The ENIAC Computer, 1946. Image Courtesy: Getty Images, https://www.wired.com/2014/11/eniac-unearthed/

What constitutes a successful innovation? A ‘great’ technology product?

‘Gamechanger,’ ‘Breakthrough,’ ‘Disruptive,’ are adjectives that are used too liberally. If you are not one of those people who have consciously chosen to stay away from all forms of media, chances are that you hear these words on a near daily basis. Some of these tall claims are tested over time while few turn out to be true.

So, what constitutes a successful innovation? Something that disrupts competition? Something that creates a new market? Something that brings landfall profits? Or something that disrupts the previously assumed boundaries of knowledge itself? All of the above? None of the above?

Here’s an observation. The mark of success for an innovation has been its impact. Throughout human history, the most remarkable innovations have always been the ones that altered our ways of existing. They became so ubiquitous and integral that they changed our patterns of ‘being.’ The most successful innovations don’t just make one aspect of life easier, but bring change to the world as we know it- our lifestyle, the way we do business, social systems, governance policies and much more.

An innovation is a positive breakthrough when it challenges our collectively imagined frameworks of functioning, when it reorders rigid social structures, challenges ‘norms’ and opens the floodgates for new ways of thinking.

(The Intention) Successful innovations start with a vision for a sustained positive change. They have to be packaged right for maximum impact. When computing power and access to the internet were packaged for the masses, it led to a new world as we know it today.

(The Execution) Successful innovations create an ecosystem of sustained positive change. Innovation in one area of navigation and tracking became the cornerstone for a cascade of new ideas- cab hailing, home delivery of food, groceries, anything bought online, a key component for self driving vehicles, etc. These products/services are democratizing navigation technologies and making it useful for millions of people.

(The Balance) For an innovation to be successful, it has to make an appearance at the right time. The time when it can create the maximum positive impact, when it can reach the maximum number of people. The world has been mulling over the idea of ‘artificial intelligence’ since the 1950s. Only in the past few years, it has gained popular attention. The availability of supporting infrastructure plays a crucial role in determining the success of a new technology. We have grown from an abacus to a calculator and then to a computer. Successful innovations are the ones that push the limits on what is ‘natural’ for their time. What is ‘artificial intelligence’ today will become ‘natural’ in due time.

Throughout human history, some imagined boundaries have defined an ‘us’ and a ‘them.’ Nationality, class, race, religion, gender roles are all collectively believed boxes that separate an ‘us’ from a ‘them.’ Innovations that help transcend these boxes see the longest run of success. Anything that makes our world more egalitarian is the most disruptive. Successful innovations are the ones that make technology useful for all, that break shackles of divisive existence. An innovation is the most successful when it empowers the traditionally disadvantaged.

The pack of technologies powering online learning on a smartphone, that makes the world’s knowledge available to a slum dweller are disruptive. The division created by the accident of birth is reduced a little through the access to knowledge and opportunities. Technologies enabling P2P money transfers for underbanked populations are disruptive. The whole suite of technologies running e-commerce giving small town dwellers access to everything available in large cities, are disruptive. Telemedicine that can bring quality healthcare to the remotest of places, is disruptive.

The hallmark of a successful innovation is how much and how well it bridges the gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots.’