Where are all the young Edisons of the 21st century?
NOTE: This article was originally published on iPolitics and has been cross-posted with the permission of the author.
I’ve got a question for you. Who’s more likely to change the world?
A bunch of billionaires and world leaders talking shop in the Swiss Alps? Or a teenager nobody’s heard of yet, working away in a dorm room on a crazy idea that’s going to be the Next Big Thing?
A hundred years ago the answer would have been clear. These days, it’s a toss-up.
When Prime Minister Justin Trudeau gave a keynote in Davos this week, he spoke of the importance of innovation, of how he wants Canadians to be known not for their resources but for their ‘resourcefulness’. He also vowed that his government is willing to invest in the future.
The challenge for Trudeau and the rest of us is to get a firm understanding of what investing in the future might actually look like. In his speech, Trudeau mentioned the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’, a hot topic at Davos this year. Klaus Schwab, founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum, describes the Fourth Industrial Revolution as “the inexorable shift from simple digitization (the Third Industrial Revolution) to innovation based on combinations of technologies (the Fourth Industrial Revolution)”, which he argues is already changing the way companies do business, governments govern and citizens engage.
Schwab also speaks of how this revolution will require relentless and continuous innovation. Despite being named second-best country in the world at Davos this week (after Germany), innovation isn’t something Canada is particularly good at. We were ranked 9th out of 16 peer countries in a Conference Board of Canada Innovation report in 2015, and 26th for business innovation in a report by the World Economic Forum.
“The 20-something billionaire ‘unicorns’ of the tech sector may be getting a lot of air time, but over the past century, we’ve seen a substantial decline in the original output of younger innovators.”
The consensus is that innovation is key to economic growth, especially in a fourth industrial revolution. So how do we make Canada more innovative?
In the Q&A following his speech, Trudeau was asked whether he admires President Barack Obama. Like any smart politician, he ducked the question. But Trudeau ought to memorize the words Obama used in his recent State of the Union address when describing the importance of innovation in the American economy and national character. The president spoke of Thomas Edison’s “‘spirit of discovery'” being part of “the American DNA.”
Edison’s story has lessons for us. He was a prolific, creative inventor, and he started young. His early years were certainly tumultuous. Not only did he accidentally burn down the family barn, he also didn’t last long at school and eventually had to be home-schooled by his mother. Despite this unpromising start, by age 22 Edison had sold the rights to his first invention for $40,000. He would go on to hold 1,093 patents by the end of his life.
In the last 100 years, people like Edison have become scarce. ‘Innovation’ may be a buzzword and the 20-something billionaire ‘unicorns’ of the tech sector may be getting a lot of air time, but over the past century — according to Benjamin F. Jones, faculty director of the Kellogg Innovation and Entrepreneurship Initiative — we’ve seen a substantial decline in the original output of younger innovators. His estimates suggest that young people are, on average, beginning to contribute as innovators around age 31 today — 8 years later than they were in Thomas Edison’s time, when — like him — the true technological iconoclasts were starting their work at around 23 years old. “Meanwhile,” Jones adds, “there has been no compensating shift in the productivity of innovators beyond middle age.”
In fact, starting young may be a key factor in the kind of innovations that truly shake the world. As Ashoka founder and social entrepreneurship advocate Bill Drayton tells us, starting young may be an indicator as to whether we’ll innovate at all when we are older. “Today’s great entrepreneurs,” he says, “almost all changed their world in their teens. That’s true for Richard Branson and for over 80 per cent of the Ashoka Fellows.”
So if we’re seeing fewer young innovators, does that mean that innovation itself is slowing down?
Edison’s example reminds us of the importance of young people as key actors in an innovation economy. A culture of innovation that encourages young people to be meaningful contributors while they’re young is surely one that will have long-term staying power.
Trudeau mentioned the University of Waterloo as a stand-out in the innovation community in Canada — but one Waterloo isn’t nearly enough. If we truly want Canada to be known for its resourcefulness, we need to ensure that young Canadians everywhere are being supported and encouraged to come up with new ideas now, while they’re young. If investing in young people and valuing them as innovators is what Trudeau means by investing in the future, than he’s on the right track.
Ilona Dougherty is a youth engagement expert and the co-founder of Apathy is Boring. She is a regular commentator in national media, a published author, and speaks to audiences internationally about how we can tap into the innovation potential of Millennials and Gen Z. She was named one of the Top 100 Most Powerful Women in Canada by the Women’s Executive Network in 2015.