For the unexpected innovations, look where you'd rather not

Before Bill Gates was a billionaire, before the power, the cultural cachet, and the Robert Downey Jr. portrayals, computers were for losers who would never get laid. Their potential was of course independent of these considerations, but Steve Jobs could become one of the richest people on Earth because he was fascinated with, and dedicated time to, something that cool kids — specially from the wealthy families who could most easily afford access to them — wouldn't have been caught dead playing with, or at least loving.

Geek, once upon a time, was an unambiguous insult. It was meant to humiliate. Dedicating yourself to certain things meant you'd pay a certain social price. Now, of course, things are better for that particular group; if nothing else, an entire area of intellectual curiosity is no longer stigmatized.

But as our innovation-driven society is locked into computer geeks as the source of change, that means it's going to be completely blindsided by whatever comes next.

Consider J. K. Rowling. Stephenie Meyer. E. L. James. It's significant that you might not recognize the last two names: Meyer wrote Twilight and James Fifty Shades of Grey. Those three women (and it's also significant that they are women) are among the best-selling and most widely influential writers of our time, and pretty much nobody in the publishing industry was even aware that there was a market for what they were doing. Theirs aren't just the standard stories of talented artists struggling to be published. By the standards of the (mostly male) people who ran and by and large still run the publishing industry, the stories they wrote were, if they were to be kind, pointless and low-brow. A school for wizards where people died during a multi-volume malignant cou d'état? The love story of a teenager torn between her possessive werewolf friend and a teenage-looking centuries old vampire struggling to maintain self-control? Romantic sadomasochism from a female point of view?

Who'd read that?

Millions upon millions did. And then they watched the movies, and read the books again. Many of them were already writing the things they wanted to read — James' story was originally fan fiction in the Twilight universe — and wanted more. The publishing industry, supposedly in the business of figuring out that, had ignored them because they weren't a prestigious market (they were women, to be blunt, including very young women who "weren't supposed" to read long books, and older women who "weren't supposed" to care about boy wizards), and those weren't prestigious stories. When it comes to choosing where to go next, industries are as driven by the search for reputation as they are for the search of profit (except finance, where the search for profit regardless of everything else is the basis of reputation). Rowling and Meyer had to convince editors, and James first surge of sales came through self-published Kindle books. The next literary phenomenon might very well bypass publishers, and if that becomes the norm then the question will be what the publishing industry is for.

Going briefly back to the IT industry, gender and race stereotypes are still awfully prevalent. The next J. K. Rowling of software — and there will be one — will have to go through a much more difficult path than she should've had to. On the other hand, a whole string of potential early investors will have painful almost-did-it stories they'll never tell anyone.

This isn't a modern development, but rather a well-established historical pattern. It's the underdogs — the sidelined, the less reputable — who most often come up with revolutionary practices. The "mechanical arts" that we now call engineering were once a disreputable occupation, and no land-owning aristocrat would have guessed that one day they'll sell their bankrupted ancestral homes to industrialists. Rich, powerful Venice began, or so its own legend tells, as a refugee camp. And there's no need to recount the many and ultimately fruitful ways in which the Jewish diaspora adapted to and ultimately leveraged the restrictions imposed everywhere upon them.

Today geographical distances have greatly diminished, and are practically zero when it comes to communication and information. The remaining gap is social — who's paid attention to, and what about.

To put it in terms of a litmus test, if you wouldn't be somewhat ashamed of putting it in a pitch deck, it might be innovative, brilliant, and a future unicorn times ten, but it's something people already sort-of see coming. And a candidate every one of your competitors would consider hiring is one that will most likely go to the biggest or best-paying one, and will give them the kind of advantage they already have. To steal a march on them — to borrow a tactic most famously used by Napoleon, somebody no king would have appointed as a general until he won enough wars to appoint kings himself — you need to hire not only the best of the obvious candidates, but also look at the ones nobody is looking at, precisely because nobody is looking at them. They are the point from which new futures branch.

The next all-caps NEW thing, the kind of new that truly shifts markets and industries, is right now being dreamed and honed by people you probably don't talk to about this kind of thing (or at all) who are doing weird things they'd rather not tell most people about, or that they love discussing but have to go online to find like-minded souls who won't make fun of them or worse.

Diversity isn't just a matter of simple human decency, although it's certainly that as well, and that should be enough. In a world of increasingly AI-driven hyper-corporations that can acquire or reproduce any technological, operational, or logistical innovation anybody but their peer competitors might come up with, it's the only reliable strategy to compete against them. "Black swans" only surprise you if you never bothered looking at the "uncool" side of the pond.

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