Saturday, August 7, 2010

A Crisis of Imagination

It is not uncommon to hear the public outcry in response to the automaker bailouts, regardless of where you travel. If one wants to hear it hyped to its potential, one only needs to read a Republican Facebook page or blog. This week, I got to enjoy that conversation about the failings of American automakers on Senator John Cornyn's Facebook page.

The cries about the early reviews of the Volt, an electric car, are mixed. Some have said it is a poor car, others have said it is a good car. Compared to other electric cars, it is priced rather high. The right wing echo chamber has made a point of shouting them as loud as they can to indicate that somehow President Obama is responsible for the micromanaging policies of the automakers. I think this focus has missed the point.

This is the second generation of electric with the first generation ending up in a California desert dust heap. Too often, we fail to understand the first generation of anything. We get caught up in its failure or its possibilities depending on our views of the product ideas, and we attack or boast about it regardless of its own merits.

I remember being told how great the video disk would be for our future. As a teenager, one of my friend's parents had one. The quality was better, but when I looked for one myself, the price was huge. We now know that was the precursor to the DVD and what comes next.

Upon discussing this topic, my father reminds me of the early days of the computer when hard drives were not talked about in terrabytes or gigabytes but rather kilobytes. By today's standards, it wouldn't hold even one picture off my cellphone. A crisis of imagination.

The talk is of its battery shortcomings or of its only 40 mile range before it shifts to being gas powered, or the electricity fueling it coming from coal power plants which doesn't save the environment at all. The talk ignores the breakthroughs coming in battery technology or nanotechnology to miniaturize the battery that is strong enough to power a submarine for a time; or the way technology has always been expensive early until the profits of the extravagant consumers bring down the prices for everyone and fuel further development. A crisis of the imagination.

American automakers have failed America for quite some time. They have tried to stifle innovation resting on their history. We saw President Bush give them $1 billion in funds for researching hydrogen powered cars a year after Japan had been selling them in Japan. Today, one can read all the problems of American hydrogen technology that makes it a decade away as a real possibility, but Japan is already exporting them to Canada and a few in California, and European automakers have found the answers. A crisis of imagination.

There are plenty of questions left on what the future of our automakers will be, but until they address the crisis of imagination, they will continue to fall behind the world. Yes, they will find ways to sell cars and survive but America, the nation that invented the automobile, will no longer lead that field. Maybe the next place for them to think ahead is to ask, if we can put a film on high rise building windows that looks like a window tinting, but acts like a massive solar panel to generate power; why can't we help to power a car with a solar film on our cars? Sure, it won't fuel it alone, but maybe it helps to charge the battery while we are parked at work. A crisis of imagination.

We seem to have a great imagination to start things, but we fall behind because we get stuck in what is, and we don't push what can be. While we marvel at the iPhone, Asia has cellphones that make ours look like child toys. To lead the world for the next century, we will have to move beyond our self-imposed limitations, we will have to move beyond our fear of having to learn new things, we will have to move beyond our "I like it the way it is" mentality. We will have to move beyond our crisis of imagination.


Julie said...

Ah, yes! My job is innovation research and all too often large corporations hire us to give them great ideas - then spend the next couple of years battling internal politics and coming up with all the reasons those ideas would never work.

I do see a shift in the wind though. My most recent project is in an industry that is entrenched in a ritualistic, conservative way of being. But this project is different. For the first time ever, I really see imagination at work. There's an openness to innovation that just wasn't there pre-recession. There's an understanding that the old ways aren't working anymore, and that new ways can be a win-win situation for everyone - business and consumers alike. I have hope. :-)

Mattias Kroon said...

This was a great post!

Einstein thought in the same way, that a genius always need a lot of imagination.And to quote him:

"in the midst of every difficulty lies the opportunity".

In a time like this new pioneers in U.S need to come up with new innovations, maybe even economical innovations, but then again, imagination is needed.