One More Great Lesson From Steve Jobs: Innovation Begins As A Social Movement

Why is the loss of one CEO the cause for universal mourning? Because he symbolized the kind of entrepreneurial capitalism that generates the fun that comes with creating the new.

Hardly anything unites Americans anymore—except for the death of Steve Jobs. His passing and the deep mourning for him across political, generational, and cultural divides remind us that we all can agree on one thing—that it is Jobs’s kind of capitalism, entrepreneurial capitalism, that we love, because it generates the incredible fun that comes with creating the new. His death reminds us that the big, disruptive innovations almost always come from entrepreneurs who embody their following and enable the dreams and talents that they have inside and haven’t yet expressed. It reminds us that all net new job growth in the U.S. comes from startups and businesses five years old or younger that begin in garages, college dorm rooms, or Starbucks cafés.

Above all, Jobs’s passing reminds us that entrepreneurial capitalism is not simply some rational economic market phenomenon but a social movement that binds groups of people together in communities of like interests and deep emotions. Think of the important innovations of our day that are changing our lives—Facebook, Twitter, Zipcar, YouTube, eBay, Amazon, iTunes/iPod/iPhone/iPad—and you find new social communities interacting on new platforms. Add them all up and you see entrepreneurial capitalism itself as a social movement that we join, participate in, and help create ourselves.

[Image by Charis Tsevis]
Contrast that to the crony capitalism that Occupy Wall Street is protesting against. This kind of capitalism has Wall Street no longer allocating capital to businesses so they can grow—which is its central economic and social function. With crony capitalism, banks and hedge funds trade for their own account—often with government-guaranteed savings and with government safety nets if they fail.

With crony capitalism, big businesses, with a handful of exceptions, stop innovating and no longer generate jobs, income, or taxes for America. What crony capitalists have come to excel at is to game the political, regulatory, and tax system to favor their special interests. This anger against crony capitalism crosses the political spectrum.

Both Michele Bachmann and Sarah Palin, on the right, and Occupy Wall Street protesters, on the left, specifically decry crony capitalism and celebrate entrepreneurial capitalism. Nearly all of my socially liberal design students at Parsons support Occupy Wall Street and, at the same time, want to launch their own startup businesses. And that is where the role of design in capitalism is becoming ever more important. The new surge in startup culture among the young, the turn of design toward new business, not just big business and the overall collision of creativity with capitalism now under way, is the best way for us to rebuild our country. This will require reframing capitalism as the space for creators, not traders, for risk-takers, not risk managers, for community-builders, not destroyers.

Steve Jobs, like all entrepreneurs, had an entirely different set of competencies from CEOs and managers of big corporations. His ability to be attuned to his following, his framing of the problem (it’s people’s experience with the product, not the functionality and technology, that’s key); his obsession with the look, feel, and materiality; and the charisma of his leadership generated an "aura" around Apple products. That aura extended to Jobs himself, which is why we feel so emotional for the passing of this particular CEO and not any others.

The most successful entrepreneurs, from Thomas Edison, who was called the "Wizard of Menlo Park," to Steve Jobs, portrayed as a secular prophet holding the iPad as a religious tablet on the February 2, 2010 cover of The Economist ("The Book of Jobs"), are often described in transcendental terminology. They have an aura that directly connects them to their followings whom they embody. These "visionaries," "prophets," "wizards," "oracles" (the "Oracle of Omaha") have a secular priest and laity relationship with their following. The priest promises the laity a coherent vision of the world, a way to release inherent hopes and talents while curbing existential angst, and a community to which to belong. The laity offers fealty in return. Prophets, religious and secular, tend to arise in moments of social and economic breakdown, which helps explain why there is a surge toward entrepreneurialism today.

In The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Max Weber says that Calvin believed that people lived in a radical state of uncertainty about going to heaven. So they had to work extra hard to get there. Work becomes a calling. Today, we are living through yet another state of uncertainty. Innovation and entrepreneurship are our calling.

It is not an accident that so many of our startup founders (Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Airbn, Slideshare) have design backgrounds and share so many of the competencies we associate with Jobs. The fact that design is being recognized in the startup space is a major victory for the field. But the real power of design may well lie in its reform of the venture capital process, which has traditionally been defined in terms of technology and functionality. Bringing design into the VC process early to define opportunities (identifying those who embody new groups and new cultures) and keeping it through the business development phase, has the potential to increase the dismal 10% success rate dramatically. India’s innovation and design consultancy Idiom has an 80% success rate in "designing out" new companies.

The movement of design toward big business led to a focus on process and a promise of rationality and routinization of inspiration into products. In the end, we didn’t get much real innovation or the economic value that comes with it. The recent turn of design toward new business is leading to a focus on capitalism as social movement, and a promise of charisma and embodiment generating spectacular experiences that enable and delight. That’s why Steve Jobs and his entrepreneurial capitalism are so important—and why we mourn for him.

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  • Icapidees

    Ok for innovation and marketing. But on the other hand producing the iphone enad ipad has never been made in more terrible conditions for the workers. Also Apple not paying much tax where is the social advantage for society - 0. So ok buy your next apple gadget but as a consumer and citizen we must demand that theses expensive gadgets be made with a minmum of human rights  for the workers. Steve Jobs has said to Obama that no way we won't bring jobs out of China back to the USA. Ok for making money but not in the wrong way.

  • Anne Leemans

    yes innovation is an attitude. it begins with irreverence to the established order and standards, questioning traditions as well using your own experience, observing, listening, doing and thinking and vice versa

  • Joseph

    A nice tribute to Steve Jobs, a true innovator, a great marketer and most of all, a true capitalist.  Entrepreneurs do provide the innovation that leads to great products but unfortunately, just like a local mom & pop shop down the corner, they do not have the resources to expand that idea or product globally.  Thats why they need financing and people to take risks WITH them.  The greater the risk in providing caplital, the greater the reward should be.  Jobs was an innovator but Apple Corporation drove the company and made the business decisions and took the risks that brought those innovative products to market and made them affordable to all of us. 

    Why were the first PC and Macs so expensive?  Because they were made by entreprenuers in the USA.  Why are these products better and affordable now?  Because great business decisions were made by finding sources (often in other countries) to produce products for our consumption at a cost that leaves plenty of profit for Apple Corporation.  If an iPhone cost the consumer $5,000.00, not many consumers would be able purchase them.  As much of an innovator as Steve Jobs was, he was also a capitalist who benefitted from, and in many ways more than those being criticized on Wall Street today.  The Marketer in him likely realized that dressing in jeans and a collarless shirt made him appear cooler and one of the people as opposed to the suit wearing CEOs of other companies that, while often no different than Jobs and often earning less money, became villians to the public.  Apple's computer division's sole public marketing campaign focuses on selling an image as opposed to the product itself. 

    Capitalism is Capitalism, sometimes it just sold differently and personified dressed in jeans and a black mock turtle neck.

  • Christopher Frawley

    Thanks for your excellent description of why we celebrate the capitalism of  visionaries, designers, and difference makers and why we decry the capitalism of the fearful, greedy, and egocentric who have lost their way.  It's a shame that your delineation has been missed in our political discourse.  Keep up the thoughtful work. 

  • CoCreatr

    Thank you. If we now slightly (or more) redesign the corporation on a goals and governance level, we might get closer to powerful uses of capital and accelerate engagement and innovation. For example, adopt values as shared by

  • Andrew Norris

     pizza businesses service people. but they don't create income internationally.  this is what allows us to have the lifestyle we do. otherwise we would be as poor as the people in thailand for example, and that's despite their income from tourism. they have pizza places and hairdressers there for the locals, but they are no where near as nice as the places for the tourists. It is because the tourists come from countries that earn international income. 

  • Matthew

    There are so many wonderful leassons arising from the passing of Steve, it is a truly beautiful testament to his colorful life. Please, don't feel the need to make this the last one ;-) Thanks for the thoughtful and well-written article, it is not too redundant.

  • Bruce Nussbaum

    I played with Siri yesterday--the voice function of the new iPhone4. It was magical--and it seemed as if Steve Jobs was talking to all of us through her. Even in his passing, Jobs casts his aura over us.

  • Matthew

    I haven't played with Siri yet myself, but the iPhone4s seems to be even more than I expected from the great Steve Jobs at this point in time. He managed to surprise us once more in his final days!

  • Snowycod

    Your comments speak volumes to me. I am starting to understand why so many people get angry over the praise being poured on the shoulders of Steve Jobs, and are saying that he did not do anything special.

    The thing is, he made new things.  Real things.  Something one could hold in one's hand.  This country has been in the service business too long.  We have not made anything - really - in a long time.  Steve Jobs comes along and makes something.  Not just anything, something everyone in the world wants, and he makes not only one thing, but more things. They are new.  They are beautiful.  They do new things.  They change the way we speak to each other.  The change the way we hear music and store it, and carry it with us.  And they have started us back on the road to producing real objects again.  

    That is what is making people so angry.  Wall Street wants to make money by moving money around.  Maybe that time is over.  Maybe the people want to work again, and have jobs, making beautiful things that they are proud to look at, and say, I made that.  That is what I did today.  I had a part in making something real that I can touch, and you can touch.  

    If that is entrepreneurial capitalism, I'm all for it.

  • Matthew

    Great points! We have become far too service oriented. And Wall street has definitely become far to much about moving money around without producing any real value. This needs to change if America is to experience recovery. The fact that this discussion is occurring already is a great sign of hope. Thanks.

  • jeannettepaladino

    Not to be contrarian, but Wall Street bigwigs are hauling in the cash without out innovating and creating new businesses and along with them jobs. I appreciate your optimism -- and I grieved over Steve Jobs' death. But how do we end the vicious cycle on Wall Street? As soon as they were bailed out they went back to their old habits and are hauling in the cash again.
    We need innovators like Steve Jobs but ordinary small businesses like pizza parlors and hair dressers are the backbone of our economy and create jobs. But, as you point out, they can't grow, or even start up, without capital. And Wall Street is keeping the capital for themselves.

  • Matthew

    It is a bleak picture indeed. But I find hope in the fact that wall street is only "1 percent" or far less. Because of the technology Jobs handed us, I think the rest of us will be able to innovate in ways that leave the wall street corrupt to enjoy their cash by themselves while we leave them out of our circle of trust and commerce. The day is coming.

  • Slocums

    Let's start here: "If only men were granted absolute liberty and were compelled to obey no one, they would then voluntarily associate themselves in the common interest." Anonymous

  • toddsampson

    Bruce, do you have any links for more information on your statement:  India’s innovation and design consultancy Idiom has an 80% success rate in “designing out” new companies.

  • Nicolao Coelho

    Mr. Nussbaum forgot that the core of capitalism , even if you switching to social capitalism is growth!!
    And growth in terms of GDP is more and more a threat to the environment