Tuesday, January 05, 2010

Lessons of the Incas: Necessity is the Mother of "Innovation"

I just returned from Peru. It was a wonderful trip. And, as so often happens when I travel, I came away with some sort of "aha". While these trip-related insights may not be earth-shattering realizations in the grand scheme of things, they are always a great reminder of some basic lesson.

The Lesson of the Incas was a reminder that necessity is the mother of "innovation" (Yes. The wording is slightly changed over the common expression.) It was amazing to observe how advanced the Incas were so many centuries ago. This was particularly obvious in the very sophisticated techniques they had for agriculture. They planted in terraces to optimize the use of their land and then created an irrigation system to fit the demands of these terraces. And there are theories that the Incas created a deep circular terraced crater at Moray in order to provide different micro climates for various crops that were important to their survival. This is just an amazing idea!

I am not an expert on the Incas and won't try to defend these innovations or explain them deeply. It's just that the whole experience reminded me that some of the most effective innovations come in direct response to fundamental needs.

The question this raises for technology start-ups is how can this lesson be applied to optimize innovation today. For the most part, there is no survival issue driving much of technology development, whether it's building a better iPhone, social networking site, or whatever. (That's quite a bit less true of green tech and medical technology.)

We could have a long discussion here about "Maslow's hierarchy of needs" and recognize that today much of the technology work is past basic survival and have moved up the hierarchy. But the drivers are no less important. I just don't think that's true.

So, the question I took away from the Incas was: how do we fuel really important innovation in an environment where our basic survival doesn't depend on this innovation?

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