The roots of entrepreneurial reverence run deep in American consciousness and history. At least as early as Benjamin Franklin, who wrote about his rise from meager means to American gentility, there was a cult of the self-made individual — especially in contrast to Europe, where success seemed inherited rather than earned. We have long prided ourselves on self-reliance; Americans subscribe to a national story that the country was created through the pluck and guts and brains of superlative individuals. Even our movies celebrate lone wolves, whether Dirty Harry or Superman.
But while the idea of individual agency may have great appeal, innovation is increasingly coming from groups, not solitary heroes. Capitalism as a communal enterprise — dare we call it collective capitalism? — is the new engine of innovation, in America and beyond, but it doesn’t seem to square with our culture.
The new paradigm might have begun at the dawn of the nuclear age with the Manhattan Project. A Hollywood version of the U.S. government’s effort to create an atomic weapon during World War II might have put Albert Einstein or Robert Oppenheimer in the role of hero, scribbling equations for weeks at a blackboard before arriving, sweaty and fatigued, at the eureka moment. The truth? Dozens of physicists worked collectively, collaboratively and pretty much anonymously. No eureka moment, no lone hero, no one person challenging fate, science and bureaucracy.
More recently, the Human Genome Project showed this sort of collective innovation at work. This effort to map the entire human DNA chain was launched by the government — an origin too impersonal to satisfy the entrepreneurial myth we cherish, and a process too slow for some of the researchers. At the time, the news media focused on former National Institutes of Health scientist Craig Venter, who formed a company named Celera to compete to map the genome. Here was the perfect hero — a lone individualist.
But the project proved too costly, too intensive, too complex and — when President Bill Clinton declared that genes could not be patented — too unprofitable for a lone wolf to do it all by himself. Venter did soldier on, but like the Manhattan Project, the ultimate success in mapping the human genone was the product of thousands of scientists in hundreds of institutions, in this case scattered around the world.
Innovation will always need the people Malcolm Gladwell calls “tweakers,” such as Steve Jobs, who connect invention to consumption, and there will never be a dearth of single entrepreneurs who form companies to market inventions. Yet, theories about solitude and creativity notwithstanding, the basic innovative grunt work is now more likely to be done not by a lone wolf but by a wolf pack; there is simply too much information and too much complexity for it to be otherwise. We need a whole lot of brain power because one brain won’t do anymore.