Here comes the idea age

Welcome to the idea age - Article by Greg Alder

A seismic shift is taking place. No. Seismic is the wrong word. Seismic suggests violence. This change is subtle. At least, it started subtly. Born as a barely perceptible ripple, it has been building in time’s ocean, initially unnoticed and unseen, increasing in size and power.

Now it is upon our shores. The choice for each of us is whether to ride it.

So what is it? What makes it so powerful?

It is the Idea Age and it is the new great age of human existence.

Throughout history, we have seen some dramatic changes take place. Around 3300BC, the Stone Age transitioned to the Bronze Age. Around 600BC, Bronze became Iron. There followed several centuries often called the Medieval period, then the Industrial Age starting in the early 19th century.

The 20th century could be called the Corporate Age or the Financial Age. Business empires grew out of industries started in the Industrial Age. They expanded. Big businesses bought up small businesses. Big brands swallowed small ones. The primary business of these big businesses was no longer manufacturing but was finance. Businesses learnt they could make more money from money than from building things. Business took control of world economies and shaped global development. Banks financed governments. (In the case of Switzerland, you could argue that the country is built on banking.)

Now in the 21st century, we have entered a new period, a period of entrepreneurship and startups.

According to the Kauffman Index of Entrepreneurial Activity, there are now around 300 entrepreneurs for every 100,000 US adults.

There’s more money available than ever before for startups. It’s not coming from 20th century corporations, but from venture and angel investors.

A New York Times article shows that a record number of entrepreneurs are getting rich, with dozens of startups valued at $1 billion or more – and this number is tipped to rise to 100 soon.

Most of all, however, this is really the age of ideas.

Every startup started life as an idea. The best barometer of ideas is patents. Patent applications in the USA have doubled from 531,000 in 1999 to 1,065,400 in 2013.

It seems there are startup incubators in almost every community. The idea is to create an environment to foster ideas and to develop innovations that lead to startups.

The barrier to starting a business is now lower than ever, thanks largely to the Internet – and breakthroughs like 3D printing.

The speed with which a startup can grow is also faster than ever, thanks again to the Internet – and social media. Ideas now spread instantly. Anyone can afford to promote a new product or service.

The best startups are agile, ever evolving, reinventing themselves, responding to changes in the market, and to consumer feedback. In fact, it’s quite common – and acceptable – for new products to launch in beta and invite consumers to identify glitches or suggest improvements.

Where are the 20th century’s giant corporations in all this? Largely nowhere to be seen. They ought to be hotbeds of ideas and innovations, but they have been distracted by the need to maintain shareholder value or protect market share.

Will big business be left behind? Not necessarily. Participating in the Idea Age requires a few things:

  • Prioritising creativity across the organisation by making it corporate policy
  • Investing in idea development
  • Learning to think creatively – it only takes a short while to master the necessary techniques
  • Accepting failures – which will happen as part of the process

If you consult to businesses, the biggest favour you could do them today is to help them participate in the revolution that is the Idea Age. It has only just begun.

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