There is a huge cultural change going on all around us–you would have to be in a coma not to see the evidence–and it has ramifications for innovation on a global scale that we don’t yet understand. I’m talking about the cultural shift to short-term thinking and instant gratification. We see it in every facet of life, from short selling in the stock market, to investors opting out of really early-stage ventures because the time to exit is too long, to students leaving PhD programs in science and engineering for lucrative business jobs right out of college, to communication tools like Twitter. We want what we want right now–we have no patience for long-term thinking.
So, what are the perils of instant gratification? For one thing, we see fewer investments in technologies that require long lead times such as life sciences. Even the highly publicized energy field will be affected by this impatience as more people find out that many of the green technologies are going to take a long time to develop.That’s why software is still the number one investment according to the PricewaterhouseCoopers annual Money Tree Survey. Relative to other technologies it’s quick, lucrative, and simple. So, if you have fewer investments in basic research and more complex technologies, fewer people will go into research because the payoff is way too far down the road. With fewer people going into research, we stop planting the seeds that produce disruptive innovation and what we end up with is a bunch of technologies that don’t change the game–they simply improve incrementally on what already exists. The problem with that is it doesn’t grow the economy. You need game-changing innovation to create a new platform on which to develop and use existing resources in new ways.
Today a lot of entrepreneurs are heading to social media businesses because they’re quick, lucrative, and you don’t even need revenues to be successful!. Twitter is one great example of the cultural shift to instant gratification, but look around you – there are lots of others. What does this mean for science and engineering in the U.S.? Many people are talking about that. In fact the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke University commissioned a study to find out what people think about this very issue and what they found was frightening. It turns out that less than half of the people they surveyed believe that the U.S. will lead technology advances into the future, and even those people thought it would be a temporary lead. Who would lead? in order, China, Japan, Europe, and India.
The bottom line is you can’t lead the world in innovation with short-term thinking and a mindset geared toward instant gratification. Wake up everyone. We may be witnessing a societal change that can’t be reversed.