In 1973, Martin Cooper was the head of Motorola's communications systems division. At Motorola, he was one of the earliest innovators to question the notion that communication meant being tied to a desk with a corded phone. Cooper was also an avid Star Trek fan who reveled in the futuristic visions of that sci-fi classic.
For him, solving problems at Motorola by day and dreaming about science fiction by night were simply different expressions of the same activity. In fact, he attributes the sight of Captain Kirk speaking on his wireless communicator as a key inspiration to his greatest invention: the cell phone.
The cell phone happened in part because Cooper was thinking ambitiously about the future, but was able to turn it into action for today. The 50-year vision he saw in Star Trek led to his 5-year vision of creating the elements that would lead us to the first mobile phone.
Was it inevitable that society would eventually figure out how to create the cell phone? Or did Star Trek’s popularity inspire engineers to the point that we created the cell phone much earlier than we would have without the show? However it happened with Cooper and Star Trek, there’s a valuable lesson we can learn about why we should seek out and embrace incredibly ambitious visions of the future to improve what we’re creating today.
Breakthrough innovations are like bonfires, but so often the realities of today’s business environment extinguish the smaller fires you need to start that lead to the big flame. The problem is, most businesses are set up to overvalue short term gains and undervalue potential long term value. This creates an environment where incrementally innovative projects—the small fires—get attention above all else.
But what Cooper did was see the bonfire first (Star Trek), then reverse engineer the smaller fires needed to get to the big one. The order in which you think about long and short-term timeframes matters to the outcome. You get a very different innovation outcome if you think long term first (What’s my 50 year vision?…) and short term second (…what needs to happen in the next 5 years for my 50 year vision to come true?) rather than the other way around.
On Star Trek, a future reality was shown where one of the most core assumptions of the day regarding telecommunications was eliminated: the cords. If Cooper continued to hold on to the cord as a key assumption, he would’ve never had to figure out how to amplify a wireless signal, miniaturize the circuitry, or develop a more portable battery. The 50 year vision he saw of cordless communication, paved the way for his family 5 year plan to work on the smaller innovations—antennae, miniature circuits, portable batteries—that would get him there.
I’ll always advocate for food innovators to draw inspiration from things like science fiction to help build a better future of food. Like Cooper’s vision of a cordless communication future, what infrastructure in the food system might make the most impact if we rethought or replaced them? Eradicating CAFOs? Getting rid of traditional supermarkets? Rethinking farming subsidies?
What infrastructure would want to see reinvented?