“Mainly they were worried about the future, and they would badger us about what’s going to happen to us. Finally, I said: ‘Look, the best way to predict the future is to invent it. This is the century in which you can be proactive about the future; you don’t have to be reactive. The whole idea of having scientists and technology is that those things you can envision and describe can actually be built.’ It was a surprise to them and it worried them.” – Alan Kay
In the 18th Century, just 3 decades prior to the birth of Leland Stanford, Adam Smith defined “entrepreneur” as a person who acts as an agent in transforming demand into supply. This specific definition, the concept of an entrepreneur as a supplier of what the customer wants, is in agreement to many definitions that preceded Smith. However, this was not a philosophy that remained a static definition of the practice. In his book, The Design of Business, Roger Martin speaks of entrepreneurship and innovation as a way of seeing the world “not as it is, but as it could be.” The book goes on to argue that true innovation stems from the exploration of problems that can not actually be found in history, or proven by data. Perhaps in a more extreme use of language, Erik Reis offers up another take on the practice defining entrepreneurship as the act of creating something new under “extreme uncertainty.” From juxtaposing the 21st Century definition of the field with the 18th and and early 19th century definitions, it might seem as though entrepreneurship has evolved from a practice that supplies a demand to a profession that creates demands – from a field of regurgitation to a practice of innovation. However, I argue, these theories are not honest representations of the true landscape of contemporary American innovation.
Numbers are a hindrance on history-making. Prescribed methodologies, or the templatization of innovation, yields expected results. Changing history through the production of cultural shifts, an ambition at the heart of entrepreneurship, is an act that is far too radical for a quantitative practice. Entrepreneurs often turn towards numbers to see how coordination or reallocation can be optimized to provide a great benefit to either corporate or social entities. A quantitative and theoretical stance like this is actually crippling to the radical thinking an entrepreneur is capable of, limiting their ability to innovate that which does not exist and change the way we, as consumers and human beings, perceive the world around us on both a macro and micro scale. Peter Lunenfeld, a pioneer in the digital humanities, states that we need to “move from P&L to V&F—profit and loss to vision and futurity—from ROI to ROV –the Return on Investment to a Return on Vision.” A shift in entrepreneurial intention from one that is quantitative to one that is qualitative enables innovators to lessen their concern around the production of profit, and instead focus efforts toward designing a future they would like to inhabit. I argue that these kind of values and aspirations were common amongst 20th century innovations, but has been lost in post-internet entrepreneurial endeavor, a practice that has suffered from a disability that has crippled the ability to discover new problems to design solutions for.
“The husband and wife who open another delicatessen store or another Mexican restaurant in the American suburb surely take a risk. But are they entrepreneurs? All they do is what has been done many times before. They gamble on the increasing popularity of eating out in their area, but create neither a new satisfaction nor new consumer demand… […] Indeed, entrepreneurs are a minority among new businesses. They create something new, something different; they change or transmute values.” – Peter Drucker
Instead of changing or transmuting values, entrepreneurs are focusing energy towards making the old better, feeding off of that which preceded as opposed to laying ground work for that to come. This methodology results in a loss of disruptive tendency within the practice of entrepreneurship.
- Kay, Alan. “Predicting The Future.” Ecotopia, 20 May 2011. <http://www.ecotopia.com/webpress/futures.htm>.
- Eric Ries, The Lean Startup (New York: Crown Business, 2011), Cover Jacket
- Lunenfeld, Peter. “Bespoke Futures: Media Design and the Future of the Future,” Think Tank: Adobe Design Center, 2007. 20 May. 2011 <http://www.adobe.com/designcenter/thinktank/lunenfeld.html>
- Peter Drucker, Innovation and Entrepreneurship (New York: Harper, 1985), 21-22