According to one of the greatest innovators of our time, innovation can be a tricky business.
Last week, Burt Rutan, named Entrepreneur of the Year by Inc. magazine and one of "the world's 100 most influential people" by Time magazine, imparted some innovation tips to a Winnipeg audience with a vested interest in triggering more innovation-based enterprise in the city.
Rutan, 68, has designed more than 100 different aircraft from companies he's founded in the Mojave dessert outside Los Angeles.
He spoke at last week's BioFibre 2011 conference, co-sponsored by the Composites Innovation Centre.
During the past 10 years, the CIC has grown in scale and scope so much that it's building a new facility four times the size of the building it's been working out of since it was formed in 2003. It manages research consortia across the country that include some of the biggest names in Canada's aerospace industry.
In introducing Rutan to one of the talks he gave to a by-invitation-only group of business people, the chairman of CIC's board, Kevin Lusk said, "At the Composites Innovation Centre we're pretty good at composites, but maybe not so good at innovation."
It wants to improve on that and what better way than to seek out one of the expert practitioners of innovation in our lifetime.
Most recently, Rutan built the first plane to fly around the globe, non-stop, without refuelling.
Scaled Composites, the aircraft company he founded (and retired from recently), designed the spaceship that is to be used in the world's first space tourism venture, Virgin Galactic, owned by British billionaire adventurist Richard Branson.
Rutan has the rumpled look of a maverick pathfinder, complete with overgrown muttonchops and an intense gleam in his eye.
He said innovation is so important that "breakthroughs" are the key factor in the development of intelligence.But in his estimation, for a breakthrough to be achieved, a whole host of unlikely scenarios have to be met.
"You need to have confidence in nonsense," he said. "Breakthroughs occur when we need to survive (for instance, there will be a lot of breakthroughs if there is ever an asteroid bearing down on Earth) and at least half of the people (or experts) need to believe it's impossible."
While it would be nice to be able to bottle the innovation formula, from Rutan's experience and perspective that's not going to be possible. For the innovator to be successful, Rutan says, he or she needs a level of independence that is accorded very few, especially those engaged in any element of the public sphere.
But there is hope. In Rutan's theory of innovation, if there is one thing that has to be present in all cases, it's passion.
That's an ingredient that happens to be part of just about anything good that happens and is a quality that contributes to most endeavours, regardless of their level of innovativeness.
Rutan is a classic iconoclast.
There's probably no way to prove it, but he firmly believes his success has not just been aided by, but is the result of the fact he has done all of his work without government assistance.
He also said some of the breakthroughs he's been a part of required that he break regulations.
It's not so much that Rutan is all about snubbing officialdom, but the message is that for something radical to be achieved, it requires somehow working outside of traditional boundaries.
He said he believes childhood inspiration may be the best way to get to a place where one would even seek the kind of radical independence Rutan talks about.
During his own childhood he was consumed with dreams about aircraft design, he said.
Listening to Rutan, it would not be surprising if one came to the conclusion that breakthroughs or innovation were unattainable. But he is adamant there really are some populist elements to the exercise -- ones that don't necessarily require a lot of money or time.
For one thing, he said, breakthroughs cannot be achieved by throwing money at a project and you're more likely to be successful with plans that finish quickly than with long, drawn-out, expensive projects.
Breaking down breakthroughs:
HERE'S how Burt Rutan compared research to development, for his Winnipeg audience:
- equipment: sketchpad or SketchCAD
- inventors have authority in laboratory
- occasional research
- extensive solitude, relaxed environment (nature)
- no schedule; no focus on time
- innovators must have fun
- equipment: extensive analysis hardware/software
- engineers need indirect shop interface
- continuous data access
- typical office distractions are expected
- continuous schedule tracking
- boring environment requires human interaction