The generation of ideas has become a booming, billion-dollar business, but is anyone actually benefitting?
Author Boyd Farrow Illustration Dawid Ryski
Frederik Härén wants to make you an offer. This summer, the Swedish business guru and inspirational speaker will allow you to spend a couple of weeks on one of his three private and very spartan islands—two in the crisp Baltic waters of the Stockholm archipelago, one in the Pacific Ocean off the Philippines—completely free of charge. The only snag is, you have to spend your time on these little plots of paradise coming up with a Big Idea.
“I want people who are able to take advantage of the total absence of distractions,” Härén says. “Ideas Island is a metaphor made real where ideas can breathe.”
The idea can be anything you want, but entrepreneurial epiphanies are especially welcome. You could finally get to grips with that self-making bed you’ve been meaning to invent, or that hangover-free bourbon. If time permits, you could even tackle the world’s energy crisis.
As Härén puts it: “When you have to confront the disposal of your own waste, it tends to focus your mind on some of the planet’s bigger problems.”
Strip away the trumped-up bizthought, and the notion that people think more constructively without distraction sounds suspiciously like common sense—which tells us something about the ideas industry, a billion-dollar juggernaut once driven by business schools and management consultants but now broadened to include anyone with a mind to turn a slogan into a formula for success. More often than not, the ideas generated by this field amount to no-duh observations shrouded in guru-speak.
“For a long time, this area has seen more jargon and abuse of language than actual ideas, but now it’s getting ridiculous,” says Scott Berkun, author of The Myths of Innovation. “I mean, just how many books do people really need telling them to think in a different way?”
With another 170 titles urging us to “innovate” thudding onto shelves in the first few months of this year (according to Amazon’s listings), it looks as if the buzzword mountain will continue to grow. Even Härén—who has written nine books and has delivered almost 2,000 talks around the world—has concerns about the trend. “While I believe this is a golden age of ideas,” he says, “the rhetoric and presentation could certainly improve.”
There is something very American about the explosion of the ideas industry, says Berkun, in that it reflects a weird hybridization of a bootstraps approach to success and an obsession with quick fixes. “There’s this belief that every one of us has the potential to achieve anything we want,” he says, and also a “need for simple inspirational messages.”
This may explain why so many bite-size Big Idea books are berthed in the bestseller lists, and why so many happy-clappy events keep popping up, such as Silicon Valley’s Wisdom 2.0, and the World Domination Summit in Portland, Ore. Then, of course, there’s the TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) Talks, which is the 800-pound gorilla in the world of saleable ideas. With its 18-minute lectures by tech-savvy chefs and environmentally aware pop stars, TED has become immensely popular. Now in its 30th year, it has racked up more than a billion online views.
But there is a backlash in motion.
Benjamin Bratton, who teaches visual arts at the University of California, recently labeled TED “harmful.” The thinking behind such criticism is that the events reduce complicated thoughts to the level of bumper sticker slogans. TED, Bratton says, is “middlebrow, megachurch infotainment.” Interestingly, he said all this during his own TED Talk.
A more damning indictment, perhaps, is that the ideas industry has swallowed its own tail. For organizers, these festivals serve as lucrative corporate platforms. For keynoters, they are auditions for prospective publishers. After all, the author of a bestselling business book can earn $50,000 a night working the corporate speaking circuit. Round and round it goes.
For Berkun, the real problem is that the ideas industry glosses over the toil and potential for failure involved in bringing genuine innovation to fruition. “The hard part is implementing ideas, because that involves risk,” he says. “In fact, if more of the people on Ideas Island realized what the follow-through often entails, they might never want to leave.”
Boyd Farrow is a London-based editor and writer, in large part because he has no idea what else to do.