Our entire society has been undergoing rapid innovation in the last couple of decades. Since the 1990s alone we can observe some amazing game-changing technologies such as the internet, smartphones, social media, and the growth of smart devices such as Amazon Alexa. Add to this 3D printing, smart homes, and the Internet of Things (or IoT) and we’re living in an age that would have seemed like science fiction a mere 50 years ago.

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Innovation is Everywhere

Innovation is happening at all levels. While the most highly publicized tools, devices, and technologies are often released by large companies such as Google, Apple, Facebook, and others, there’s a mindset that goes with innovation that permeates all levels of society including government, education, entertainment, and certainly businesses of types and sizes.

The sharing economy has changed how millions of people commute and travel with apps such as Uber, Lyft, and Airbnb. Blockchain technology began with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies but is now being used in industries from finance to publishing. People are learning to adjust quickly to even the most large-scale and disruptive changes. If you have a business today it’s almost mandatory to tap into the mindset of innovation.

The Connection Between Social Policy and Innovation

Although political power frequently shifts back and forth between liberal and conservative, overall there has been a fairly consistent liberalization in many important social policies. A good example is the easing of restrictions on marijuana use. Medical marijuana, which is now legal in many places around the world, has been proven effective for quite a few medical and psychological conditions such as pain relief, preventing seizures, and PTSD. Legalizing medical marijuana has helped pave the way for more research in this area. Medical schools and research facilities can now look for more possible uses for this substance in treating various conditions.

Another area where repealing restrictive laws may help to improve health and well being for humans is in the controversial field of psychedelics. The FDA recently approved research using psilocybin (popularly known as “magic mushrooms”) to treat depression. In the case of both medical marijuana and psilocybin, liberalizing laws and research may yield unforeseen benefits.

An article in the SSRN Electronic Journal argues that liberal social policies such as legalizing marijuana and easing restrictions on same-sex marriages encourage innovation by creating an environment in which it’s easier for innovators to introduce new ideas. The authors found that inventors who live in areas with more liberal social policies are more likely to collaborate and file new patents. This suggests that a more open atmosphere is conducive to innovation. Businesses would do well to pay attention to this and look for ways to apply it to their own cultures.

How Businesses Can Foster Innovation

While it’s tempting to think of innovation in terms of major breakthroughs, it’s also significant on a smaller, everyday level. Innovative thinking can help your business grow in a number of ways even if you haven’t discovered the next smartphone or social media network. Here are a few ways that businesses can build a culture that encourages innovation at all levels.

  • Flexibility in the workplace. Many companies are embracing flextime as more employees work from home. Offering flexible hours has several benefits to both employees and business owners. It helps people enjoy a better work-life balance. It can reduce the problem of absenteeism as employees can manage their other responsibilities and turn in work from home.
  • Reward innovation. Employees are more motivated to present their best ideas if they know they’ll be recognized and rewarded for them. When you need a fresh idea or solution, hold a company-wide contest. Whether you reward great ideas with cash bonuses, promotions or equity in the company, it’s important to acknowledge and reward innovators within your organization.
  • Encourage experiments and tolerate failures. The most creative companies understand that encouraging innovation means listening to new ideas and also having a high tolerance for failure. Amazon, for example, is known for its failure-tolerant culture where people are praised for experimenting no matter what the results.
  • Learn from the competition -and everyone else. Watching your competitors helps you prevent them from springing ahead of you with innovations of their own. It’s also insightful to keep tabs on other industries. You may think of ways to apply innovations to your own business. For example, you might find that a company in an unrelated field is using accounting, HR, or communications software that could help your business grow faster.

Innovation is happening quickly in all areas of life. Many factors influence where and how these innovations occur. As we’ve seen, social policies can play a role by encouraging a more open-minded environment. Along the same lines, businesses can benefit from building the type of culture that supports innovation.