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Why Look to the Past for the Future of Innovation?

August 15, 2009

Back to the Future

When I told local entrepreneur Dan Whitaker that we were going to present “The History of Innovation in the Willamette Valley,” at the Nov. 5, 2009 Willamette Innovators Night event (WIN2009).  He scrunched-up his face, did a quick eye roll and said something like. “Why look backward? We need to look to the future and create something new.”

I have a lot of respect for Dan. He is a serial entrepreneur who has created and invested in many successful Valley companies, like HotData, Rogue Wave Software, Nanobits to name just a few of a dozen or so. He was also founding Executive Director of the Software Association of Oregon, helped start the Corvallis Sports Park and the CORTOP Robotics Program for Corvallis. He was instrumental in starting the first “High Tech After Hours” event in 2000 which has this year become “WIN 2009.” Dan is smart, good natured and generous with his time supporting local start-ups and many good works projects. He was, in 2004, named as the first “Corvallis Entrepreneur of the Year.”

When Dan speaks, I listen. And, I hope to post an interview with him here soon to  learn more about how he views innovation and enterprising. But, as a student of the history of science and technology, I think that it is important to study and understand the past in order to use its lessons to help create a better future. I have cherry picked a couple of quotes to support my position.

"Study the past if you would define the future." Wrote Confucius.

“What’s past is prologue” is a quote by William Shakespeare from his play The Tempest

And since I’m musing, “The Tempest” is the source of one of my favorite quotes. In Act IV of The Tempest, Prospero says “We are such stuff / As dreams are made on, and our little life / Is rounded with a sleep.”

This quote was reworked in 1941’s The Maltese Falcon. In the film, Sam Spade (played by Humphrey Bogart, who supposedly added the line to the Huston script) refers to “the stuff that dreams are made of.”

As entrepreneurs we chase our start-up dreams the way Sam Spade pursued the Maltese Falcon. Are they real opportunities or merely MacGuffin’s?

“The director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized both the term “MacGuffin” and the technique. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Hitchcock explained the term in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University: “[We] have a name in the studio, and we call it the ‘MacGuffin.’ It is the mechanical element that usually crops up in any story. In crook stories it is almost always the necklace and in spy stories it is most always the papers.”

A few years ago in a series of Oregon promotions, we told the world, in an ad campaign by Wieden & Kennedy that,“We Love Dreamers.”

It might have worked better if we said “We Love Doers” (or Dewars?)  The “We Love Dreamers” line is too passive, like the ‘Knowledge Is Power” proclamation above libraries. Knowledge put to work is power and dreamers’ that do are entrepreneurs and worthy of our respect.

Dan could, of course, counter my reasons for studying history with a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson.

"I like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past."

In  any case, since these are my Innovational Musings, here’s the intro to an excellent blog about the past, that is worth the read.

Innovation lessons from past downturns

By Scott D. Anthony

For better or worse, a new reality has sunk in. The crisis we were dealing with last year has become a condition, one that might last for quite some time. Innovators, take heart. A quick study of past downturns illuminates signs of hope.

First, many great companies were formed in years featuring a downturn. Take NCR. The 1870s and 1880s were very tumultuous times in America. Despite seemingly never-ending turbulence, an important change began to take place as retailers moved from small, mom-and-pop operations to larger-format stores staffed with employees.

This transition led retailers to realize that existing cash management systems — which for some retailers meant no more than a wooden box — had real limitations. Full article.

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