A version of this article was originally published by Knowledge at Wharton
Is it possible to determine which 30 innovations have changed life most dramatically during the past 30 years? That is the question that "Nightly Business Report," the Emmy Award-winning PBS business program, and KnowledgeWharton set out to answer to celebrate NBR's 30th anniversary this year. NBR partnered with Knowledge at Wharton to create a list of the "Top 30 Innovations of the Last 30 Years."
After receiving some 1,200 suggestions -- everything from lithium-ion batteries, LCD screens and eBay to the mute button, GPS and suitcase wheels -- a panel of eight judges from Wharton reviewed and selected the top 30 of these innovations.
The list is as follows, in order of importance:
1. Internet, broadband, WWW (browser and html)
2. C/laptop computers
3. Mobile phones
5. DNA testing and sequencing/Human genome mapping
6. Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI)
8. Fiber optics
9. Office software (spreadsheets, word processors)
10. Non-invasive laser/robotic surgery (laparoscopy)
11. Open source software and services (e.g., Linux, Wikipedia)
12. Light emitting diodes
13. Liquid crystal display (LCD)
14. GPS systems
15. Online shopping/ecommerce/auctions (e.g., eBay)
16. Media file compression (jpeg, mpeg, mp3)
18. Photovoltaic Solar Energy
19. Large scale wind turbines
20. Social networking via the Internet
21. Graphic user interface (GUI)
22. Digital photography/videography
23. RFID and applications (e.g., EZ Pass)
24. Genetically modified plants
25. Bio fuels
26. Bar codes and scanners
29. SRAM flash memory
30. Anti retroviral treatment for AIDS
In order to achieve the best results and narrow down the most authentic list of winners, the judges defined innovation as more than simply a new invention. "It's something new that creates new opportunities for growth and development," says Kevin Werbach, professor of legal studies and business ethics and one of the judges.
Another qualification the judges used to highlight the most sophisticated, powerful innovations was problem-solving value, says another judge, Karl Ulrich, chair, operations and information management department at Wharton. "Almost all product design is in fact innovation, but the converse is not true," he adds. "Many successful innovations begin with a user need. Some innovations occur because of some serendipitous event or some scientific discovery. The innovator goes and looks for the user and looks for an application of the technology."
Hardly a surprise, the Internet -- combined with broadband, browsers and HTML -- was ranked first in a list dominated by technological and medical advancements. Judge Ian MacMillan, director of the Sol C. Snider Entrepreneurial Research Center at Wharton, notes that the Internet is an innovation that created an industry and subsequent new technologies, making it an especially important category.
Judge Thomas Colligan, vice dean, Wharton Executive Education, credits the technology with improving communications and enhancing the standard of living and working regardless of one's location. "Technology has leveled the playing field," he says, adding that he is not surprised so many innovations fall under the technology category.
The innovations were selected based on how they impact quality of life, fulfill a compelling need, solve a problem, exhibit a "wow" factor, change the way business is conducted, increase efficiency, spark new innovations and create a new industry.
Judge George Day, co-director of the Mack Center for Technological Innovation at Wharton, says the Internet ranked high, along with mobile computing and telecommunications devices, because of the way this collective of innovations connects people, saves time and creates mobile access points for knowledge. Almost every aspect of business or social relations today is touched by the Internet and the subsequent industries the platform has created on an international scale.
Many of the innovations capitalize on existing technology to flourish. In some cases, the results not only demonstrate measured success now among select innovations, but also focus on categories that promise even greater success in the future. Most of the scientific selections -- including drug developments, surgical advancements and new diagnostic tools -- have the potential to spur greater innovation within the next few years to extend life and cure disease. Within the top 10 alone, DNA testing and sequencing, human genome mapping, Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) and non-invasive laser and robotic surgery (laparoscopy) are included.
"DNA has a huge promise to improve diagnoses," says Day, adding that DNA testing and sequencing ranked at number five because of its ability to enhance the pharmaceutical industry by spawning more effective drugs based on genetic factors that have been impossible to determine without it.
Many innovations on the list also subscribe to a "wow" factor, or characteristics that somehow make the innovation surprising, unusual or unexpected, which becomes more difficult to gauge the longer an innovation is used and the more familiar it becomes. But the wow factor, says Ulrich, is important for two reasons: to grab a user's attention and to erect a barrier between it and the competition.
Colligan says this form of competitive marketing and innovation is very much on the minds of the nation's top executives as a way to enhance business goals in a challenging economy. "Innovation creates new revenue streams," he says. "It's a mindset that needs to be started at the top of the organization to allow people to experiment and try different things. It's the opportunity to break through existing models that not only allow for new innovations, but also challenge executives in organizations that have that type of mindset to attract top talent."
Innovation is not restricted to consumer products organizations or the health care industry. "[Innovation] happens every day," says Colligan, "when executives are looking for solutions to a problem and consultants and professionals are putting together a team. The challenge that professional service firms have is that when good work is done, how do they replicate that?"
Judge Franklin Allen, co-director of the Wharton Financial Institutions Center, compares these innovations to important strides in the early-to-mid 20th century, like antibiotics, aspirin, automobiles and improvements in radio technology. "Some things are really fundamental in the way they change the world," he says. "One would hope these 30 innovations would be just as important 30 years or more from now."