The Secret of Innovation: The Best Ideas Are Small

Kicking off a new special report on creativity and innovation at the personal, business, and government levels

Kicking off a new special report on creativity and innovation at the personal, business, and government levels

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"Ideas just aren't what they used to be," Neal Gabler observed in a New York Times essay this summer about the end of ideas (which is, paradoxically, an idea). Reviewing The Atlantic's annual ideas issue of 2011 -- a list that included The Players Own the Game, Wall Street: Same as it Ever Was, and The Rise of the Middle Class (Just Not Ours) -- Gabler decided that these headlines were too small to qualify as full-fledged ideas, especially when you stack them up against earth-shaking pronouncements like The Big Bang Theory and The End of History. "They are more on the order of observations," he noted dryly.

Where great ideas really come from. A special report

Whether you agree with Gabler that we are living in "an increasingly post-idea world" comes down to how you define that key word. Gabler has a tall height requirement for ideas: Must be this big to ride with Einstein and Fukuyama. My height requirement is considerably shorter. The best ideas don't have to be big. Sometimes, they aren't even new. They're tweaks, not blueprints.

This month The Atlantic launches the Secrets of Innovation special report, a three-week bonanza about ideas in government, business, and life, and how they're changing the economy. Here's one theme to get us started: The secret of innovation is that the best ideas are small.


It's impossible to go on about innovation in 2011 without talking about Steve Jobs. So let's talk about Steve Jobs. In his New Yorker review of Walter Isaacson's biography, Malcolm Gladwell praised what he saw as the real genius of Apple's late CEO. He was a tweaker. He took things that existed, such as the computer mouse and the smartphone and the tablet, and he made them more perfect. To call him the "Edison of Our Time" is to acknowledge something shared by many of history's most famous inventors: They were deft thieves who made existing technologies more perfect and popular with incremental improvements.

This is how it's always been. Gladwell reaches back to the Industrial Revolution and pulls out a lesson about how an innovation that allowed a few more spindles on a British cotton mule turned out to be the most productive invention of the century:

James Watt invented the modern steam engine, doubling the efficiency of the engines that had come before. But when the tweakers took over the efficiency of the steam engine swiftly quadrupled. Samuel Crompton was responsible for what Meisenzahl and Mokyr call "arguably the most productive invention" of the industrial revolution [the spinning mule]. But the key moment, in the history of the mule, came a few years later, when there was a strike of cotton workers. The mill owners were looking for a way to replace the workers with unskilled labor, and needed an automatic mule, which did not need to be controlled by the spinner. It was the tweaker's tweaker, Richard Roberts, who saved the day, producing a prototype, in 1825, and then an even better solution in 1830. Before long, the number of spindles on a typical mule jumped from four hundred to a thousand. The visionary starts with a clean sheet of paper, and re-imagines the world. The tweaker inherits things as they are, and has to push and pull them toward some more nearly perfect solution. That is not a lesser task.

Today, one can say that the best ideas are small and mean it literally. The lushest spaces for venture capital in the United States at this moment are biotechnology, nanotechnology, and Web apps for our mobile devices. It is safe to say that the breakthroughs of the next generation will be cellular -- of or relating to our cells or our cell phones. It is also safe to say that they will be microscopic. We will cure a cancer with a radiation treatment that is ever-so-slightly better than the previous year's radiation treatment. We will improve the speed at which data travels in space every-so-slightly faster than the previous generation of broadband. Gabler is waiting for another Big Bang Theory. But the odds are that the next innovations will be a series of small bangs, miniscule sparks illuminating pockets of dark space and expanding the known universe incrementally.

Look at your computer. Take out your phone. Every successful modern e-gadget is the innovation offspring of many fathers and mothers that would not have been born if its parents didn't steal from, and improve, each other's work slowly over time. The best storage is useless without rapid signalling. The best wi-fi is invisible without a brilliant video microprocessor. And all the technology in the world does not exist unless there is a battery to power it. As Vaclav Smil, an author, futurist, and professor, explained to me: "The beauty, or the curse, of complex systems, is that there are some parts more important than others, but all are needed for reliable operations." The best ideas are incremental.

Earth-shattering innovations don't look like the end of history. They look like a few more spindles on the cotton mule.