The Innovation Imperative

March 30, 2016

Can we predict the innovative needs of the future?

Ronald S. Howell
Chief Executive Officer, Washington Research Foundation / WRF Capital

There are some questions that are really interesting, challenging and stimulating — but also unanswerable.

And when we ask whether we can predict the innovative needs of the future, my response is both “yes and “no.”

Here’s the “yes” answer.

We currently have over 7 billion people on the planet. We know that every one of them that is not mentally impaired or too young to care will want and need basic things: food, clean water, clean-enough air and enough income or a provided income to buy the food and water that’s required.

I think innovations around the pricing and distribution of commodities will be developed. More specifically, there will be innovations focused on nutrition because, if at all possible, we need to make sure that people get the basic food they need.

We are already past the predicted date for running out of potable water (2015); but, having said that, there still isn’t an infinite amount of fresh drinking water. I hope that there are innovations that can desalinate water in a cost-effective way.

Additionally, people that I respect understand that citizens who are not given a proper minimum level of education are underutilized assets and actually become a weight on their respective communities. If more people are given access to education (especially outside of the Western democratic governments), there will be more intellectual power available to work on some of the hardest problems. So, there will continue to be innovations around how people are taught, and there will need to be corresponding innovations around measuring what non-traditional students have learned and what they have mastered.

There will also be innovations in healthcare — keeping people well instead of reacting to their illnesses, if for no other reason that we can’t afford to keep doing the things we’re doing now.

But, what these innovations will be, how they will be injected into the societal bloodstream, and by whom — I cannot say. I have no clue.

Now, here’s the “no” answer — as in, “No, we can’t predict the innovative needs of the future.”

First and foremost, I am continually surprised at what people find possible, and what becomes the thing we can’t live without.

Microwave ovens and garage-door openers, for example, were leading edge when I was in high school. Now, untold miracles are reduced to commodities that we all take for granted. And, there seems to be a growing list of ways to combine these miracles into new types of useful innovations — cell phones made cameras and photography better and cheaper; wireless enables new ways to explore your environment when you are away from home or work; data collection and analysis enables better transparency in financial products, and the buying of just about everything.

There are probably too many examples to prove that none of us can really see too far into the future in terms of what will be created and adopted as “normal” in short periods of time.

It’s also easy to think that so many of these innovations are just the result of whiz kids looking to get rich. In fact, that may be true, but the unintended consequences of “app development” includes creating data, sharing data and using data, all of which enable true community benefits.

Here’s another way of looking at this.

When personal computers were young, we had word processors, spreadsheets and accounting packages. Then came new killer-app categories; relational databases, desktop publishing; image and photo processing; and so on. Who would have guessed that the real estate industry would be made more level by Zillow and Redfin?

The same goes for hardware innovations. First came processing and storage; standardization allowed devices to get “smart”; and now people need The Internet of Things. Who would have guessed that a Web-connected sensor on a machine in an industrial facility would help us combat climate change and global warming?

If I’ve confused you with my “on-the-one-hand-on-the-other-hand” answer about predicting the innovative needs of the future, then let me contribute some core bedrock beliefs to the discussion.

There are five of them:

  • For starters, the “right” people will always drive and execute innovation; competing for talent will increase.
  • People will increase their commitment to lifetime learning, or they will experience longer periods of unemployment / underemployment; access to education will be increased by innovation.
  • Innovation by numerous people requires (optimally) geopolitical stability and social justice. There must be innovation in basic education and the delivery of basic needs, fairly distributed. And there’s also a general recognition that more is to be gained by being part of society than at war with it.
  • We are all guessing. Just look at how many venture funds have been in the first rounds of the current billion-dollar companies — very few, indeed.
  •  The next “big thing” will be laughed at when it first appears.

And, lastly, I would say this — change is coming from so many different directions, so we have to develop an even higher tolerance for the new. Innovation is fundamental to our lives today; it will be fundamental to our lives tomorrow. And technology will be part of it all.

This article is one in a series written for CoMotion, the UW’s innovation hub. To learn more from UW innovators, visit

This article also appeared March 24, 2016, on GeekWire