I’ve had this thought that great innovations come from a place of uncertainty, that those who innovate need to be uncomfortable. This thought got me interested in identifying factors that are conducive for creativity and innovation. If I were to create a place of constant innovation, what factors need to be in place? When I travel, I always look for these factors at play. The factor I’m going to discuss today is what I call The Comfort Spectrum.
On one end of the spectrum, there are places that offer a high level of comfort. These places take care of the basic human needs. Food, shelter and water are readily available. Health and educations services are offered to maintain good working order. On the other end of the spectrum, there are places that are inherently uncomfortable. Scarcity of food, shelter and water are more common. Health and education are services that few can afford and unemployment is sky-high.
There are some great examples of innovations, startups and successful businesses that have come from an uncomfortable environment. Innovations may emerge from an uncomfortable economy, company, or experience. You only need to look at post-war history to see the innovation wave arise from an uncomfortable environment. Right now, many countries are facing financial hardship. Portugal. Ireland. Greece. Spain. USA. There are a lot of uncomfortable economies right now. If the right factors are at play, the uncomfortable environment may actually work to their advantage. Where people are educated and have been exposed to the good life, they will fight to get the good life back. People will challenge the status quo and will do things that haven’t been done before. This can be a great place for innovation. China is a perfect example, where people have started to get a taste of the good life. This drive to reach the middle class is fuelling the country’s growth.
Places that offer a high level of comfort also foster innovation. Scandinavian countries like Sweden, Norway and Denmark are renown for their Socialist governments. The basic human needs are mostly satisfied in the sense that food, shelter and water is readily available. Health and education is offered as a social service. These countries reinvest taxpayers money into their people. While oil has been a great economic resource for these countries, the government has recognised that people are their primary resource. Skype, Spotify, Podio and Zendesk are great examples of successful startups thriving in this type of environment.
If we take it one step further and look at companies with a high level of comfort, the likes of Google, Facebook and Apple start to appear. Nowadays, it’s as if innovative companies must offer all the extra amenities and services to their employees. Breakfast, lunch, dinner. Even snacks and a fully stocked fridge. Employee benefits such as gym memberships and health insurance are becoming the norm for these companies. Why? Because, if their employees are worry-free, they will likely have more time to think of new ways to solve pressing problems. It also makes it easier to attract and retain good talent.
The only place we haven’t covered is the middle of the spectrum. Unfortunately, many countries tend to get stuck in the middle. This is where innovation struggles to thrive. Personally I feel that most of Australia is stuck in the middle of The Comfort Spectrum. The majority of our population lives comfortably, however, most people don’t have the luxury to take a year off to go and start their own company. They need to keep working the 9-5 job so they can keep paying off their mortgage and get food on the table. If they do take the plunge and start their own company, the cost of living is so high that their startup capital is likely to run out before they even get the company off the ground.
So, what should we do about all this? Obviously the cheaper option would be to change direction and decrease the level of comfort. However, most people wouldn’t see this as benefiting the people, so lets leave that option for later. Since Australia is such a well-off country, I’d like our politicians to look at increasing the level of “comfort”.
I would start by looking at our education system. Not only does this need to be improved, but it should be made free, all the way to post-graduate study. It would raise the bar for our graduate job-offers. People would be offered opportunities to up-skill if necessary. If we put as much focus into our education system, as we do with our mining, we would be much better off.
Secondly, I would look at making it easier for companies to start and seek support. Programs such as the New Enterprise Innovation Scheme (NEIS) need a revamp. Entrepreneurial hubs and co-working spaces would be made accessible to new startups at an affordable price. I would look at ways that we can increase the length of the startup runway because innovation takes time.
These are just a few weekend thoughts. What do you think about The Comfort Spectrum? How do you think Australian politicians can use this to increase our level of innovation and commercialisation?
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