Top Posts of 2016
It’s been a crazy year, but look back a century and it’s interesting how many parallels there are. In 1916, the US was still recovering from the Panic of 1907, which led to the Federal Reserve Act of 1913. There was a lingering stream of William Jennings Bryan’s populism and a mistrust of institutions, especially large corporations.
Yet there were also nascent forces which no one could foresee that would shape the future. Starting in the 1920’s, electricity and the internal combustion engine would soon combine with other technologies, such as refrigeration, home appliances and the automobile, to bring a half century of unprecedented prosperity.
We may be in a similar era now, with new computing architectures, such as quantum computing and neuromorphic chips poised to power entirely new fields, such genomics, nanotechnology and robotics. These are also the things I wrote about most over the past year. For those of you who might have missed them, here’s my top posts of 2016:
I was genuinely surprised that this one did so well because quantum computing is such a complicated subject. Mostly, I was just happy to get some hours talking to Charlie Bennett, who many consider to be the “father” of quantum information theory and, one of the most thoroughly engrossing — as well as one of the nicest — people I ever encountered.
There’s also an interesting back story here. Dr. Bennett initially trained as a biochemist, but while serving as a teaching assistant for the eminent James Watson, who co-discovered the structure of DNA, he happened to take an elective course on the theory of computing and was struck by the similarities between a Turing machine and the genetic code. Fascinated, he set out to understand computation in nature and created an entirely new field.
I guess many others found Charlie’s ideas as interesting as I did, because it was far and away the most popular thing I wrote this year and, in fact, attracted the largest one-day readership ever in the history of the site.
Go back 15 years and it’s amazing how much the world has changed. In 2001, less than 5% of the global population was online. There were no smartphones or social media. Google was a startup that few had heard of and artificial intelligence was something we only saw in science fiction movies.
Yet the progress we will see in the next 15 years will be, if anything, more dramatic. Today, in 2016, we have largely mastered the virtual world of information. By 2031, we will have begun to master the physical world as well.
This was the article that led me to believe that I had enough material for a full length book. All too often, we become enamored with one invention or another and forget that innovation is fundamentally about solving problems. Therefore, there are as many ways to innovate as there are types of problems to solve.
It’s not just Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, or scientists in labs or “creative types” who innovate, but everyone with a new problem to solve. So if you want to learn how to innovate more effectively, learn these nine rules.
Google is, in many ways, an amazing company. In less than two decades it has grown from a small startup to one of the most exciting and valuable companies on the planet. To understand better how it all works, I looked at its “Brain” project to see how it is able to harness such amazing creativity and technical skill.
What I found is that what makes Google special is the way it’s been able to integrate an entire portfolio of innovation strategies into a seamless whole. That takes more than a management philosophy or a streamlined operation, it requires a true spirit of discovery deeply embedded into the organization’s DNA.
Over the past 40 years, computers have migrated from the back room, to the desktop and finally to our pockets. This shift not only represents a change in size, but also of function. While in the beginning computers were used solely for large computational and administrative jobs, today we use them to assist us with everyday tasks, like driving to a friend’s house or planning a vacation.
These types of jobs are fundamentally different because they require machines to recognize and interpret patterns, traditionally thought of as skills solely in the human domain. To power this new era , IBM has developed a revolutionary new chip modeled on the human brain.
This is an amazing story, which explores the nexus between computer science and neurology. To understand how it all came about, I spoke to Dharmendra Modha, who leads he project.
In the years following World War II, we made a number of paradigm shifting breakthroughs. We harnessed the power of the atom, discovered the structure of DNA, built the first jet powered airplane and created the transistor. Most of the progress since then has been improving on those earlier technologies.
Yet in the years to come, we are likely to make new breakthroughs with fundamental technologies that will have the potential to shape our world for decades to come. We’ll likely be entering completely new territory and will need to shift our thinking about how we live, work and innovate.
The concept of the lean startup, originally developed by Steve Blank and then popularized by Eric Ries in his bestselling book, has become have become de rigueur for Silicon Valley entrepreneurs. The key insight is that you can’t run a new business the same way you would manage an existing enterprise.
However, it’s becoming clear that ideas like customer development, minimum viable product and the pivot are relevant far beyond startups. In fact, lean startup methods can be effective for anyone who is trying to bring a new product or service to market.
In researching my upcoming book, Mapping Innovation, I began to notice similar traits in every organization I looked at. For example, the actively seek out problems, align their innovation strategies closely with their capabilities and strategy, and build a highly collaborative culture.
Following these practices are no panacea, but it does seem that It’s very hard to innovate without them. Like I said, just about everywhere I saw great innovators, I found them doing most, if not all, of these things.
In The End of Power, Moisés Naím observed that “power is easier to get but harder to use or keep.” That is undeniably true, but I also think it misses the point. The greater truth is that in a world connected by digital technology, power no longer lies at the top of hierarchies, but at the center of networks.
That’s why today it’s important to take a “network view” of events and recognize that we need to think more deeply and clearly how we shape the connections around us. What you see determines how you will act.
Today, platforms are a hot topic and companies like Amazon, Airbnb and Uber are dominating those with more traditional, linear business models. Two new books by prominent economists, Matchmakers and The Platform Revolution, ably explain the dynamics of how platforms like these function as multi-sided markets.
Yet while understanding how platforms work as economic entities is both interesting and important, unless we’re planning on designing a platform ourselves — and very few of us are — it isn’t very helpful. The real value of platforms for most businesses today is that they allow us to access ecosystems of talent, technology and information.
It used to be that any time I suggested that things were less than wonderfully fantastic at Apple, I would be barraged with nasty comments by hard core fans. To question anything about the company was considered heresy.
Wow! Things have really changed. Now it seems that every time you turn around somebody is comparing Apple to one failure or another. But Apple is, mostly, the same company as it always was, adept at engineering and design, but not great at developing truly new technologies.
So Apple is largely the same company it always was, but operating in a profoundly different environment than a decade ago, which hampers its ability to compete. The truth is, it would probably have many of the same challenges if Steve Jobs was still alive.
So those are my top posts for 2016. Thanks again for all your support this year. I’m taking the next ten days off, but will be back January 1st, when I’ll post my article about why in 2017, collaboration Is no longer a choice, but an imperative.