Does anyone remember watching the Jetsons?

Their futuristic world included:

  • Cars that fly
  • Robots that did almost anything
  • Video-calling devices

By that gauge, I should be flying to work each day and serviced by a multi-functional mechanical man that speaks every language and can bake a soufflé.

After all – I just skyped my friend in Italy. And we totes used video-calling off our tablets.


Something has gone horribly awry.

The Invention Timeline

There was a time when my friend Adam used to say to me: “I can’t wait to be old. If you think about what our grandparents had when they were young, and compare it to what they’re living today – can you imagine how different our lives will be?”

Let’s think about that…

100 years ago: we couldn’t fly, couldn’t communicate other than by telegraph really, and we barely had electricity.

50 years ago: we could fly by jetliner, we had telephones, we were using nuclear power to power ourselves, we were driving motor cars, and we were sending people to the moon.

20 years ago: we invented the internet. And we were using the Concorde.

Today: we have cool apps on our smartphones. And online check-in. Oh – and no more Concorde.

I’m just going to say it.

We’re slowing down.

And, in some cases, going backward. If anything, it sounds like my twilight years will be spent still driving cars of the same shape (just with slightly more fuel efficient engines), using thinner smartphones (with more storage space and a longer battery life), and not flying to Florida on holiday because the airline companies will probably be more defunct than they are already.

Over the last 30 years, the only sectors where we’ve seen real innovation is Information Technology (the iPhone, the iPad, and the Macbook Air) and in the finance industry (the MBS, the CDS and the CDO). The cynics amongst us might say that’s because they’re the only industries that haven’t been that regulated (and I think there’s a good argument for that). But there are other more important points as well…

The Creativity Crisis

In 2010, Newsweek ran an article on the Creativity Crisis in America. While general IQ has been steadily increasing over time (I know – it’s a surprise to me as well), it seems that CQ (Creative Quotient) has been on the decline in pre-schoolers and schoolchildren since 1990. Which makes that my age-group that’s sitting in the crisis seat; and it’s probably why “creativity” is considered the number 1 “leadership competency” of the future – because it’s so clearly lacking.

So here are the theories about why this is happening (or, rather, not happening):

1. Television (obviously)

Because we watch the Disney Channel instead of running around the garden, turning hoses into snakes and making fires with a magnifying glass, we’ve somehow emerged from childhood more knowledgeable but less capable of thought.

I’d buy that.

TV is knowledge acquisition by osmosis. You just sit there and absorb like an softly-saturating sponge.

2. School-teaching methods (what is all this multiple choice nonsense?)

Learning by rote is almost as bad as learning by osmosis. Repetition makes thought unnecessary – it’s just knowledge acquisition by cue and sing-song mnemonic device.

I also think that, particularly in the American case, making tests and “exams” a multiple choice affair emphasises a particular type of studying. And it’s the kind that doesn’t really emphasise expression, argument, or the ability to create a solution that hasn’t already been provided by one of the lettered answer options.

3. Creativity can’t be taught

It requires effort and creativity to force schoolchildren to be creative. So it’s easier to declare that creativity is an inherent (and inherited!) talent.

But that’s not really true – because it can be taught. It means that you have to design projects and activities that force a child to do research and acquire facts and then turn the whole thing into something original and workable as a final answer. I mean -that’s creative.

Still, it’s much easier to just assign a worksheet and set a multiple choice test.

Also, Myopia is not a good thing

While I think that the above are valid points; I think that there is, perhaps, another factor that’s affecting our ability to be innovative: the fact that we’ve all become specialists. Specialists that know all the answers, and therefore no longer need to ask the questions.

Specialisation actually runs quite contrary to our understanding of the great minds of the past. They weren’t specialists at one thing: they were good at many things:

  • Albert Einstein was a philosopher;
  • Thomas Edison was also a philosopher;
  • Sigmund Freud was a polyglot;
  • the Wright Brothers were journalists;
  • Alexander Graham Bell was a pianist;
  • Samuel Morse was a painter

There was no shortage of right-brain activity in those folks. And even on the face of it, I think that you can vaguely see how those other interests were essential contributors to their inventive processes. Take Alexander Bell, who was a pianist, who experimented with sound, and who eventually developed the telephone. Or Samuel Morse, who was a painter, who saw patterns in dots and dashes, which he translated into Morse code.

And Einstein… Can we really separate Einstein’s philosophy from his theoretical physics? If the study of theoretical physics led so naturally to the theory of relativity, then we wouldn’t have needed Einstein to discover it. There had to be something else that led him to think so differently from the theoretical physicists of his time.

But today, it’s almost like there’s no time to be good at anything other than what’s listed in our job spec. And we’re not really encouraged to step outside the box (unless you work at Google).

We may talk about out-the-box thinking. But any out-of-the-box-thoughts are well confined by the mile-high walls of liability, lawsuits, and overbearing health and safety.

My feelings:

  1. It’s suffocating;
  2. It reduces the chances of the foolish helpfully removing themselves from the genetic pool;
  3. Which means that they’re all on the road causing me road rage; and
  4. Most importantly, I am still on the road, instead of flying above it in something sleek, elegant, and definitively airborne.

So Dear Peers

Please. Please develop other interests. It’ll make you more interesting to talk to when we’re stuck next to each other on airplanes – you know the ones that have “innovated” with smaller seats and no complimentary bar service to make it all easier. And, hopefully, you’ll inspire a child some day to invent something that will let me fly like superman.