Contrary to popular belief, Thomas Edison did not invent the lightbulb. Twenty or so inventors and labs had already come up with similar designs when he patented his in 1879. What Edison really invented was affordable and accessible electric light.
Edison’s breakthrough was guided by a fundamental insight: any given product is only as powerful as the system in which it is deployed. As he set out to design his lightbulb, he simultaneously sketched out an integrated set of plans for generators, wiring, meters, light switches, and more. An electric lightbulb without ready access to electricity is a novelty; with it, it’s a world changer.
Edison’s insight provides a useful frame for viewing Tesla’s splashy launch of Tesla Energy and its battery systems — Powerwall for residential use and Powerpack for commercial, industrial, and utility customers. The new products promise to store locally sourced energy and manage its dispatch, helping to mitigate one of the major shortcomings of harvesting power from the sun: the intermittency challenge (in other words, you need the sun to shine). This proposition could make a rooftop solar array less dependent on the grid, while also smoothing the flow of excess electricity back into it. Solar panels without integrated storage are not much more valuable than lightbulbs without an electric grid; Tesla Energy, then, is an aggressive move toward creating the energy system of the future.
This insight resonates with our work on disruption across industries: disruptive innovations create new systems or “value networks” that eventually displace the old ones. It follows, then, that the pursuit of potentially disruptive new technologies and business models requires systems thinking, often calling for the innovator to go well beyond the invention of the product itself. This is as true for entrepreneurs contemplating how smart sensors and cloud computing will reshape the way patients interact with the health care system as it is for retailers pondering how services like Uber could change the way consumers access products as it was for Thomas Edison and his lightbulb.
Josh Suskewicz is partner at Innosight.