Breakthrough ideas for 2007

The Harvard Business Review published their annual list titled “Breakthrough ideas for 2007”. The list usually covers insightful essays from established authors and experts around the world. The interesting thing about this year’s list is that HBS editors welcomed entries from the general public, and one of those entries were actually picked for publication. Below you will my favorite ideas:

1. The Accidental Influentials (Duncan J. Watts)
“Our argument stems from a simple observation about social influence: With the exception of celebrities like Oprah Winfrey—whose outsize presence is primarily a function of media, not interpersonal, influence—even the most influential members of a population simply don’t interact with that many others. Yet it is precisely these noncelebrity influentials who, according to the two-step-flow theory, are supposed to drive social epidemics, by influencing their friends and colleagues directly. For a social epidemic to occur, however, each person so affected must then influence his or her own acquaintances, who must in turn influence theirs, and so on; and just how many others pay attention to each of these people has little to do with the initial influential. If people in the network just two degrees removed from the initial influential prove resistant, for example, the cascade of change won’t propagate very far or affect many people.”

6. An Emerging Hotbed of User-Centered Innovation (Eric von Hippel)
“Breakthrough medical-equipment innovations such as the heart-lung machine and the first automated drug pumps were developed by doctors at the leading edge of practice, not by firms that manufacture medical equipment. Novel food categories like sports energy drinks and gels were developed by sports enthusiasts. This process of users’ coming up with products is increasingly well documented, and some companies, at least, are actively trying to take advantage of it. But what about governments?

Governments? What do they have to do with the development of something like a sports gel? Actually, governments have always attempted, in a variety of ways, to affect how firms innovate. Most countries, developing and developed alike, view innovation as vital to their economic growth and well-being and spend varying portions of their national budgets to support it. That support has typically come in the form of R&D grants for scientific researchers and R&D tax credits for manufacturers. This focus on technology push has not attracted much controversy. But recent research shows that the 70% to 80% of new product development that fails does so not for lack of advanced technology but because of a failure to understand users’ needs. The emergence of user-centered innovation clearly shows that this near-exclusive focus on technological advance is misplaced.”

11.Innovation and Growth: Size Matters (Geoffrey B. West)
“We did indeed find that cities manifest power-law scaling similar to the economy-of-scale relationships observed in biology: a doubling of population requires less than a doubling of certain resources. The material infrastructure that is analogous to biological transport networks—gas stations, lengths of electrical cable, miles of road surface—consistently exhibits sublinear scaling with population.

However, to our surprise, a new scaling phenomenon appeared when we examined quantities that are essentially social in nature and have no simple analogue in biology—those associated with innovation and wealth creation. They include patent activity, number of supercreative people, wages, and GDP. For such quantities the exponent (the analogue of ¾ in metabolic rate) exceeds 1, clustering around a common value of 1.2. Thus, a doubling of population is accompanied by more than a doubling of creative and economic output. We call this phenomenon “superlinear” scaling: by almost any measure, the larger a city’s population, the greater the innovation and wealth creation per person.”

You can read the complete list here.