Friday, 30 December 2011

Dreams of Innovation

Could I change the world? Would I want to? Those were the thoughts running through my head as I perused a list of the fifty greatest innovators in the world today. At least I wasn't thinking small, I suppose, although the competition was daunting. A lot of the names were from the technology sector – Mark Zuckerberg, Gregg Zehr (inventor of the Kindle), a posthumous mention for Steve Jobs. But there were people from other sectors – Lady Gaga, Camila Batmanghelidjh (who runs the Kids Company charity) and Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei. One author caught my eye, but that was because there was just one author in the whole list. Even more regrettably, it was Stephenie Meyer.

Could Meyer really be considered a great innovator? I wanted to rail against the poverty of her craft and the conservatism of her worldview. Surely, an innovator would be more original and daring? I wanted such an author to be of a more liberal cast, not someone who was reinforcing the same tired gender stereotypes that women have been battling for the last fifty years. But Meyer's innovation hasn't been in plot or character – her impact has been more on the level of understanding exactly what teenage girls want and aggressively targeting that demographic. It's extraordinary to think that with just four books, she has transformed the Young Adult marketplace. All of those red and black covers in Waterstones are testament to that. But her reach goes far beyond the printed word – not just the Twilight films, but also creating an environment for TV series like The Vampire Diaries and the wonderfully inappropriate True Blood. Would anyone be making a Hunger Games film if Meyer hadn't blazed a trail before it?

Reviewing the list of innovators, one thing stood out for me. Great innovation is not about complex originality, but the simplicity of a good idea applied in the right area. Of course, as writers know, finding the simplest route through a problem can take many hours of thinking. And the application of that idea can take many months more. Persuading the publishing world of its brilliance Рwell, that can be the work of years. We hope it will lead to the great clich̩ of the author's journey Рall that rejection suddenly transformed by a six-figure deal and bestselling acclaim.

But even then, can authors really change the world? Has long form narrative had its day? The playing field seems unevenly tipped towards other, more immediate, sectors of the mass media. It strikes me that video games designers have unprecedented reach at the moment, though they seem happy for the most part to deliver upgrades on existing game designs and ever more spectacular cut scenes. Yet, there are some amazing projects out there, like Foldit, a game that gets players to solve complex biochemical problems with real-world medical applications. Ever fancied designing a flu inhibitor? Here's your chance.

It's my feeling that writers will need to embrace technology – whether it be games, blogs or apps – if they are to have a profound effect on the world stage. We are the idea machines, after all, the "what if?" engines that can power a thousand stories. Who's to say that our powers of innovation aren't just as good as any technologist, pop star or politician?

I'll leave the last words to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the female president of Liberia: "If your dreams do not scare you, they are not big enough." Gulp.



  1. Great post, Nick
    You're right about the simple idea, the arrow that through the fog hits the bullseye.
    Lots of people have great ideas. The difference about about the people on the list is that they made them happen.
    That's the hard bit.

  2. If anyone is going to embrace the new, it's you, Nick. Good post - especially the end quotation.