Steve Case explains what it takes to be an innovator


Steve Case, chairman of Revolution and co-founder of America Online, speaks at the SXSW Interactive Festival in Austin. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg)

Want to innovate? Then you need to be able to see the future. Of course, that’s easier said than done. Last week at the SXSW Interactivity Festival, I discussed with Steve Case, Revolution chairman and AOL co-founder, the importance of pattern recognition and how to have the mind-set of a visionary.

“I think it starts with being curious and paying attention and being open-minded and flexible and not assuming the future is going to be that connected to the present let alone to the past,” Case said. “So look to the future by looking forward and not in the rear-view mirror.”

Case had one of those moments reading Alvin Toffler’s ” The Third Wave” as a college student in 1979. Toffler referred to the Industrial Revolution as the beginning of the second wave, and projected an information revolution — the third wave — led by electronic technology.

“It was completely futuristic science fiction, but I knew it was going to happen,” Case said. “Electronic newspapers, home banking, personalized communication and things like that I said, ‘Of course it’s going to happen.’ ”

It’s instructive too, how Case found Toffler’s work. He recalled seeing a brief newspaper or magazine write-up on the book. His curiosity was piqued, so he tracked down a copy of it. The lessons he learned from it helped him as he co-founded America Online.

“It’s more a sense of the art of the possibility, thinking outside the box, challenging assumptions, being open to different perspectives, listening to other views, meeting other people, getting out of your comfort zone,” he said.

While Case said some are born that way, he believes it is a teachable trait.

“People who are more risk averse are focused on what’s there, not what’s coming, can be trained to think differently because a lot of it is just paying attention,” said Case, who pointed to wearables as an area where momentum and a critical mass are building. “Get out of your bubble, interact with other people that you’re going to learn from, fail forward, don’t fear risks. There are a bunch of things that are teachable.”

Matt McFarland is the editor of Innovations. He's always looking for the next big thing. You can find him on Twitter and Facebook.
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