Four Innovation Trends to Watch in 2013

The OECD economies may be sluggish; America may or may not hurtle over fiscal cliffs; and BRICs may not be growing quite as fast as their champions hoped. But adversity (almost) always creates economic opportunity. Digital media continue to be springboards for global and enterprise. North America’s fracking fever has proviked experts (who once feared the world had passed Hubbert’s Peak) to predict the US will soon be a net energy exporter. Human ingenuity — increasingly augmented by technical amplifiers — remains the most remarkable renewable resource.

So here are four innovation ideas — themes, really — sure to gain significantly greater mind- and market-share over the coming year. What do they all have in common? Individual empowerment.

‘Badges? We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Badges!

With apologies to John Huston, yes we do. From Khan Academy to Coursera to edX to the O’Reilly School of Technology, badges increasingly enjoy consideration as human capital’s coin of the the realm for online education. Valid and verifiable accreditation is an exponentially growing challenge for virtual educators — and their students — worldwide. What should it mean to employers that someone has successfully completed a core course in Machine Learning or Hadoop? What does an executive education from an Instituto de Empresa, an Insead or Hitotusbashi say about the curricular competences of its holder? What badges will dramatically increase a job candidate’s hireability or promotability?

Linked-In endorsements are lovely, but the demand for meaningful and measurable affirmation and accreditation will have profound effects on both higher and executive education. Badging bandwidth will further expand as the IBMs, Accentures, Schlumbergers and professional societies decide that they, too, want to brand the expertise of their training programs and people. Craft unions and other skilled labor organizations also seem destined to bring badging to their memberships. Will badges require successful course completion? Or will be badges be won by passing a demanding array of standardized virtual tests?

Course content, quality and participation won’t ultimately determine the triumph of the online educational revolution. The ability to measure and assess real learning and skills acquisition in virtual environments will. Badges — not digital diplomas — seem to be the best and likeliest bet on accreditation’s future. What policies and programs is your organization developing around badges? Do your hiring/promotion processes recognize badges? Badges will be key variables in human capital evaluation. Is HR your best badgemeister?

Second Screens and Monetizing Multitasking

Attention is no longer undivided. Multitasking rules. Kindle readers tweet commentary about the ebooks and magazines they’re reading; folks chatting on their iPhones use their tablets to turn real-time conversations into livestreamed blogs. The mix of device mobility and multiplicity makes people into multimedia ‘prosumers;’ nobody is doing ‘just one thing’ anymore.

Hollywood and content creators worldwide have taken notice and readjusted their business models accordingly. Television shows are no longer broadcast — or streamed — to be watched; they’re supposed to be tweeted and/or otherwise reengaged. “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” invites its viewers to download a ‘watchalong’ app. Disney ‘Second Screen’ offers ‘playalong’ apps for movie classics ranging from ‘Bambi’ to ‘The Lion King.’ Bravo encourages and expects viewers of its cult shows to tweet their real-time reactions to the world.

Instead of forcing people to overwhelmingly focus their time and attention on a single screen, broadcasters, sports teams and “appreneurs” increasingly seek to monetize divided attention spans by promoting multidevice engagement. Multitasking has evolved from a distraction and diversion to a financial focus wherever digital content lives. The phenomenon is global: Chinese and Indian yuppies increasingly carry two devices. So do the emerging middle classes in Brazil and Colombia. Monetizing multitasking will be mass media challenge, not a province of the elites.

Of course, “second screening” won’t be just a consumer behavior. Personal productivity both at home and at work will depend on finding ways to integrate how multiple devices work together to amplify individual performance. Designing for multidevice/multitasiking second- (and third-) screen engagement is in its earliest phases. But the designs it inspires are exactly what Apple, Amazon, Google, Samsung, Nokia and Microsoft are looking for.

Taking ‘Recofriendations’ More Seriously

What friends and colleagues “like” is useful to know. But is it enough? While recommendation engines have been fantastically successful for the Amazons and Netflixes, they remain relative underachievers given their technical and algorithmic potential. Both in theory and practice, social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Yelp and Reddit have the data and analytics to transform how “likes” get
translated into insight and advice
.

“Recommenders” that go beyond alerting/notifying you that “friends you know” like this movie or have read that article are emerging. Just as Gmail now begins to suggest “other” people you might send that email to, Facebook, Amazon and LinkedIn will increasingly make recommendations based on your “successful” web behaviors. “Social Reader“-like notifications will give way to more sophisticated reasons and rationales for recommendation. Recommendations will be more like “Here’s why…” than “Hey!”

Find a particularly helpful answer on Quora? You’ll have a recommender suggest who on Outlook/Gmail/Linked-In and/or Facebook should be forward an excerpt. Did you just book a flight on Expedia or enter travel plans on your Calendar? Then your recommender will suggest which friends and/or acquaintances you might wish to contact when you’re there. Preparing PowerPoint/Keynote presentations with a few facts a tad fuzzier than you might like? Your recommender offers up names drawn from your social networks of possible “reviewers” for your iffier slides.

Simply put, recommendation engine technology will be repurposed to better align what you’re digitally doing with which particular friends/colleagues/acquaintances would likely be most interested in learning about it — and vice versa.

As with multitasking above, “recofriendation engines” may prove as valuable for professionals seeking a productivity boost as for people looking to go beyond “notifications” and tweets for engaging friends. Will there be battles and skirmishes about
the privacy implications? There always are. Otherwise, what’s not to “like?”

Fed Up Entrepreneurship

Critics harshly declare Ben Bernanke’s Federal Reserve hates savers and retirees. Certainly, equity investors believe the Fed’s low interest rate policies make the stock market a better bet for higher returns. “The [Fed] has created an environment where there is no effective alternative to stocks,” Omega Advisors CEO Leon Cooperman told CNBC the week before Christmas. “…Half the stocks in the market are now yielding more than fixed income. You have to go back to 1958 to see that kind of condition.”

Controversies about the efficacy of the Fed’s policies at stimulating economic growth notwithstanding, Bernanke’s declaration that interest rates will be kept low until unemployment rates dramatically improve signal a profound shift in the investment environment. Investors looking for higher returns will increasingly look to more
innovative alternatives.

Will lower interest rates make venture capital a more appealing option? Preliminary data suggest not. According to a PriceWaterhouse Coopers preliminary review, 2012 venture funding has actually declined. “Investment for the first three quarters of the year was $20 billion into 2,661 deals, a level well below this point last year, making it likely that 2012 will fall short of 2011 in terms of both dollars and deal volume,” the PwC release asserted.

The numbers don’t lie. However, a slower-growth economy and near-zero interest rates strongly suggest that entrepreneurs may find it easier to make the case that their ventures — even on a risk-adjusted basis — might be worth serious consideration. Entrepreneurship as an “alternative investment” may hold growing appeal to institutional investors seeking “growth stories” and diversification options.

While everyone, of course, looks for the next Google and Facebook, the reality is that globally, innovation opportunities in bio/nano/info-technologies continue to emerge. Who would have picked hydraulic fracturing as a disruptive business/technology breakthrough in 2002?

How angel investment, corporate venturing or institutionalized venture capital innovatively responds to Fed policy remains to be seen. But the relative paucity of returns on more traditional investments and the increasingly appeal of innovation opportunities suggest that there may never be a better time to be a charismatic entrepreneur with a scalable prototype.


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