Recessions silver lining is innovation

Following the dot.com boom of the late 1990’s, when anyone and everybody who could code worked all hours to realise their ideas, there was a collapse and loads of people were unemployed. Prior to the collapse some people made loads of money, of course some of them then went and lost it and some people just worked long hours for no real benefit. But that’s not really the point, the point is that after the dot.com bubble burst we saw the emergence of new tech companies that layed the foundation for the whole web 2.0 thing.

"That was supposed to be going up wasn't it?" by rednuht. Some rights reserved.
"That was supposed to be going up wasn't it?" by rednuht. Some rights reserved.

During the late ’90s everyone was  busy, busy, busy doing stuff for paying clients and certainly in the early days there was some genuine innovation. But there was also a lot of dross and all those client demands meant we didn’t always have the time to play with the medium and try out new ideas. But following the collapse in 2001 people were suddenly able to explore the medium, develop and innovate new ideas. That’s not to say that there weren’t economic pressures on those development teams — in many ways the pressures where more acute because there wasn’t a VC buffering your cash flow. And as one of those companies put it you needed to get real:

Getting Real is about skipping all the stuff that represents real (charts, graphs, boxes, arrows, schematics, wireframes, etc.) and actually building the real thing. […]

Getting Real delivers just what customers need and eliminates anything they don’t.

But the lack of other people’s deadlines and the massive number of unemployed geeks playing with stuff and working on what interested them, rather that what was required for the next deadline gave us an amazing range of technologies, including: blogging as we now know it, a rather popular photosharing site, the first social bookmarking site utilising a new design pattern a new MVC framework using an obscure language. Indeed Ruby was itself created during Japan’s recession in the ’90s. And on a much smaller scale Dom Sagolla’s recent post about how Twitter was born shows how similar forces within a company created similar results.

It seems that when we have unemployment among geeks we see true innovation, genuinely new ideas coming to market. During the good times when employment is high we tend to see a raft of “me-toos” commissioned by people that too often don’t really understand the medium, and aren’t motivated to come up with the new ideas instead tending to focus how to make the existing ideas bigger, better, faster because that’s lower risk and for sure this period has it’s advantages, unfortunatley it seems innovation isn’t one of them.

The current economic depression is clearly bad news, potentially very bad news indeed, but what it might mean is we’re in for another period of innovation as more and more geeks find themselves unemployed and starting setting up on their own.

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