Friday, July 22, 2011

Adding 3D to Tech Innovation

Just got back from Fortune Brainstorm Tech, a gathering of innovators from all walks of technology, hosted at the stunning Aspen Institute. A super event put on by a great team at Fortune Magazine. I felt lucky to be among the speakers.

Tossed together were investors, large-company executives and start-up entrepreneurs, all in search of the best technology ideas. I can't capture it all here. We talked gaming, gadgets, security, social, mobile, media, clouds, commerce, and much more. Here are three new companies that stood out for me and epitomized the spirit of innovation I found there:

1. Sound Cloud - youtube for sounds.
2. Clever Sense - pandora for everything except music
3. Lytro - a camera that lets you take a shot and then, with ease, re-focus any part of the shot and create 3-D perspective. You could hear the "ooohs" and "ahhhs" during that demo.

On the final evening, two beers into a reception surrounded by blue-maroon peaks and lavender, our host greeted us with what felt something like a challenge. "You are change agents," she said. "You have the unique ability to change the world." Standing there at the height of dusk, shoulder to shoulder with some of the brightest entrepreneurs on the planet, it was hard not to feel like the possibilities were endless.

But here lies the rub. During two full days of seeing the coolest apps, games and devices under the sun, I can't recall one panel discussion or demo focused on this goal. I kept waiting for it. Instead, there was this recurring theme, playing over and over again: "we make the coolest stuff, which will make a ton of money, which we'll use to make cooler stuff that will beat our competitors, which will make us even more money." Coolness and riches reverberated through the hills like the sound of music. It was fun and addictive, but it was, in a sense, just hurling pigs at birds.

I found myself wanting more. Couldn't PhDs who had locked themselves in rooms for two years dreaming up ideas come up with ones that would inspire us and make the world better while making bundles of cash? The answer had to be "yes."

"Hey," I said to the CTO of Clever Sense, "what about using your app to serve up causes that match peoples' tastes as seamlessly as Pandora serves up their favorite tunes?" "We could do that," he said with genuine interest. To the hip, boyish founder of Sound Cloud I asked, "Could you guys crowd-source every bird call and capture the voices of refugees?" "Yes!" he declared, a grin revealing every one of his teeth.

These were change makers to be sure, and yet the whole conference seemed stuck in a two-dimensional world of coolness and wealth, when it could have achieved 3D vibrancy simply by adding the dimension of social consciousness. (In this regard, Katzenberg was both there and not there.) Fusing strong business models with strong social missions is one of the most important innovations in business today and companies young and old must explore this dimension if they hope to become and stay great.

Next year, I would like to lead a panel of three innovators who use their technology to address social issues that they are uniquely positioned to address. The questions I will ask are: 1) what issue(s) are you addressing? 2) how do you measure your social impact? and 3) how does your social mission affect your brand and your culture? I expect it will be a lively and inspiring conversation. I cannot wait.

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