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Home > Jeff Ubois > On the Media and Innovation: an Interview with Scott Kirsner

On the Media and Innovation: an Interview with Scott Kirsner

by Redazione FGB [1], 2 December 2008

Scott Kirsner [2] writes the weekly Innovation Economy [3] column for the Boston Globe, and is the author of Inventing the Movies: Hollywood's Epic Battle Between Innovation and the Status Quo, from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs [4]. He is also a contributor to the New York Times, Wired, Variety, Fast Company, the Hollywood Reporter, Salon.com, BusinessWeek, and Newsweek, and the organizers of three conferences about innovation: Future Forward, the Nantucket Conference on Entrepreneurship & Innovation, and Convergence: The Life Sciences Leaders Forum.

As an observer of innovation across the domains life sciences, clean technology, and media, Kirsner has explored the attraction to and fear of innovation present in many large institutions, and uncovered numerous examples of innovation that reveal aspects of innovators' responsibilities, as well as the deep ambivalence many companies have about innovation.

"The challenge in every business that once you've got something going and it's working OK, or working well, your tendency is always to overlook anything that can make it work better or expand the business, or expand the opportunity," Kirsner says. Typically, innovative companies need " an executive, who is just a believer that you need to do R&D and you need to plan for the future, and who says "let's have a lab, let's have a skunk works that tries to come up with the next generation of products and ideas."


Jeff:
Can we start with some background on your work in innovation and what kinds of trends you're seeing, particularly in sustainable innovation, open innovation, and what we at the Bassetti Foundation are calling responsible innovation?

Scott:
A lot of what I do is to write about innovations that are interesting to me. And lately, a lot of that has been innovation in entertainment and media, user generated content. Some of that is open innovation, or really trying to tap into the wisdom of crowds and ask questions like, "How are you going to do all the things that a movie studio used to do, in terms of sourcing talent and developing ideas and turning those ideas into some sort of entertainment product at the end of the process? You're probably not going to do it in the slow, ponderous, expensive way that movie studios have done it for the last 100 years."

[When you say sustainable,] do you mean environmentally sustainable? When I hear the word, "sustainable," that's kind of what I think about -- people trying to produce energy in new, cleaner ways, or helping people consume it more intelligently. There's a really interesting company called EnerNOC here in Boston that didn't build any new power plants, but created a network of businesses that when power is very expensive and in high demand, agree to reduce their power consumption, and it takes a load off of all of the utilities.

Jeff:
So, social innovation, more than a technical one?

Scott:
Yes, almost a networking innovation. Rather than building new power plants, just building a network to take control of whatever the lighting in a warehouse and turn it down to 80 percent and pay the businesses for the privilege of doing that sort of stuff. So, when you say "sustainable," I definitely think about the environmentally sustainable stuff.

Jeff:
One of the things I thought was interesting in your presentation is the tension that incumbents feel around innovation. On the one hand, in the stories you were telling me, there was a theme of, "Oh, great, here comes sound in the movies, we love it, it's a great opportunity," but on the other hand, there was great resistance to anything that would force a change in existing business practice. That swing between embrace and rejection, I thought, was interesting to see with every new generation of media that has come along in the last 100 years.

Scott:
Yeah, and it really does just kind of point up the challenge in every business -- once you've got something going and it's working OK or working well, your tendency is always to overlook anything that can make it work better or expand the business, or expand the opportunity. Talking with you the day after the election, I feel like elections are really a nice way to sort of force change in government if you're an optimist like I am, and say, "All right, every two years, four years or six years, we get to see if we think things are going well or if we think they could be going better with someone else." And often, businesses don't have that same opportunity, right? You know, you have these crazy examples, even in publicly traded companies, you'll have a CEO who's there for 20 or 25 or 30 years and the board is all of his friends. They're just not as innovative and successful as they could be because you don't have any fresh blood or fresh viewpoints, you know?

Jeff:
That's interesting to think about innovation as something that outsiders engage in or innovation is something that's done only under duress.

Scott:
It's such a rarity to have an organization that over the long term, just can be purely innovative from the inside. Maybe Apple is one of those examples, but even then, they're constantly hiring people from the outside to help them with new ideas. They just tried to hire someone or they're trying to hire someone from IBM to do iPod and iPhone stuff.

One great example is the innovation of computer animated movies really happened, in part, because George Lucas brought the Pixar guys into his organization and gave them some little projects to work on. And I sort of feel if he'd have been open enough or broadminded enough to think, "all right, this is going to be a new business for me," that Pixar could have kind of germinated and turned into something really big for him, rather than kind of having to break off from Lucas film and seek their fortune elsewhere.

I am a believer that a lot of times, the great ideas come from when you acquire a company and some smart people come with that, or you have some fresh blood in some other way, or someone kind of parachutes in and has a great new idea and the political capital in an organization to make people pay attention.

Jeff:
In your book you have these stories again and again of people with a vision encountering inertia in a corporate environment. Have you found some patterns in the way that media companies engage with innovation? When do they recognize that innovation is necessary for them or that they need a response to something new, versus when have they been able to evade or control, or otherwise, restrict the impact of innovation that's happening outside their organization?

Scott:
Yeah, I'm not sure I know what the unified field theory is of that.

Jeff:
That's what I'm seeking, the unified field theory!

Scott:
Often, in order to get them to believe that it's time to change and it's time to look for something new, you need either an outside threat, something like television or radio coming along, so they say, "Oh, there's this other thing that entertains people." I call it the external threat, television shows up in people's living rooms and it's in black and white. And so, Hollywood says, "Oh, yeah, now let's adopt Technicolor and make all of our movies in color." So, one of the external threats is just seeing revenues starting to erode and realizing kind of when you look at your income statements that things are kind of tailing off and oh, gees, it's time.

The movie studios looked at video cassette rentals and sales of video cassettes and saw those tailing off in the 80's and early 90's, after everyone had already built up a big library of video tapes and wasn't excited about that technology anymore. And they said, "All right, now here's DVD." And in the last couple of years, they've just started seeing DVDs kind of flatten out and they're starting to say, "All right, let's look at digital delivery." It's a little bit harder to say, so when did they innovate without some kind of external threat?

It almost seems maybe you have a few people in the organization that decide, all right, we're going to start an R&D group to look at these four areas. Or, we're going to have a skunk works to develop some really great website. There are definitely cases of media companies seeing something new or investing in something new, like when Disney made the movie Tron and committed the budget of that movie to funding a lot of development of computerized visual effects. There was really no reason for them to do it, it was just like "all right, hey, let's try this and see if it works."

So, I don't know. If there is a unified field theory, it's that you have an executive, who is just a believer that you need to do R&D and you need to plan for the future, and who says "let's have a lab, let's have a skunk works that tries to come up with the next generation of products and ideas."

Jeff:
There's always the great man theory of history; it is interesting to compare the role of visionaries versus more impersonal larger market forces.

Scott:
Yeah, Disney is a company I know pretty well, and when Eisner was running it, he hired a bunch of smart guys to work at Walt Disney Imagineering and come up with new ideas, most of them, which wound up being for the theme parks. But, he was someone who was clearly enchanted with innovation. And so, he hired, whatever, eight or ten guys to just sit around and think up ideas for the company. And I think after Eisner left, not that Disney isn't open to new ideas, but that kind of brain trust has gone away at least for a little while.

Jeff:
Another external force, it seems, particularly with media and broadcast television, which has been so heavily regulated since its inception, is in the realm of government policy; in February, we're going to digital broadcasts and end terrestrial broadcasting as we've known it. Are there examples of engagement between government and media organizations that have either accelerated or retarded innovation that you'd point to, things that might have dropped out?

Scott:
I don't really look at the government issues [with respect to media] or how policy sets the stage for innovation there, so I have to kind of like pass on that question.

The [policies] that I do pay attention to are in life sciences and technology, and to some extent in clean tech, where the government research projects and research dollars do tend to be the seeds of important new directions, whether it's the National Institutes of Health or DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency).

DARPA's funding just a whole mess of robotics research that's happening now. Every robotics company you talk to has some DARPA project that's kind of keeping them alive. And so, I feel if in 10 years, you can look at the United States and say, oh, my gosh, we had this real strength in the robotics industry that we didn't really have in the 80's when Japan really dominated robotics, that you'd be able to say it was because of that government interest. Like robotic dogs that will be able to carry equipment for soldiers in the field, so you'd have your robotic dog buddy who'd follow you around, carrying heavy stuff.

People in clean tech and energy complain that there really haven't been enough government incentives and government funding, and that the oil industry tends to get favoritism there, although we've had some government mandates around hydrogen cars, hydrogen fuel cell cars that may someday be important. Around the hybrid, you didn't really have much government funding and that's why there aren't a lot of like U.S. made hybrids that seem to be selling very well.

Jeff:
Are there ways of observing innovation in a way that allow you to track its progress or its diffusion or foresee its effects downstream?

Scott:
What do you mean of observing it?

Jeff:
Watching new ideas propagate from company to company or watching popular adoption. In the case of media, it seems that's something that you can just look at audience size, how many people have a television.

Scott:
Yeah, and how quick the trajectory has been for these different technologies, like DVR's and whatever, LCD plasma screens, cell phones ... you can watch it in retrospect and kind of learn some things from it. It is hard to watch it while it's happening. But to go back to the robotics example, around Boston, you definitely see this kind of radiating effect of innovation, where a lot of really important work was done throughout the 90's at MIT in robotics, some of it funded by the government, I think a lot of it just funded by the institute and maybe some industrial sponsors.

Then, you see like one or two little companies being founded by MIT alums and people leading the labs there, and you didn't initially see venture capitalists feeling comfortable funding those companies because they didn't look like software companies, they didn't look like telecom equipment companies. But then they had some success, and you had iRobot as one of those companies, really being successful in robots for industry and robots for the military, robots for people's homes. Investors are getting more comfortable funding those types of companies and so you have easily a dozen or 20 robotics companies in the Boston area now. And a lot of them founded by people who've worked at iRobot and some of the other early companies, going off to kind of do their own thing. That's an interesting way to track innovation.

Jeff:
Clusters of companies in a regional area.

Scott:
So often it does trace back to academia. The Google story definitely traces back to academia. I don't think the Apple story does. You can always have examples that don't.

Jeff:
Well, it's interesting to think about the allocation of rewards for innovation. If some of it starts with public funds, what is the process by which the results are privatized? What is the division of the spoils and the allocation of rights? There's a lot of discussion right now about open publishing models in academia, right? And if you're getting funding from NIH, then you're under an obligation to publish your results in a way that you wouldn't be if it was just Pfizer writing the check.

Scott:
Yeah, I'm not sure that I have major big thoughts about that. Openness, obviously, feels like it would be good for everybody and I know there are some companies that really encourage people to publish their research, and others that don't, companies that want to have people speaking at conferences, and others that really don't. I mean, Apple is such a funny example -- they don't seem to really give back to the community in any way. I don't know that they publish much about what they do there, in the same way that Microsoft probably publishes a lot in academic journals. And you hardly ever see, I don't know if I've ever seen an Apple executive like at a conference, speaking about what they dp; there's one spokesperson for the company, and his name is Steve Jobs and he goes every year to Mac World and maybe one other event.

You've gotten me thinking about something else on the openness front. One thing that people talk about a lot here in Massachusetts just because it's sort of a different issue than Silicon Valley, is the mobility of people. And so, there's a lot of talk here about employees here can sign a non-compete agreement that will prevent them, really, from going to work for another company in the same field for a year or 18 months, sometimes as long as two years. And those are really not enforceable in California.

Jeff:
Yeah, that's an interesting, new case, huh?

Scott:
If someone works at Google, they can quit on Friday and go work at Facebook on Monday. And people view that kind of mobility as really a good thing because it helps new companies get smart people and get momentum really quickly.

Here in Boston, there are a lot of cases, where someone will quit working for a company and either go work for someone competitive and get sued, or be forced to really sit on the beach for a year and do nothing. There's a guy who would work for a speech recognition company here at Boston and he was wealthy enough that he could afford to go and be an adjunct professor at MIT for a year before starting his company. To me, that seems kind of crazy, making it hard for people to leave one company and decide to start another or go work for another.

Jeff:
Well, it's odd that so many people think about innovation or intellectual property as tangible property. Often, it's in people's heads, and it doesn't conform to the same restrictions that tangible physical property does, but we keep trying to make that equation.

Scott:
There are actually some interesting instances where a few of Edison's employees left and went to work for other companies in the early days of the movies, and that really helped advance the technology of projection and of cameras. One of them even was helping some other inventors while he was still an employee of Edison's. I'm sure Edison wasn't thrilled about that, but it did accelerate the development of that early technology.

Jeff:
Again, it gets back to the sort of division of spoils. Society benefits even if the individual company does not.

Scott:
Right, right. Yeah, totally.

Jeff:
Just kind of a random historical question, have you ever seen a media company back away from an innovation because it wouldn't provide social benefits? I mean, the extreme example would be like violent children's video games, if it turned out that those were causing autism and a measurable number of schoolyard injuries.

Scott:
I can't think of one, but it is hard to think of one, particularly with media companies. They are tiptoeing closer and closer to sort of porn, in that they have now with DVD's, in the last three or four years, they've start releasing, any R-rated movie has an unrated DVD that might have been considered an X-rated movie, you know, when our parents were young. Do you know what I mean?

Jeff:
Yeah.

Scott:
There is with media companies, often that tiptoeing towards being more and more crass and sexual and violent, etc.

Jeff:
So, there's the sort of negotiation with societal norms.

Scott:
Yeah, you could put it that way.

Jeff:
That's interesting, that probably is a challenge. And so, it's innovation in content as much as it is innovation in the particular medium of delivery.

Scott:
Yeah, yeah. But, I'm not sure I can think of any examples of what you're talking about.

Jeff:
Examples of relinquishment are rare. Conversely, I'm wondering if there are some examples of assumptions of responsibility. The news business, when it first got going on television, in particular, there was a great sense that it wasn't purely about profit. There's been this tension, I think, in the news industry forever over whether it's service journalism or whether it's about 25 percent margins.

Scott:
That's true. I mean, I do think a lot of the twentieth century media companies felt like news was a public service and, oh, by the way, you could also make a lot of money at it. And then, when they maybe stopped making as much money at it, it became less of a public service and more sort of entertainment-oriented. You could probably track those trends by looking at the Today Show over time...

Jeff:
That's interesting!

Scott:
And now, it's three hours long or four hours long, like let's squeeze as much advertising as we possibly can into this property. And it's so not news-oriented now. It's all about like, "Here are tips to keep your children from falling in a creek and drowning!" They do that segment like every week, I think. It might tap into parental anxiety is Today Show's beat now.

Jeff:
Enhancing and then, reducing anxiety is a very good hook for attention. If your game is just to get as much attention as you can, that is definitely a shortcut towards it.

Scott:
Is some of what you're thinking about like kind of innovation in this particular region of Italy, is that one of their agenda items? Like how do you increase innovation in that part of the world?

Jeff:
That's one theme. It's really based on the idea that innovation is changing the world, that innovators become makers of history. And what kind of world is created by innovations, and are there ways in which it's possible to have a conversation about the likely downstream social effects of innovation such that it tends to be more beneficial in a larger sense? A big part of our work is about dialogue. And one of the problems that we see a lot is this disconnect between people that are on the front lines of technical innovation and policy makers that are running behind, trying to catch up.

Scott:
You saw that a lot with like the stem cell debate in the United States.

Jeff:
Absolutely, I mean, that's a great example. And it was actually rather demoralizing in some ways to see how that played out. I have a friend who notes that all the people in favor of more research and development and more funding in this area were losing the public debate badly, until rather than engaging in some rational debate, they got a bunch of people in wheelchairs saying, "You cruel anti-stem cell people want to keep me in this wheelchair forever!" It's just like the level of dialogue drops...

Scott:
Right, which doesn't look good for the people in power.

Jeff:
Yeah, so that question about how to elevate the dialogue around innovation is on our minds, and we don't have too many answers. There've been some interesting examples. One was at a bio-ethics center out here at Stanford that is consulting to Hollywood scriptwriters. And what they're finding is that they can get a lot more nuance in a medical drama about the ethical issues of treatments in a half-hour or one-hour dramatic series than they can in a 30-second news spot in which one side is saying "You're killing babies!" The longer Hollywood drama's got a lot more subtlety and it's a lot more useful in the societal dialogue.

Scott:
There's also a group at Sundance [the annual film festival in Colorado], and they have discussions there about kind of science portrayed on the screen. Clearly, their agenda is similar, which is "let's talk about the role of science in the culture in all of the different stories that we tell, rather than just scientific journals." It's called "The Sloan Prize," they give out at Sundance every year.

Jeff:
Rather than theories, in a lot of ways, what I do look for is examples. Another one of my favorites is a fellow who's been working at IBM on certain kinds of data mining and certain kinds of privacy issues. And finally, he took the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and went clause by clause and looked at every technology he was involved in that might impact what are the rights in that document.

Scott:
That's really cool.

Jeff:
Yeah, I mean, that's something that anybody engaged in innovation could potentially do. It'd be a real way of gauging what is one's effect in the world, or evaluating what kind of risks are there, or what kind of rights might be enhanced through the application of something that's in the lab or on its way to being commercialized in some way.

Scott:
Yeah, I've been so narrowly focused, like since I moved back to Boston, a lot of what I've been thinking about and writing about has been innovation in this region. And we have such a long track record of innovation here. It's a little known trivia fact, but there used to be a building in downtown Boston that was kind of a telegraph supply shop in the 1840's. Thomas Edison and Alexander Graham Bell both had labs in this incubator space upstairs. Edison was working on some of his early pre-light bulb inventions, like an automatic vote counter, and I think a stock ticker, and Graham Bell was kind of working on how to get more bandwidth out of a telegraph wire, which kind of eventually led him to the telephone. So, Boston has this really long history of innovation, and I'm not worried that it's going away, but I think we're definitely in the shadow of Silicon Valley out here. You have the problem of a lot of people coming to Boston to go to school, and then, when they graduate, think "if I want to work at an interesting tech company, I need to go out to the Bay area." So, a lot of what I've been thinking about is how do you counteract that trend?

Jeff:
This notion of regions with self-reinforcing ecologies is pretty interesting as another explanation for what works or how innovation happens. I'm wondering if you've come across credible theories in innovation. It seems it's become its own area of academic study. People have theories about how it proceeds, how it should proceed, how to accelerate it, how companies engage with it.

Scott:
Yeah, I don't know. I don't know that I have one that I like best. You know, the Clay Christensen stuff seems to really make sense a lot in sort of a corporate industrial standpoint. There's a book called, "The Myths of Innovation," that came out about a year or two ago, and there's one called, "Innovation Nation," that really is much more about how do countries become innovative that John Kao wrote, and there is the new Judy Estrin book about innovation, which seems like it's an argument about how the U.S. can stay innovative.

Jeff:
Well, thank you again for you time and thoughts.

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