The picture surprised me. It was a week before a big innovation conference in Australia in which I was set to debate the negative side of the question: “Would innovation make the world a better or worse place in 2050?” We’d been asked to wear clothes that represented artifacts from the future. A quick wardrobe check confirmed that wasn’t going to happen. So instead I asked my kids to help out.
I asked them each to draw a picture of what they thought the world would be like in 2050. My 2-year-old son, Harry, valiantly contributed a range of squiggles, which I suppose represented waves of karmic energy. Since I couldn’t tell if it was good energy or bad energy, I turned next to the submission from my soon-to-be-6-year-old daughter, Holly. She had drawn an arrow with flowers on it. A positive view, for sure. My 8-year-old boy, Charlie, had drawn two pictures. The first, it did not surprise me, was of a man in armor that was a bit of a mashup of Iron Man and Spiderman.
His second picture gave me pause, however. It showed a house surrounded by a high-security fence. Planes buzzed overhead, and a bomb was exploding in the sky. One of the planes looked suspiciously like the kind of drones that are dropping bombs across the Middle East and Asia. This was innovation all right – an innovation-induced wasteland.
It was a darker view of the future than I had ever hoped my son would have, and it certainly got me thinking about how to make the negative case during the debate. Certainly, innovation has the potential to run amok, and enable governments, other institutions, and individuals that want to do bad things to do worse things. But as I kept thinking about the less obvious harm technology could do, the one possibility that really got me worried was the unstoppable rise of what I will call the “advertising/narcissism complex.”
The world suffers from big problems: How can we feed the 10 billion people who will inhabit the Earth in 2050? How will we deal with the impact of climate change? Will we address rising income inequality? Can we make health care more accessible and affordable? Large-scale problems require large-scale solutions, and large companies have the capacity to make meaningful progress on these challenges. But they need highly skilled innovators to lead those kinds of innovation efforts.
Scott Anthony is the managing partner of Innosight.