One More Great Lesson From Steve Jobs: Innovation Begins As A Social Movement

Why is the loss of one CEO the cause for universal mourning? Because he symbolized the kind of entrepreneurial capitalism that generates the fun that comes with creating the new.

Hardly anything unites Americans anymore--except for the death of Steve Jobs. His passing and the deep mourning for him across political, generational, and cultural divides remind us that we all can agree on one thing--that it is Jobs’s kind of capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism, that we love, because it generates the incredible fun that comes with creating the new. His death reminds us that the big, disruptive innovations almost always come from entrepreneurs who embody their following and enable the dreams and talents that they have inside and haven’t yet expressed. It reminds us that all net new job growth in the U.S. comes from startups and businesses five years old or younger that begin in garages, college dorm rooms, or Starbucks caf├ęs.

Above all, Jobs’s passing reminds us that entrepreneurial capitalism is not simply some rational economic market phenomenon but a social movement that binds groups of people together in communities of like interests and deep emotions. Think of the important innovations of our day that are changing our lives--Facebook, Twitter, Zipcar, YouTube, eBay, Amazon, iTunes/iPod/iPhone/iPad--and you find new social communities interacting on new platforms. Add them all up and you see entrepreneurial capitalism itself as a social movement that we join, participate in, and help create ourselves.

Contrast that to the crony capitalism that Occupy Wall Street is protesting against. This kind of capitalism has Wall Street no longer allocating capital to businesses so they can grow--which is its central economic and social function. With crony capitalism, banks and hedge funds trade for their own account--often with government-guaranteed savings and with government safety nets if they fail. With crony capitalism, big businesses, with a handful of exceptions, stop innovating and no longer generate jobs, income, or taxes for America. What crony capitalists have come to excel at is to game the political, regulatory, and tax system to favor their special interests. This anger against crony capitalism crosses the political spectrum.

Both Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, on the right, and Occupy Wall Street protesters, on the left, specifically decry crony capitalism and celebrate entrepreneurial capitalism. Nearly all of my socially liberal design students at Parsons support Occupy Wall Street and, at the same time, want to launch their own startup businesses. And that is where the role of design in capitalism is becoming ever more important. The new surge in startup culture among the young, the turn of design toward new business, not just big business and the overall collision of creativity with capitalism now under way, is the best way for us to rebuild our country. This will require reframing capitalism as the space for creators, not traders, for risk-takers, not risk managers, for community-builders, not destroyers.
Steve Jobs, like all entrepreneurs, had an entirely different set of competencies from CEOs and managers of big corporations. His ability to be attuned to his following, his framing of the problem (it’s people’s experience with the product, not the functionality and technology, that’s key); his obsession with the look, feel, and materiality; and the charisma of his leadership generated an “aura” around Apple products. That aura extended to Jobs himself, which is why we feel so emotional for the passing of this particular CEO and not any others.
The most successful entrepreneurs, from Thomas Edison, who was called the “Wizard of Menlo Park,” to Steve Jobs, portrayed as a secular prophet holding the iPad as a religious tablet on the February 2, 2010 cover of The Economist (“The Book of Jobs”), are often described in transcendental terminology. They have an aura that directly connects them to their followings whom they embody. These “visionaries,” “prophets,” “wizards,” “oracles” (the “Oracle of Omaha”) have a secular priest and laity relationship with their following. The priest promises the laity a coherent vision of the world, a way to release inherent hopes and talents while curbing existential angst, and a community to which to belong. The laity offers fealty in return. Prophets, religious and secular, tend to arise in moments of social and economic breakdown, which helps explain why there is a surge toward entrepreneurialism today.
In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber says that Calvin believed that people lived in a radical state of uncertainty about going to heaven. So they had to work extra hard to get there. Work becomes a calling. Today, we are living through yet another state of uncertainty. Innovation and entrepreneurship are our calling.
It is not an accident that so many of our startup founders (Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Airbn, Slideshare) have design backgrounds and share so many of the competencies we associate with Jobs. The fact that design is being recognized in the startup space is a major victory for the field. But the real power of design may well lie in its reform of the venture capital process, which has traditionally been defined in terms of technology and functionality. Bringing design into the VC process early to define opportunities (identifying those who embody new groups and new cultures) and keeping it through the business development phase, has the potential to increase the dismal 10% success rate dramatically. India’s innovation and design consultancy Idiom has an 80% success rate in “designing out” new companies.

The movement of design toward big business led to a focus on process and a promise of rationality and routinization of inspiration into products. In the end, we didn’t get much real innovation or the economic value that comes with it. The recent turn of design toward new business is leading to a focus on capitalism as social movement, and a promise of charisma and embodiment generating spectacular experiences that enable and delight. That’s why Steve Jobs and his entrepreneurial capitalism are so important--and why we mourn for him.


Bruce Nussbaum blogs, tweets and writes on innovation, design thinking and creativity. The former assistant managing editor for Business Week is a Professor of Innovation


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