human dignities.
Image by Neil Shaw, website