What drives innovation? It’s a question that increasingly dominates discussion in government, business and universities around the world. Innovation is seen as the key to progress and growth – the elusive spark that ignites the next big thing.
But if you’re going drive something, you need fuel; and the fuel for innovation, says entrepreneur Jay Walker, is imagination.
Innovation is a process result, he says. “But you’re not going to get innovation if you don’t have imagination.”
The founder of Priceline.com and one of America’s most prolific innovators, Walker is passionate about the power and scope of human imagination. He holds more than 200 patents and has twice been named by Time magazine as among the 50 most influential business leaders in the digital age.
He is also a frequent speaker at TED conferences and curator of TEDMED, which focuses on the future of healthcare and technology.
When we use our imagination, Walker says, it is the most powerful tool we have. Likewise, when imagination is restricted or discouraged, innovation dries up.
Walker’s home in Connecticut houses the Library of the History of Human Imagination, a private collection of books and artefacts as diverse as a page from an original Guttenburg bible, a Nazi Enigma code machine and a flight manual for the Saturn V rocket which sent astronauts to the moon.
These and the thousands of other items in Walker’s collection document what he says are key turning points in the development of human imagination, creativity and learning.
Walker was recently in Singapore for an innovation summit hosted by the Wall Street Journal and took time out to give NUS Business School students a guided tour through some of the key pieces in his collection.
Imagination, he says, is not about new technology or invention, nor is it about creativity or innovation; it’s about original thinking.
“It’s very hard to be original. Most things, somebody’s already thought of before,” he says.
But being original can be done if you work at it, he says, and part of that work involves understanding the imagination and thinking that has come before.
This is where Walker’s library comes in.
Each item in the collection marks a vital step in changing the way people think, and – despite their diverse historical and geographical origins – Walker is enthusiastic about explaining the threads that pull them all together.
Most people don’t think of imagination as having a history, he says, but for millennia it has been key to finding answers to some of our most fundamental questions, particularly those surrounding life and death. Indeed, in the absence of modern science, explanations for the many mysteries of life came from imagination.
At the same time, for much of human history having an imagination was a potentially lethal exercise.
Most societies, he argues, were divided into two groups – a ruling class and everyone else. Anyone in the latter category whose imagination might lead them to question the authority of those in charge risked being put to death. For most then it was simply too risky to imagine a different way of doing things.
As a result, Walker says, imagination as we know it today really only began to gather pace with the start of the Industrial Revolution in the early 1800s. Nonetheless, as his collection illustrates, this also relied on some key breakthroughs in imagination in the centuries before.
One of these steps was the development of an efficient method of mass printing using a moveable type press, pioneered by German blacksmith Johannes Gutenberg in the early 15th century, the most famous product of which is the Gutenberg bible.
But, says Walker, the reason Gutenberg’s printing press became a success was nothing to do with books and reading – indeed, the overwhelming majority at the time were illiterate. Instead, the press took off because it allowed the Catholic church to ramp up the sale of “indulgences” or forgivenesses – church-sanctioned pardons that granted the buyer a fast-track out of purgatory.
Previously these had been laboriously hand-written, but Gutenberg’s innovation allowed them to be produced on an industrial scale. For the church, the press was effectively a way to print money.
The birth of mass book printing was largely a secondary spin off – which in turn gave rise to a slow but steady growth in literacy, itself then paving the way for other leaps of imagination.
One such leap came some two centuries later with the publication of what became the world’s first scientific bestseller.
The book, Micrographia by Robert Hooke, detailed for the first time the world too small to see with the naked eye. Crammed with detailed illustrations of what had been previously considered invisible, Hooke’s work caused a public sensation.
More significantly, it opened the way for advances in the field of science, particularly the bio-sciences.
Birth of big data
Meanwhile another publication at around the same time produced other unforeseen and even more wide-ranging spin-offs.
The Bills of Mortality was originally compiled as a weekly official record of causes of death to help with the collection of taxes.
But during the plague years of the mid 1660s, people began for the first time to see patterns in the data. This was a challenge to conventional wisdom of the day that the plague and the deaths associated with it were an act of God.
Instead, what the Bills of Mortality revealed – quite unexpectedly – was a regular curve that showed a statistical probability of the time of year when plague deaths would increase and when they would begin to subside. From this, says Walker, the business of data analysis was born, in turn giving rise to the industries of statistics, life insurance, and public health.
Indeed, today’s fast-growing and lucrative science of “big data” has its origins in the time of the plague.
These quite unintended leaps of imagination – Walker calls them “derivative effects” – recur repeatedly through history, he argues.
“We tend to imagine that fairly sophisticated people think about things, but it’s rarely the case,” he says. “Usually it’s an accident, it’s one thing being used for another thing.”
You don’t need to be a genius then to come up with breakthrough innovation. Rather, says Walker, you have to think, train yourself to think original thoughts, and then sort through those thoughts.
But spotting which thought contains the nucleus of innovation is not easy, he says, because not all thoughts have to be immediately useful.”
Indeed, much basic science research is not terribly useful – that is, until someone with imagination ties those findings together, discovers the connection and translates them into useful things that are genuine innovations; things we didn’t even know we needed.
The hard work, Walker says, is to imagine solutions to problems that most people don’t even know exist or are simply not discussed, thinking about what your customers will want tomorrow, in six months, or two years from today.
Doing this requires people who can take things that may have been seen by everyone before, but, Walker says, “thinking about them in ways that nobody has thought of before”.
This, ultimately, is where the real breakthrough innovations are found.