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Sunday, May 27, 2012

Back to the Frontier and Expansive Growth?


When I think of the frontier, I picture Westward-Ho wagon trains with settlers and supplies, or prospectors in the gold fields of California. However, the domestic frontier has been 'closed' for about a century.

The frontier offered an environment of unlimited opportunity, participants with a variety of viewpoints and backgrounds, and plenty of raw materials or other assets for the taking. For those willing to take the risk the reward could be outstanding – exploiting the frontier led to robust markets between traders and merchants back in the civilized East. The frontier resulted in the dramatic expansion of the USA footprint and an explosive growth in commerce rich with a wide variety of goods

Is a new frontier era possible? Consider this:

David Miller, at the recent Democratization of Innovation program, listed the three elements of frontierism (citing Frederick Jackson Turner's book) as:
  • Abundance of assets – e.g., pelts, farmland, gold, wood, minerals
  • Diversity of people – people from all over Europe, Russia, and elsewhere
  • Lack of control – west of the Alleghenies, no one could tell you what to do.

Miller's contention is that the frontier has returned - the university is the modern-day frontier and hotbed of innovation. Here's why:

There is an abundance of assets available at universities in the form of materials, equipment, and a knowledge pool of the top minds in the technical and scientific fields.

There is a diversity of people with students and professors from a wide variety of countries, viewpoints, and cultures.

There is a great deal of freedom within the university environment - freedom of inquiry and laxity oversight.

What has contributed to this environment?

  • Communications and computing power has evolved to be more powerful and less costly, to accommodate changing needs
  • Global resources combined with the hacker's mentality of trust and collaboration for talent and materials
  • Project or work groups of 1-2-3 individuals is the source of innovation – an 'I don't accept that this can't be done' attitude – working without the larger organization constraints of assignment and reporting.

Google, which grew from the ideas by a couple of students at Stanford and Facebook, the brainchild of a several Harvard students, are successful examples of what can come from this frontier setting. In addition, a growing portion of universities are encouraging entrepreneurship through courses, incubators, and start-up competitions. Innovation is aided by a favorable environment, but come from the individual, as in the examples above.

Miller raised the question – with this activity in the university environment of rich assets, diversity of participants, and unbounded exploratory freedom – does this predict a new expansive period of innovation and economic growth?

Looking beyond the university setting, we see a Makers Economy evolving. This is also powered by inexpensive communications, global resources and markets, availability of powerful computing equipment and tools, and an additional element: hacker mentality.

The hacker mentality is a combination of the challenge of doing something new or improving something now existing, collaboration with others, sharing what's been learned, and trusting others not to hijack their work. Hackers use social media, blogs, and hackerspace message boards to research reputations and reliability to determine who is trustworthy. The final element of the hacker mentality is – nothing is impossible, it is limited only by the span of interest – keep pushing on while interest is glowing (set it aside when it wanes).

Cory Doctorow wrote Makers, a futuristic novel describing a similar environment, absent the university element, where individuals would come together to create a solution for an issue by repurposing parts and components readily available. A non-traditional market developed with sales directly to the end user, often from a table in an outdoor bazaar, or by word of mouth. While the story may have been fiction as written, this is a comprehensive blueprint for the growing DIY (do-it-yourself) movement and the Makers Economy.

Today individuals and small clusters of individuals are collaborating to develop innovative solutions for existing issues or improving functionality for open source software, or creating entirely new uses. Projects are imagined not assigned, and the market is primarily the Direct Economy with sales directly to the end user via the internet and other direct sources.

Apps for the iPhone and Android phone are examples of the Makers Economy, as is the Android operating system which is open source with a multitude of independent coders constantly improving and expanding its functionality.

This is a good example of a new frontier opening up – Angry Birds was not a project assignment by Apple, it was an idea by a developer for a new game and it went viral when released. Philippe Kahn was the innovator behind making a camera for the mobile phone – which changed how people record and share experiences and activities. Would either have made it through a traditional new product approval process?

The Makers Economy, like the old frontier, is rapidly opening new channels of commerce (e.g., 0.9B on Facebook and 7B smartphones, tablets, and other addressable devices), becoming a greater contributor to the economy and its place continues to evolve.

Thanks to the new frontierism, we may be watching an evolutionary growth engine getting under way.

What are the implications to traditional markets and the existing regulatory structure?



June 12 is the next Capital Technology Management Hub featuring Sales Lab's Rainmaker 14 – The Myth of Full Capacity - 300 seconds of pure profit. The featured speaker will be Cory Lebson of Lebsontech LLC, presenting User Experience: What it Means & Why a Technology Manager Should Care!
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