innovation in plentiful times

One of they key drivers of an increasingly low price for many items is that we are now in a time of plenty. As the marginal cost of many technologies approaches zero, they become too cheap to meter, and effectively become free. This is another of the key ideas in Free by Chris Anderson, and he makes the case in this article from Wired as well. One of the things that this leads to is having too much stuff, upon which is an issue that Paul Graham picks up:

I’ve now stopped accumulating stuff. Except books—but books are different. Books are more like a fluid than individual objects. It’s not especially inconvenient to own several thousand books, whereas if you owned several thousand random possessions you’d be a local celebrity. But except for books, I now actively avoid stuff. If I want to spend money on some kind of treat, I’ll take services over goods any day.

I’m not claiming this is because I’ve achieved some kind of zenlike detachment from material things. I’m talking about something more mundane. A historical change has taken place, and I’ve now realized it. Stuff used to be valuable, and now it’s not.


Graham’s whole essay is well worth reading. I think it raises an important point though – when we’re thinking about innovation, are we making changes that actually do some good? If we’re aiming for sustainable innovation, we sure should be.

The shift from scarcity to abundance (at least in some markets, and in developed economies) leads to important questions. Those concerning which business model we should use, how we should price things, and how we allow for some parts of the packages we offer to be free are important. But so is the issue of time – we need to come up with ideas that will have some legs. If we all have too much stuff, why do we need whatever it is that you’re working on? To be genuinely innovative, you need a good answer to that question.

(hat tip to Fabio Rojas)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.