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It is often said that necessity is the mother of invention. I think necessity is the mother of innovation.

Semantics? Perhaps. But consider the number of inventions discovered by accident. Superglue, Teflon, and anesthesia are all examples. Throughout history, some of our most impressive discoveries have lingered as little more than curiosities or parlor games until the world figured out what to do with them.

Innovation, on the other hand, has always had a more practical side. A real-world problem is identified and the value of a better solution already apparent.

Happy Anniversary, Innovation!

This year we celebrate the 300th anniversary of one of history’s great examples of recognizing the value of innovation – the Longitude Act.

In the 18th century, sailing ships were an integral part of global trade, exploration, and geopolitics. Yet maritime navigation was hampered by the long-standing longitude problem – an inability to accurately determine a ship’s East – West position around the globe. This resulted in longer routes, navigation errors, and some dramatic shipwrecks.

Great Britain addressed the conundrum, in part, by encouraging innovation. In 1714, the British Parliament enacted the Longitude Act which offered a prize totaling £20,000 – worth several million US dollars in today’s currency – for a workable solution.

A reliable method for determining longitude would only come after decades of inspiration and perseverance. But ultimately a working-class carpenter from Lincolnshire won most of the prize by developing a better timepiece. John Harrison’s portable chronometer could keep extremely accurate time even under the adverse conditions at sea. Since it was known that the earth rotates a full 360° degrees in 24 hours, sailors could extrapolate longitude based on the difference between the local time determined by the position of the sun and the precise time at a given reference point maintained by the chronometer.

Innovation made Harrison a very rich man, and Great Britain continued to “rule the waves” for the next century.

Innovation Still Rules

Here we are, 300 years later, and there are still plenty of world problems to solve. Thankfully, innovation is alive and well.

In my job at SAP, I see examples of true innovation among our customers all the time. Not only do these creative companies develop cutting-edge products, they are helping address modern-day necessities like protecting the environment, conserving energy and natural resources, and ensuring personal safety.

For example:

  • Nike Inc.’s new Flyknit technology can produce a running shoe that weighs a mere 5.6 ounces (for a men's size 9). At the same time, Nike is working hard to shrink the carbon footprint of its footwear. Calling it Considered Design, Nike assesses the impact of materials it uses – finding or creating materials that have a preferred environmental profile. Through this approach, Nike is reducing waste and eliminating toxins from its manufacturing.
  • BSH Bosch and Siemens Home Appliances Group is creating a new generation of energy-saving consumer appliances. This includes clothes dryers that reuse hot air generated in previous drying cycles and dishwashers that reduce water use up to 80%. BSH’s approach to innovative design includes one of the most modern virtual reality projection systems in Europe. This allows developers to refine designs, conduct consumer tests, and “experience” products when they exist only as digital representations on the computer.
  • Ford Motor Company designs automobiles that are both fun to drive and safer to operate. In recent years, Ford has unveiled accident-avoidance technologies that use radar and cameras to warn of potentially dangerous situations, and in some cases, provide assistance such as brake support to the driver. The auto manufacturer continues to take part in research projects to develop more life-saving technologies. Ford can envision a future of “Connected Vehicles” in which cars not only talk to each other but to stoplights, other transportation infrastructure, and even pedestrians and bicycles.

Imagine if automobiles could avoid all collisions on their own. That would be innovation worthy of a prize.

Stay tuned for an upcoming blog about why I believe we live in the perfect age for innovation. In the meantime, you can read more about innovation at SAP.

And please join me on Twitter @JohnGWard3.