The Sceptical Chymist | Speaking Frankly: Steve Jobs and innovation

Published in Chemistry

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Frank Leibfarth is a graduate student trying to make his way through the academic maze. Find him contributing to the Sceptical Chymist or continue the conversation on Twitter @Frank_Leibfarth.

The premature passing of Steve Jobs has shaken the international community. Known as perhaps the greatest innovator of his generation, Jobs took Apple from bankruptcy to make it the largest company in the world, surpassing (briefly) even natural-resource giants like Exxon Mobil. The media coverage of Jobs’ death has been intense, culminating in the publication of the much-anticipated biography by Walter Isaacson. Through these numerous homages, we have gotten a sense of not only Jobs’ fierce competitiveness and intense leadership style, but also the motivations and inspirations which influenced him.

For all of Jobs’ extraordinary vision, however, almost every remembrance reiterates the fact that Jobs did not ‘invent’ anything. There were MP3 players before the iPod, smartphones before the iPhone (sorry Blackberry), tablets before the iPad, laptops before the MacBook Air; Jobs even took the idea for the graphical interface from Intel. These biographers and journalists, even those in Science, are missing the point. Jobs was revolutionary, he recognized opportunity where others failed, thought about how people will use the products not just what products they use and, in perhaps his biggest coup d’état (as I sit watching my mom shuffle between her iPhone and iPad), he made technology products so intuitive that they are even accessible to the baby boomers.

Jobs was our generation’s disruptive innovator, so why the criticism about his lack of ‘inventions’? In the technology field, perhaps more than anywhere else, the scientific process is on display for the world to see. Hypotheses are made, products developed, revaluated, and improved. Steve Jobs, like great scientists, had the vision to leapfrog the competition, pulling his field forward with each project he completed. Similar to science, Jobs’ brand of innovation did not happen in a vacuum. Popular culture makes lists of the ‘The Top 10 Inventors’, heralding the individual contributions of scientists and engineers, but it neglects the massive amount of time, talent, and manpower that went into disruptive innovations. Instead of talking about the iPod’s precursors as the true ‘invention,’ we should be focusing on the unparalleled superiority of the first iPod in comparison, where Steve Jobs introduced so many innovations that other manufacturers still haven’t caught up.

We as scientists understand the process of innovation. We have built an entire international discipline where the sharing of information in publications is prized and innovation credits both the innovator and those who inspired her/him. Listen to the science Nobel Prize speeches and hear the dozens of people each laureate mentions who were the inspiration for the work or collaborated to do much of it.

Understanding that innovation is the product of talented people working collectively should be self-evident. This is why countries fund basic research, because the innovations that eventually generate economic and social value are not the product of one ‘genius’. The perception that great discoveries and/or products are the product of mythical savant-like individuals flies against the foundations of the scientific process. Further, a general belief that we are waiting for those Jobs-like individuals gives governments an excuse to cut funding for basic research. We, as aspiring innovators, need to celebrate Steve Jobs for his unparalleled accomplishments and use his example as a reason to celebrate the scientific process.

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