What Fire Teaches Us About Innovation

You can imagine the excitement of the first tribe to learn to control fire. Maybe the remnant of a lightning storm or perhaps the spark from a flint tool, it was probably lauded as the greatest invention of the age. “Better than sliced bread,” the patriarch announced. “What is bread?” replied his confused, but adoring family. Anthropologists claim that the discovery was a turning point in the cultural aspect of human development and it is no wonder. Fire has a lot to teach us about innovation.

It’s intuitive.

Professor Chris Dede from Harvard commented in a seminar recently that fire is a wonderful technology, because you can get warm just by standing beside it. It’s purposes are obvious.

Intuitive interfaces and natural technologies are very important to modern technology advancements as well. The best products tell you how to use them using only the basic human senses of sight, hearing, smell, taste, or touch. Buttons are meant to be pushed. Tones to be answered. Doors handles opened.  At my company we make electronic displays and video walls, and some of the best innovations we have invented are things that can be appreciated simply by passive observation. The displays simply look better.

It is multi-functional.

Fire can be used as a source of heat on a cold day, a source of light on a dark night, and as a way to cook food. It is also a useful weapon unto itself and can be used to forge weaponry. It was and still used in ceremonies, religious and secular. After all, what is a prayer service or a birthday cake without candles? Even the sight or sound of it can be a source of comfort (as evidence by the cable channels that present a virtual, crackling fireplace). The product manager for fire, didn’t have to spend time doing in-depth research or SIC code analysis to determine the target market or problem it solved. In the ancient world, fire solved them all.

Most technology advancements since fire have had to pick a problem (or few) to solve. The need for relevant information drove the printing press, newspapers and Twitter. The need for better return on marketing investment has driven innovations as far flung as the questionnaire to Google Analytics. The needs solved by our modern inventions, like the smart phone or cloud storage, solve multiple problems. But at the core, the best technologies offer their users multiple ways to use the technology.

It scales.

Fire is infinitely personalizable. You can collaborate at a bonfire or you can use a personal lighter on your cigar. You can ignite a gas burner on a stove to make yourself a pot of tea or you can use a grill to cook food for a crowd.  The same fire that creates the fearsome scene of a forest fire blazing out of control is the same in the fireplace where you sit and rock your sleeping infant. 

As we think about technologies that have impacted our world, they also can scale up and down. They can improve individual lives and the experiences of groups. This is a holiday week in the US and I am reminded that airplanes, such an amazing invention, started in the early 1900’s by moving a person or two (either the Wright brothers or the New Zealand farmer, Richard Pearse, or the Brazilian, Alberto Santos-Dumont, living in Paris, depending on which account you read) and now allow families to be reunited across the continents. And yet, this same technology is used by aviation enthusiasts individually and many of the aerodynamic concepts forms the basis of today’s drone technology and helps fuel innovation in our space exploration and automotive industries as well. 

It changes lives.

Being able to control fire allowed the expansion of human activity to the darker and colder hours of the night. It wasn’t a technology just for those who learned to use it. It was a technology the changed lifestyles, which changed lives, which changed the course of history.

The technologies that I think the most fondly of are ones that changed my life. My RIM Blackberry (and the Palm Pilot before that) changed the way that I waited and communicated. Uber has changed the way I move about a city and think about material assets.  And business to business innovation changes lives as well, enabling new business models, customer connections, and efficiencies never before possible.  I am sure you have similar examples of how technologies, both consumer and commercial, have changed your life. 

The smart phone alone has changed so many things about our lives. Your elementary school math teacher would tell you that you need to learn long division because “you won’t always have a calculator with you.” Boy, we proved her wrong!

It can be used for both evil and good.

Fire can be used to warm and comfort or burn. Seven people die each day in home fires (National Fire Protection Association Report 2013). According to the US. Fire Administration (did you know there was such an agency?), the risk of dying in a fire was 10.7 per million in 2014. Strangely, the highest risk states of fire death is Mississippi, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and the highly urban Washington DC.  It seems no one is safe. There is even a special name for intentional fire starting (arson) and experts attest that most fires are caused by children just playing around. Even in a world where we control fire, it can sometimes get out of control, if we mean harm or aren’t careful.

The guiding principle of physicians – primum non nocere or “first do no harm” – illustrates that innovation or knowledge in itself is no enough. It must be accompanied by ethics. Whatever the intervention, medicine, or procedure, the person who knows more has an obligation to use the technology for the benefit of the patient or mankind. “Don’t be evil” was famously the corporate motto of Google. It is said to have been suggested in an employee meeting on corporate values.  According to the founder’s letter in their pre-IPO filing in 2004, the motto prohibited conflicts of interest and required objectivity, and perhaps the elevation of long-term good, over short-term gain.

I think the recent US election coverage illustrated how technology can be used for good and evil. How many of breathed in the noxious fumes of fear, misinformation, or tragedy in our social media feeds? Often without taking the time to put out the fire or at least check to see who started it (and why). And messages can resembled a fire in so many ways. Both the good (as information illuminated or revealed) and evil (as lies spread like wildfire or good ideas or even relationship were burned, or at least singed). 

It is taken for granted.

Earlier this year, LiveScience published a list of the top inventions of all time. The top of the list was the wheel. Strangely missing was fire. Although both the nail and the internal combustion engine (both made possible by fire) made the list. The light bulb was included (which for many applications, including street lighting and the Easy Bake Oven, replaced fire). It does make me wonder what other technologies or innovations we are inventing today that will be so ubiquitous, so understood, and so taken for granted that they won’t make tomorrow’s list?

This article was originally posted on LinkedIn Pulse.