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Communications of the ACM

The profession of IT

'Surfing Toward the Future'


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Everybody, it seems, is interested in innovation. Many professionals actively seek innovations to deal with immediate concerns, such as product designs, and with long-term concerns such as education, pensions, and healthcare. Despite huge efforts, success rates are low. A new report, Surfing Towards the Future, by the Chilean National Council on Innovation for Competitiveness led by Fernando Flores,3 gives an unprecedented account of how innovations emerge. It proposes a skill set, "surfing history," based on reading waves of possibilities and riding them to success. Crucial elements are the climate of exploration and adventure, the timing, and balance when buffeted by the unpredictable. I organized my reflections on the report as an interview.

You say that innovations are historical emergences. What does that mean?

When you take a long view, you see that innovations seem to appear at moments in history when the conditions are most conducive. The conditions are a need in the social community, and the existence of a suitable technology base. The innovation begins when someone proposes a new combination of existing technologies and components to meet the need. Timing is delicate and critical. Once the conditions are "ripe," several people may propose the same innovation around the same time. Many innovation proposals fail because of poor timing: there is too little interest in the social community or the technologies needed to make them work do not exist.


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