If I’d asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.
— Henry Ford
If there is one overarching trend about history, it’s that it tends to repeat itself. Certain incentives stay in place between different time periods and certain rulers and political groups fall victim to those incentives. The human condition, the desire to do something significant and to live longer and not be forgotten, is something which we find in nearly all modern societies throughout recent history. Cultural trends in art even tend to be reused over time and between different societies. All this being said, innovation is something that can’t be predicted like politics, art, and history can be.
One of the most fascinating things about modern economies is the speed at which people innovate in them. Think about what phones were like a decade ago, about what air travel was like half a century ago, and what mass-communication was like a century ago. None of the biggest and best innovations could be predicted by experts, whether they be academics or fellow businesspeople alike. That’s because we don’t know what the next big innovation will be. Even the people inventing the next big thing don’t know whether or not it will be (even if they confidently tell you it will be). That’s because consumers and experts’ expressed preferences — what they say they want — is never exactly the same thing as what their revealed preferences — what they really want — are.
Think of the iPad. Put yourself in the shoes of a common person around 1998. If asked whether or not you could use a computer that comes as a tablet and can do all the things the iPad can, chances are you would balk and say no. Surely that’s neither possible nor wanted by most people. The thing that made the iPad, the iPhone, and similar products “big deals” is that once they were released, then people wanted them.
Sometimes it takes a lot of time, too, for us to see what the next big things are. Perhaps we see a new innovation in the marketplace, and we want to compete with it, so we develop something similar that is cheaper or better. Excited to release this new competitor, we develop a launch date and all, only to see that the next next big thing has already been discovered. The market has out-innovated itself.
Why does this happen? Between the multiple forces working on entrepreneurs and existing businesses, there exists plenty of incentive to continue to innovate, and to push the line as far as possible. To innovate well, consumers need to be blindsided by whatever the newest version holds, or what the brand new product highlights. Otherwise, somebody else out there will already be ahead of the curve developing a new, better, cheaper version.
And why is innovation so unpredictable, then? Don’t politicians have to compete for power? Don’t artists have to compete for attention? This all may be true, but the sheer number of moving parts to the market for innovation and its incredibly organic nature make it unique. Not only do entrepreneurs have to work hard to develop something better than the status quo, but consumers are also a moving piece in this huge machine. Every time a consumer decides to buy a product or decides not to buy a product, they are casting an up or down vote for that product. Every time an investor passes over something or decides to put money into a new product, they are affecting this huge machine we can call innovation.
Maybe you think you know what the next big thing is. The only way to find out is to go out there and give it a try. The worst that can happen is that something better comes along.