The River and Graveyard

Recently I had the honour of presenting at the Open Knowledge Festival in Helsinki and as I touched down on the majestic floor, I felt an aura of ease around me. I could accurately call it a leash of  freedom. Freedom from a pile of filth inching to the gutters, rattle of noisy generators or discovery of another open theft of oil funds.

After having a sauna, in the breezy cold watching over the tip of the old cathedral, I turned around.  I asked a Finnish guy what he thought about Nokia. He quickly retorted “ Nokia to us is dead, we just feel it’s too big to die so quick”. I would see his frustration at how Nokia was losing share in the smartphone business and how the Finnish Company whose sales were once 4% of Finnish economy has  seen its GDP share dwindle to less than 1% in three years. It’s corporate taxes  to government coffers shrunk by 75%  in the corresponding period.

Most Finnish youths (possibly out of the 3,700 laid out by Nokia) are fastened to iPhones and Samsung products either checking a Google map or running through a playlist. No emotions in a land where Nokia should be on the throne. Even the free wi-fi that greets one at the airport is paid for by Samsung and it announces the S3 product in passengers’  faces.

My Finnish friend told me Nokia previously a paper, electronics and retail company was moving on as it seeks the next big startup to redirect its course. There’s a Nokia Bridge incubator where it gives $25,000 to its former employees to unleash a new startup and it also invested over $1m in a university to fund new mobile startups.

It’s a reminder to the lifespan of the company. One sees the bright pupil of the yesterday class struggling to fill in the numbers. How does  a company lose touch with innovation? When  does a warhorse in limelight go on a misstep and starts to hug a tombstone. However, the Finnish society wired to seek answers is excited with Angry Birds, homegrown global gaming leader. You move around Helsinki pubs and you peer at areas marked ‘Angry Birds Space’ which provides free wi-fi access.

Running round an innovation circus, it’s a tale of juggling many balls. To keep a steady hold to the consumer , not iterate fast and not fall prey to the Innovator’s dilemma, to lead in a sustainable way, keep a forefront in R&D and continually keep consumers on the cliff of surprise. No matter how little a space one tries  to innovate either as a startup or huge enterprise, the worry hangs there to deepen the reach to the attention or wallet of the consumer, to continually provide value and revel in a space of relevance.

For a company like IBM which moved on from personal computers to consulting or even Google spending fast to keep the user on hold to its search function, it’s the price of innovation.  As creatively defined by Joseph Schumpeter,  the profits that litter around from the tangible hold of today’s customers is the cost of innovation and being in  tomorrow’s business. In all as a person seeking to lead a frontier in public data access and visualisation, I keep a famous line in Michael Lewis  Liars’ Poker: ‘Wall Street (a hotbed of financial innovation) is a street with a river at one end and a graveyard at the other.’

The journey of a product/company between the river and the graveyard can be told in Schumpeter’s single phrase – creative destruction. It could be a whirlwind of the times pushing to higher grounds  or even small missteps leading to self-destruction.