Posts tagged with: innovation

This is a guest post by Michael Hendrix, following up on his previous post on the economic challenges of millennials, and my own post on the deeper vocational questions that persist for Christians. Michael serves as the director for emerging issues and research at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in Washington, D.C. He is a graduate of the University of St. Andrews and a Texas native.

By Michael Hendrix

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Twenty years from now, we will see an America where merit and reward are intertwined more than ever before. As I’ve written recently, those who win the future will significantly outpace their peers, leaving the rest to fight over the scraps until organizational innovations and human capital catches up once again.

If true, such a reality must be reckoned with. So what about those left behind? What will their futures look like? With decreases in gainful employment and the increasing disconnect between vocational aspirations and actual occupations, what other risks persist — economic, social, spiritual, and otherwise? Assuming we are not comfortable with such a future, what should we do about it?
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James Pethokoukis of AEI says that this is the most important economic chart in Western civilization. I completely agree.

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The concept is so important that no student should receive a passing grade in any economics class—whether in high school or college—unless they can explain why economic growth matters (ideally, every educated Christian would be able to do so too since it has theological implications).

Yet, sadly, few Americans recognize its importance despite the fact, as Pethokoukis notes, that in real terms, the average income of Americans over the past two centuries went from $2,000 per person to $50,000. Pethokoukis credits the change to a shift in thinking: Respect and reward innovators and innovation. He includes a great quote by Deirdre McCloskey on how the West became a business-admiring civilization:

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In the video below, Ralph Baer, the “father of video games,” explains why he still invents at 90 years old. “What do you expect me to do?” he asks. He likens invention to the work of a painter. Would someone ask why a painter doesn’t retire? It’s what they love to do! Indeed, it is a calling.

In The Entrepreneurial Vocation, Fr. Robert Sirico writes,

Entrepreneurs, as agents of change, encourage the economy to adjust to population increases, resource shifts, and changes in consumer needs and desires. Without entrepreneurs, we would face a static economic world not unlike the stagnant economic swamps that socialism brought about in central Europe.

The same can be said about inventors like Baer as well. Like them or not, video games have been a huge source of wealth creation in our country over the last 40 years. Not only are whole teams of programmers required to create a single game, but modern games even employ actors, composers, writers, artists, and so on. In many ways they are (or at least could be) the culmination of culture up to our present time, and it all started because Baer invented a fun little gadget and managed to market it some 40 years ago.

I remember as a child of the ’80s, we actually had a Magnavox Odyssey 2 growing up. A child today would likely find it bizarre that I could find any enjoyment from such primitive sound, graphics, and interface, but it will always hold a special place in my heart. Yes, looking at it now, I can vividly remember the feel of the controller in my hand, the excitement of a child in wonder at what, at the time, was such amazing technology and a source of fun and competition with my brothers. It may not be impressive to many today, but inventions like this and the people who invent them ought to bring us to awe before the God who created heaven and earth and such fascinating and creative creatures as the human race, capable of wondrous invention after the image of the God who created them so fearfully and wonderfully unique.

Blog author: jcarter
Friday, February 22, 2013
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Innovation is an ethical matter through and through, says Chris MacDonald, because ethics is fundamentally concerned with anything that can promote or hinder human wellbeing.

Innovation is generally a good thing, ethically, because it is aimed at allowing us to do new and desirable things. Most typically, that gets expressed in the painfully vague ambition to ‘raise productivity.’ Accelerating our rate of innovation is a worthy policy objective because we want to be more productive as a society, to increase our social ‘wealth’ in the broadest sense. The 20th Century has seen a phenomenal burst of innovation and increases in wellbeing, exemplified not least by the fact that life expectancies in North American have risen by more than half over the last hundred years. The extension and enriching of human lives are good goals, which in turn makes innovation generally a good thing.

Indeed, when looked at that way, innovation isn’t just a ‘good,’ but a downright moral obligation. Yes, lives for (most) people in developed countries are pretty good. But many still don’t have happy and fulfilling lives; many children, even here, still go to bed hungry. Boosting productivity through innovation is a key ingredient for making progress in that regard. And if less developed nations are going to be raised up to even a minimally tolerable standard of living, we need innovations that will help them, and we need innovations that will make us wealthy enough that we can afford to be substantially more generous toward them than we currently are.

Read more . . .

There’s an old proverb, “Necessity is the mother of invention.”

Life is often difficult, full of challenges, trials, and travails. But it is a testament to the human spirit, created in the image of God to mature and develop morally, spiritually, and intellectually, that in the face of such troubles human ingenuity often wins out. Brad Morgan, a dairy farmer turned fertilizer magnate featured in the documentary The Call of the Entrepreneur, put it this way: “You put your butt in the corner, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.”

I was reminded of this insight in reading a story this week about a local company, National Nail Corp., whose recent experience embodies this reality. As Jim Harger writes, “When the bottom fell out of the home building industry in 2008, the National Nail Corp. was forced to regroup and diversify, says W. Scott Baker, president and CEO of the employee-owned company.”

One of the new products is called Camo, which “created a new way to nail down deck boards without having nails or screw heads poking through the surface to create slivers, pop up or discolor a deck surface.” As Baker puts it, “Camo was birthed when we found ourselves in a place where no one would have willingly gone.”

I’m not very handy, but Camo looks pretty cool to me.

When your butt is in a corner, you’ll be surprised what you can achieve.

This is an important lesson to remember, especially in the midst of economic turmoil and fiscal crisis. Yes, we live in an age of dizzying change, but with these changes also come new opportunities. God has given human beings the august responsibility to be moral agents, to work productively in service of others. Rather than bemoaning our fate when adversity comes, we ought to look forward in hope and creatively exercise those talents God has given us to find innovative new solutions to the myriad challenges facing the world today.

solar light, developing worldOver a billion people are still using kerosene as a primary fuel source, with over 1.5 million dying annually from issues related to indoor air pollution and kerosene fires. For many in the developing world, solar lamps are a new, inexpensive solution to the problem. A recent piece in The Economist hails solar lamps as the next “mobile phone” for the poor, noting that “its spread is sustainable because it is being driven by market forces, not charity.”

In an article for Christianity Today’s This is Our City project, HOPE International‘s Chris Horst interviews two business leaders from the industry who share how their purpose and direction in providing these products stems from a strong missional orientation toward work and a belief in the power of markets.

For Brian Rants, vice president of marketing for Nokero, a leading solar light company, involvement in the industry came after a fundamental transformation in his thinking:

“I am very surprised to find myself in business,” Rants says. “Business seemed to be a backup plan to being a missionary. Or being a pastor like I thought I would be. It seemed like businesspeople were just ‘extras’ in God’s story, rather than lead or even supporting actors.”

Over the past ten years, Rants worked for a number of nonprofits and churches. After going through graduate school, however, he began to discover the ways enterprise is improving the lives of the poor around the world. Rants excitedly joined Nokero, equipped with a restored vision of vocation. Through leveraging his knack for marketing, Rants fights poverty not just through his volunteerism and philanthropy, but inherently through his work in business. (more…)

Check out this video, which is interesting on a number of levels (HT: James R. Otteson):

Hazony points to some really important ideas in this short video. In many ways the culture war, so to speak, really comes down to a clash of worldviews about what work is and ought to be. For a narrative that sets the problem up the same way, but favors the “Leavers” over the “Takers,” see the work of Daniel Quinn, particularly his novel Ishmael.

I’m looking forward to checking out Hazony’s book, The Philosophy of Hebrew Scripture.

Earlier this month, I spoke at the commencement of Trinity School at Meadow View, a truly impressive private high school school in Falls Church, Va. Most impressive was the valedictory address given by the graduating senior Beau Lovdahl, who is on his way to Princeton in the fall. The story he relates here underscores the philosophy of the Acton Institute in many ways and I wanted to share it with PowerBlog readers. I hope you enjoy reading it.

Beau Lovdahl
Valedictory Address
06/11/11

Mr. Zwerneman; Father Sirico; Trinity faculty; parents, family and friends of the Class of 2011; I thank you for making this day a reality. I would like to congratulate my fellow classmates for finally completing six years of hard work in the classrooms and on the athletic fields. I would especially like to thank our loving and supportive parents for helping us and holding us accountable to get through our schooling. Finally, I would like to thank our faculty for giving us an excellent education. Now I would like to give a brief history lesson on a man that has inspired me the past seven months of my life.

On June 6th, 1884, a talented electrical engineer by the name of Nikola Tesla arrived in New York City from Serbia. All he had was a letter of recommendation from his former boss to Thomas Edison, with the words: “I know two great men and you are one of them; the other is this young man.” So Tesla began to work for Edison Machine Works company. He quickly rose from working on simple engineering matters to working on the company’s biggest problems. Edison offered Tesla 50,000 dollars to redesign the company’s inefficient direct current generators. This sum was worth 1.1 million dollars in today’s money. The very next year Tesla had redesigned the generators and asked Edison for his bonus. To this Edison replied, “Tesla, you don’t understand our American humor,” thus refusing the promised payment.

Having been refused a raise in pay, Tesla resigned his position and left the company. Tesla was forced to dig ditches to make ends meet. Yet while he was doing this he began planning a new system of power distribution, one that was based on alternating current, not Edison’s direct current. In 1888 Tesla showcased an alternating current induction motor to the American Institute for Electrical Engineering. This device would be the answer to the world’s energy needs. Tesla subsequently was hired by the industrialist George Westinghouse. Westinghouse saw great potential in Tesla’s alternating current technology for long distance power distribution. Once Tesla and Westinghouse began work, a “War of the Currents” erupted between Westinghouse and alternating current on the one hand, and Edison and direct current on the other.

Despite being slandered in a propaganda campaign by Edison, Tesla and Westinghouse proved victorious when they won the competition to power the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 with alternating current. Then Tesla designed and built an alternating current power plant at Niagara Falls that successfully powered the city of Buffalo over 15 miles away. Tesla’s alternating current proved far more efficient than Edison’s direct current, and it allowed power to be sent over long distances. This system of power is still used to this day. The way it works is that alternating current electricity is generated by a power plant. The electricity is then stepped up to a very high voltage that allows it to be carried long distances with very little power loss. Then local transformers stepped the voltage down where it can be used to light lamps or heat homes. Thus power is efficiently distributed from the power plant to the common man.

The victory of the War of the Currents cost Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company a great deal since they had to overcome Edison’s propaganda campaign. By 1897 the company was near bankruptcy. So Tesla tore up his royalties contract, freeing Westinghouse from having to pay Tesla for the use of his technology. Had Tesla not done this, he could have been the world’s first billionaire. Yet for the good of the Westinghouse Company and his vision of free energy for the world, Tesla sacrificed this fortune.

Tesla then moved to Colorado Springs where he began research on the wireless transmission of energy. In the 2006 movie The Prestige, Tesla’s assistant shows Hugh Jackman’s character a field of light bulbs that are not connected to any wires. The light bulbs are then illuminated, being powered wirelessly by a generator 15 miles away! This event actually occurred in 1899. After much research in Colorado, Tesla moved back to the east coast to Long Island, where he would test his theories of wireless energy on a larger scale. With $150,000 of funding from the industrialist J.P. Morgan, Tesla constructed Wardenclyffe Tower. Here Tesla hoped to transmit energy across the Atlantic to Paris. Yet four years later, Guglielmo Marconi made a radio transmission across the Atlantic and was credited with the invention of radio using 17 of Tesla’s patents. As a result, J.P. Morgan saw no need to continue funding Tesla’s work, since he believed Marconi had achieved what Tesla was trying to do. Tesla failed to convince Morgan that his research was for something much greater than radio. So in 1905 Tesla’s Wardenclyffe Tower project died and his dream of a large scale test of the wireless transmission of energy was shattered.

Tesla spent the rest of his life doing research in the fields of radio, remote control and electro-mechanically powered aircraft. He was also reported to have been working with the British government on a “Death Ray” but he never completed a prototype. The Death Ray would have been some sort of particle beam that would charge particles to a very high voltage and then shoot them at enemy armies or airplanes. Tesla hoped that this weapon would be a deterrent to war.

Tesla lived the last 10 years of his life alone in the New Yorker Hotel. He lived on a small pension from his homeland in Yugoslavia and worked on his research. Many thought he was insane. He was reclusive and was probably afflicted by an obsessive-compulsive disorder. The modern world that he helped build had forgotten him. He died alone in 1934 in his hotel room. His belongings were seized by the federal government, and his remains were sent back to Serbia.

This was an ignominious end to such a remarkable life. Yet by no means should we consider his life a tragedy. Tesla’s legacy was tremendous. All electricity from power plants today is generated and brought to us by Tesla’s innovations. After his death, the Supreme Court upheld Tesla as the true inventor of radio. He invented the spark plug device in car engines, and Tesla’s work in the wireless transmission of power brought us inventions such as the Tesla coil, which is used today to generate artificial lightning, and tuned circuits which form the basis of wireless communications today. He exemplified the indomitable nature of the human spirit.
Tesla also can show us how we should view the world and the life that we graduates are about to enter. First, Tesla demonstrated us how we should view money. Second, he showed us how we should pursue our goals and interests. Thirdly, he showed us why we should pursue our goals and interests.

Tesla never saw money as an intrinsic good. He did not work for the sake of money but he used the money earned to further his work. He once said,

Money does not represent such a value as men have placed upon it. All my money has been invested into experiments with which I have made new discoveries enabling mankind to have a little easier life.

He used money as a means to the end of advancing his research. He did not use his research as a means to the end of gaining money. Money was of course necessary to all his work and it was the lack of money that prevented him from bringing many of his ideas to fruition. Tesla could have been the world’s first billionaire had he not sacrificed his fortune for the good of his company’s success and the furthering of his technology throughout the world. Rather, he sought greater things than money, and only used money as a means to pursuing greater goods.

Tesla pursued his ideas and interests tirelessly despite being criticized or forgotten. After resigning from Edison’s company, Tesla conceived of today’s power distribution system while he was digging ditches in New York. Before working for Westinghouse, Tesla tried to start his own company, but his investors would not fund research in his idea of an alternating current system. So instead of giving in, Tesla went back to digging ditches. In his later years, Tesla was forgotten and deemed a mad scientist. He continued his research despite this. He did not work solely for the recognition of others. Instead he worked with resolve for something greater. As the Gospel of Mark says, “For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life.”

Tesla wanted men to live better lives through the use of his technology. Tesla’s goal in the long distance distribution of his electricity and the wireless transmission of energy was to bring men closer together in friendly international relations. Even the goal of his Death Ray was to make a weapon so potent that wars would be put to an end. While these goals may sound cliché, they were what drove Tesla to take part in the creation of the modern world. Tesla showed us that a genuine pursuit of one’s interests for that sake of interest itself and for the sake of the betterment of mankind will lead to great things. He also showed that one should be ready to sacrifice things such as financial success and fame in order to achieve one’s goals. As we go off to start our independent lives we should ask ourselves two things. First, what truly interests us? And second, why pursue that interest? The answer to these questions should provide us with the motivation to pursue our interests with resolve. Tesla has showed us that pursuing one’s interest for a great good will lead one to complete a meaningful life. He found his answer in the pursuit of happiness for the betterment of mankind. The question is, where will we find ours?

May God be with us as we enter upon our life long pursuit.

We’ve done a lot of thinking here at the PowerBlog on the future of journalism in a digital age. A recent piece in Forbes by Leo Gomez brings into focus (ahem) the question of digital innovation and it’s influence on photojournalism.

In his August 24 “Digital Tools” column, Gomez writes that “cameras are becoming what computers already are: cheap, ubiquitous, powerful and utterly transformational. There are now a billion digital cameras, counting the ones in mobile phones. They are chronicling everything about life on Earth, from birthday parties in Topeka to street protests in Tehran. Many more are on the way.”

With this explosion of video and still pictures, what role will professional photojournalism play? Both written and photojournalism faces the current challenge of a deluge of community and consumer-generated information (word blogs, video blogs, photo-sharing sites, et al.). As the technological developments have tracked with computers, so will the editorial and production side of photojournalism track with the developments in wordsmithing.

And as with the larger world of professional journalism, there will be a corresponding increase in the need for gatekeepers and editorial review to screen through the mass to find and polish the gems. And with regard to the influence of culture, given the increasingly non-verbal (i.e. illiterate) nature of today’s digital consumer, photojournalism might just be a fulcrum of cultural and social formation in the Internet age.

The same issue of Forbes includes a collection of seven profiles of the leaders in Internet video innovation. What’s true for photojournalism is also true for other forms of visual communication, including theatrical and documentary film productions. And so we need Story in the visual as well as the written arts.

Buzz Aldrin walks on moonToday marks the 40th Anniversary of the one of the greatest feats of human exploration, courage and innovation: man’s setting foot on the surface of the moon.

Responding heroically to the challenges of the “Space Race” (while its arch-nemesis, the Soviet Union, was clearly in the lead), the United States stood proud to represent the free and enterprising West. To put the challenges of victory into perspective, America was running adrift amid pretty rough waters at the time: two great wars in Asia had taken their tolls on the government’s treasury; cities and communities were torn by civil riots; national inflation was escalating at a record pace; and an irreversible paradigm shift was occurring in its traditional moral values. Sound painstakingly familiar?

Yet, America loved (and still loves) challenges and risks. It excels (and still wants to excel) under pressure. It was the land forged by underdogs, the under-rated, the under-financed, while driven by an ever-zealous entrepreneurial optimism and creativity when facing life’s “insuperable” obstacles.

And all these great values were apparently at stake, as the United States stood boldly united to beat the Russians in a manned-mission to the moon. Americans knew full well that the tides of history would be turned against them had the Hammer and Sickle been raised before the Stars and Stripes on that powdery lunar desert. The American “brand” of innovation and entrepreneurship its citizens had worked so hard to achieve would have received a disgraceful black-eye. (more…)