Excerpt from Trees on Mars — Chapter 1

Google the word “innovate” and be confronted with twenty-five million links. They lead to a steady stream of titles, web sites, articles, and conferences. A Canadian competition challenged university-age entrepreneurs to “create new value” out of the “everyday household object,” the coffee cup. The winners got to go to the 2012 Global Entrepreneurship Conference in Liverpool and hear Sir Richard Branson tell the crowd, “I had a dream. I’m living it,” and eBay’s Martha Lane Fox explain, “We believed the world would shop online, we proved it.”

Innovate Washington, Innovate Calgary, Innovate America, Innovate 3D, InnovatelikeEdison, they all exist to do one thing: promote “innovation.” There is even an “Innovate Rotary!” blog exploring how you can create “thriving, growing, high-impact Rotary clubs.” I read a post on the blog asking: “Does Your Club Have a Growth Mindset?” The blog is written by Rotary leader and management consultant Greg Krauska. In it, he laments the fact that even successful clubs that have been rewarded with trophies can lose their vibrancy if they don’t keep changing, upgrading, innovating. Writes Krauska: “Unless a club is focused on where its next success will come from, it can get stagnant.” What’s the solution? The solution is to “adopt a growth mindset.” The solutionis to look to the future.

Stock markets surge and recede on rumors of what Apple and Microsoft have in the pipeline or what a gas company announces they’ll be able to frack out of the ground through technologies to be developed in the next decade; metropolises release lavish reports trumpeting their status as a “new tech hubs”; politicians eagerly crow about every last cent they invest in “innovation.” Magazines trumpet special “the future of” issues and even museums and art galleries are trying to get into the future business, with exhibits like the London-based Design Museum’s The Future is Here demonstrating the techniques and technologies that add up to the arrival of a “new industrial revolution.”

When Apple released last quarter numbers for 2011, the Wall Street Journal headline read: “Apple Reports Blowout Earnings; Shares Surge After Hours.” A Globe and Mail article was even more instructive: “As the company that invented smartphones spirals downward, the company that reinvented them is soaring.” Blackberry, much maligned for failing to keep up with the pace of “innovation,” is out. Apple, with its seemingly effortless ability to know what we will want before we even get around to wanting it, is in. But look out, Apple. A mere handful of years after the death of Apple co-founder and CEO Steve Jobs, grumbling about even that company started to surface. “Apple is sacrificing innovation on the altar of shareholder value,” warns the headline of a piece written by a prominent business columnist. The article chastises Apple for “fiddling with updates of existing products” instead of focusing on coming up with the next game-changing revolution in personal technology.

A search of annual and quarterly reports filed with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission shows corporations mentioned some form of the word “innovation” (defined by Webster’s as “the introduction [presumably in the near future] of something new,”) 33,528 times in 2012, a 64 percent increase from five years before. Apple and Google mentioned innovation twenty-two and fourteen times respectively. Procter & Gamble used innovation twenty-two times, Scotts Miracle-Gro chimed in with twenty-one innovates, and Campbell Soup Co. easily bested Google, employing the innovate buzzword eighteen times.

According to the National Venture Capital Association, 2012 was a banner year with venture capitalists pouring $29.4 billion into around 4,000 new companies, an increase of 7 per cent over the previous year. Since then, it’s been nothing but go go go for those with the money to gamble on owning a slice of the future. PricewaterhouseCoopers LLP and the National Venture Capital Association report that venture capitalists invested $48.3 billion in 4,356 deals in 2014, an increase of 61 percent in dollars and a 4 percent increase in deals over 2013. Internet-specific companies ($11.9 billion) and investments in the software industry ($19.8 billion) account for the bulk of the investments.16 The intent of all this activity is nicely summarized by an ad on the back cover of a magazine. The ad features a sleek, silver, futuristic BMW poised in mid-rotation in the midst of a nearly empty anonymous city. The headline for the BMW i3, which features an “open-pore eucalyptus wood dashboard” and is supposedly the “first all-electric vehicle to achieve sustainability without compromising luxury, design or performance” reads: “We didn’t predict the future. We built it.”

The story we’re telling is all about the future. A 2014 national survey by the Pew Research Center and Smithsonian magazine asked Americans about their perspectives on the future. The results show an impressive consensus—the future is coming, and it’s going to be great. In fact, three in five Americans (59 percent) “feel that technological advancements will lead to a future in which people’s lives are mostly better.” How enthusiastic are we about the future? Consider:

  • Fully four in five (81 percent) of us “expect thatwithin the next fifty years people needing new organs will have them custom grown in a lab.”
  • Half (51 percent) of us “expect that computers will be able to create art that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans.”
  • Almost one in four of us (39 percent) “expect that scientists will have developed the technology to teleport objects fifty years from now.”
  • One in three (33 percent) expect that “humans will have colonized planets other than Earth.”
  • One of every five people (19 percent) surveyed even believed that “humans will be able to control theweather in the foreseeable future.”

We’re so hyped about the future that we’d be willing to dive into it right now if we could. An astonishing one quarter of people asked (26 percent) say they “would get a brain implant to improve their memory or mental capacity if it were possible to do so.” What’s the overall takeaway from the survey? We have “long-term optimism” for the future that is inextricably intertwined with “high expectations for the inventions of the next half century.” Today we are more enthusiastic, optimistic, and demanding of the future than any people ever before. “Contemporary life is overloaded with visions of the future,” note two professors of philosophy in a column. “Whereas Friedrich Nietzsche bemoaned the surplus of historical sense, crushing old Europe under the weight of its past, we are now suffering from an obsession with what lies ahead.”As a result, “not knowing the future,” notes Brendan Keenan, business columnist for the Belfast Telegraph, “is now widely taken as a sign of inadequacy.”



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