Each year around this time the calls and emails start – magazines, associations, think tanks. “What are the most innovative companies in the world?” Of course the first challenge is to discern what exactly they mean by innovation so I can pander to their readership or membership – elegant product design, profound social impact, money making or over the top kookiness. Actually I do what most academics do – develop criteria, consult the research, talk to the good folks down at the lab before coming to the realization that it’s really just a beauty contest – Do I go for the miracle drug collected from the asparagus residue in the handlebar moustaches of the dancing Peruvian Emperor Tamarins or that new phone app that scans your lover’s pupils from afar to determine if they are in the mood?
Recently I’ve been thinking about what products, services and organizations haven’t made my list but are due for a makeover – no – a complete do-over.
First, there is endless and pervasive road construction. The infiniteness of this activity challenges the space-time continuum but provides an almost spiritual sense of continuity. Things may pass but road construction will never end. The entirely of the activity seems otherworldly to me – drunken orange cones stumbling out of line, barrels with the blinking yellow eye of Sauron seeing you, plumes of cement dust rising like the mist on some post apocalyptic Mount Wudang and of course the noise of breaking infrastructure. When I get to a particularly nasty stretch of road under construction I wonder – If we can make a dream liner out composite materials that will fly for decades through the most inclement of weather why can’t we make a road that will last more than one winter? If we can tear down a block of historical buildings in Hong Kong and replace them with the skysore like the Lippo Centre in less than a year why does it take eons to gentrify a bit of the turnpike? If we can design uniforms for the Oregon Ducks that can be seen from outer space why can’t we create one for the workers who are constantly at risk in this most dangerous of professions? Yah, I know it’s complicated and expensive. What isn’t these days?
Second, there is the great cable mystery that Hercule Poirot could not crack. I walked into a Radio Shack shortly after Christmas to find a cable adaptor from my HDTV to the soundbar that Santa brought. What followed was an esoteric discussion with several technicians that would rival the assembly of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. Schematics were reviewed, databases searched and owner’s manuals perused – you can’t get there from here. When a hard solution was finally plotted from the morass the cost was more than the speakers I was trying to connect. Maybe that’s the catch. Give away the razor and stick it to them on the blades. I would love to see one standard universal connector or adaptor but of course it’s less and issue of technology and more of free trade running naked through your living room. How un-American. Next thing you know there will be one world standard for electrical outlets and flush toilets – the end of democracy as we know it.
Third, I believe there should be a special session at the United Nations to resolve international problem of hotel check in times. It’s a scandal. I traverse this planet with the best of them and can state as a fact that arrival times are incongruous with the 3:00 pm bewitching hour. Wander around the streets of Jakarta for half a day after you’ve been in flight for twenty-seven hours and you will understand the importance of the matter. My Michigan colleague Gordon Hewitt points out that hotels suffer from the dominant logic that housekeeping directs all other functions in the hospitality industry – no on demand service, no hand held technology to keep availability up the minute, no price premium for an extra three hours of shut eye. Lose the Jacuzzi and just get me in a room when I arrive – try not to knock three minutes after I drift off.
Finally, as we say goodbye to the BCS (Bowl Championship Series to the disinterested) this year and welcome in the so-called new and improved College Football Playoffs next year, let’s do a little after action review and reflect on why the National Collegiate Athletic Association keeps losing yards with these new offensive schemes. Yes, college football is in need of a serious a do-over but not for the conventional reasons – “That’s not the two best teams, two teams from the same conference shouldn’t play or I hate authority and will turn any mention of rules into a Congressional hearing “– the usual. No, my concern is that the new system calls for less student and more athlete – less class time, more games and more injuries. According to the NCAA’s 2012 Graduation Success Rate Report as well as the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s College Sport Research Institute’s 2012 Adjusted Graduation Gap Report (college football fans are really into statistics) many of the top football programs have abysmal graduation rates for eligible seniors when compared to their cohorts. This means they are not just talking about superstar players who come out early to join the NFL. A case in point, recently two teams with graduation rates hovering around 50% played for the national championship. I know it’s all about the money – duh. If elite schools like Stanford and Northwestern can recruit and graduate bright students who prove their quality on the field, why doesn’t the rest of the hoi polloi follow? Because academic excellence doesn’t count towards their final grade. Why not start our do-over before the new system even begins? Let’s change the algorithm used to calculate the new rankings by simply weighting the score to include audited graduation rates. This way maybe our students will hit the books before they hit the weights. I can see it now – Duke and Vandy playing for it all that first week in January.
I know I’ve missed quite a few – the Communist plot known as shrink wrap, the problem of rogue ketchup and other anarchist condiments and the impending Malthusian catastrophe from the proliferation of grocery store and coffee shop discount cards. Innovation isn’t just about what we need to start – it’s equally about what we need to do-over.