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Creativity and sustainability: how did Steve Jobs miss the real innovation opportunity

Steve Jobs introduces the first iPhone in 2007

I have recently Walter Isaacson's excellent biography of Steve Jobs. As someone interested in entrepreneurship, I was amazed by the brash, bold vision of Jobs, Wozniak, Ives, Schiller and the many others behind Apple's revolutionary products. There is a certain intellectual and emotional rush one experiences with such breakthroughs. It can become easy to forget to consider consequences.

As someone interested in products and business models that are respectful of people, place and provide employment, I can't stop wondering how Jobs missed the real innovation opportunity: revolutionary products as regenerative for the environment as they are for people's lives, products that give living wage employment to people around the world.

Apple has ascended to the top of Greenpeace's list of the greenest tech companies but this was a decade after the first iPhone. After years of media exposures and disasters from FoxConn to dangerous metals did Apple improve its product and its practices. And it still has a long way to go.

Steve Jobs was an adherent to the teachings of Zen Buddhism whose teachings of simplicity, non-materialism, care for all living things, and the intrinsic value of nature might hardwire against the design of a product narrowly aimed at satisfying material wants and dismissive of life cycle effects. But in Jobs case, his deeply held beliefs were expressed only in simplicity and beauty, signature qualities of his products. Left aside were values that dealt with a wider circle of responsibility. From his life, one sees a genius dead set on inventions that would "leave a dent in the universe" as Jobs liked to say. He became more enamored with a narrow view of innovation: creativity without responsibility, genius without generosity. Overcome, as many before have been, with the strong emotional desire to conquer (in his case Microsoft, Samsung, Google and others) all other values were collateral damage.

Concerning is that many business schools now teach innovation in the shadow of Jobs. We hold up new concepts like "design thinking" and "agile project development" and "lean start ups" and "fast failure" which themselves are just tools. They can be used for good or evil. We must teach that creativity without responsibility is a disaster. We must teach a kind of extended inventor responsibility where the entrepreneur is forced to consider the full effects--positive and negative--of her/his creation.

I don't criticize Jobs. I didn't know him and his passing was a huge loss to his wife and children. His legacy is amazing and he surely revolutionized many industries and inspired millions. Still his story is a cautionary tale which as I listen to it, I am both filled with admiration and some dread at how some might extend his example. If they do so without much thought to consequence, we will be in trouble.