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We are surrounded by so many problems that it’s nice to read a story every once-in-awhile about something working as it should. And especially a something that could lead to jobs, economic growth, and flatter tummies. The New York Times ran a “Bright Ideas” story about a group of engineers at International Business Machines (IBM) who decided, over lunch at Ruby Tuesday’s, that they needed to lose weight. Instead of hitting the gym, they invented a computerized system that tracks what you eat and then rewards you for making good choices. The system recently received a patent and the story says that eventually, “IBM hopes to license the system to companies or insurers as they seek to improve employees’ well-being.” Why is this story good news? Three reasons popped out at me:
- The engineers took an ordinary personal experience (deciding to diet) and turned it into a game with positive real incentives (money, movie tickets, or whatever). This is what innovation looks like close up: identifying a need and fulfilling it with a product, service, or combination of the two. We need as much innovation as we can get.
- The inventors didn’t settle for a bare-bones approach like the many diet apps available for mobile devices. Instead, they developed an industrial strength system that is customizable — it can be set to track kosher cooking — and therefore is suitable for commercial application. Innovation must be scalable to make an economic difference.
- IBM was receptive to the idea and put some resources into developing it and assembling the patent application. Big companies can become so caught up in their grand strategies that they sometimes brush aside perfectly good ideas that don’t fit preconceived plans. Kudos to IBM for building a culture that encourages bottom-up contributions.
A diet-tracking computer isn’t going to change the world. But it does symbolize the innovative ecosystem we need across our industrial base if the U.S. economy is to gain growth momentum.
2012 Economic Growth Fellow
John Prestbo is retired as editor and executive director of Dow Jones Indexes. Previously he was markets editor at The Wall Street Journal. He has co-authored or edited several books over the past 30 years. The most recent is “The Market’s Measure: An Illustrated History of America Told Through the Dow Jones Industrial Average,” published in 1999 by Dow Jones Indexes. His column, Indexed Investor, appears on the highly regarded “MarketWatch” business and finance website. He received his bachelor's and master's degrees from Northwestern University.Full Bio
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