What were the great ideas of the last century? A random list might include abstract art, behaviourism, corporate identity, automation, digital theory, futurism, the uncertainty principle, Gestalt psychology, industrial design, jet engines, fast food, television, the marginal productivity theory of wages, the hit parade, best-sellers, miniskirts, consumerism, modernism, cassette tapes, nudism, VAT, pop and linguistics.
These ideas grew in a world with fundamental economic convictions, namely the mass-production and mass-consumption of goods. But these assumptions are fast changing. Those goods are now coming from China and the great legacy manufacturing corporations of the West are mostly in a parlous state. In manufacturing, the rates of change are themselves changing. Once companies which owned important patents (Pilkington, Xerox or Kodak) could dominate their markets, but now anything can be reverse engineered (ie, copied) in a Guangzhou sweatshop.
Things happen quickly and, with ideas, speed is a virtuous circle. Hewlett-Packard makes the majority of its earnings from products that didn't exist last year. Once the simple ability to manufacture guaranteed competitive advantage. That's no longer so. Anything can be made anywhere' the world is flat. Instead, the ability to generate ideas has replaced manufacturing as the engine of the economy.
As a result, our flattened world is dematerialising. Production lines have been replaced by a satellite uplink' experiences are better than possessions. Once making cars and computers guaranteed the West's economic dominance, now all we have to sell is ideas.
But this is no bad thing since the value of manufactured goods is falling and the value of ideas is rising. The big question has become where do ideas come from and how can we get more of them? Absurdity seems to be dematerialisation's bedfellow. The two most successful business books of recent years - Jonas Ridderstrale's and Kjell Nordstrom's Funky Business and Robert Sutton's Weird Ideas That Work - have acknowledged this, in their idiosyncratic ways. A pair of Nordic hipsters and a button-down Stanford professor may make an incongruous coupling, but there really is no escaping the zeitgeist.
To have any value, a new idea must be disconcerting. Banker J Pierpoint Morgan said to Alexander Graham Bell: "My colleagues and I have seen and discussed your invention, but we have determined there is no commercial future for it." He was referring to the telephone. In Pierpoint Morgan's day, when you were making so much money out of steel or railroads, why take a punt on a wacky creative idea?
The British, of course, have been specially resistant to new ideas, except in areas where native eccentrics proposed extraordinary innovations in answer to questions no one had asked. Christopher Cockerell's hovercraft or James Dyson's vacuum cleaners would be examples. Cockerell in particular demonstrates, if demonstration were needed, the British knack for doing an unlikely thing rather well... and then losing money on it. Dyson is, of course, quite the opposite.
People with new ideas tend to be both illogical and contradictory. Explaining his discovery of relativity, Einstein said: "I just ignored an axiom." Nothing defines creativity better than the ability to defeat habit by originality. There seems to be a physiological source for new ideas. We have 10 billion brain cells, each one capable of making 5,000 connections, but it is making unusual connections that's a basis for new ideas. But mostly we are very conservative: as far as food is concerned, we eat only about 600 of the planet's hundreds of thousands of edible plants.
The absurd element in the quest for a new idea was brilliantly described by Miles Davies as "don't play what's there, play what's not there". This is what Akio Morita meant when he said Sony's contrarian company philosophy was "doing what others did not". …