The Difference Between Technology and Innovation

Many innovators are driven by a passion to create more meaningful lives, says Peter Everaert of Korn Ferry.

Peter Everaert, Managing Director, Innovations, Korn Ferry, works with boards, executives and governments on staying ahead of change.

Jean Botti’s passion has always been about flying planes. The Frenchman, currently living in the United States, loves peering through the fisheye lens of the cockpit windshield, managing the flight deck, and navigating the horizon. That passion, unfortunately, didn’t align with French law. To cut down on noise pollution, the country imposed severe restrictions on recreational aircraft use. Botti could only fly during a three-hour window on weekends.

Botti, who served as the CEO for Innovations Works and Chief Technical Officer at Airbus from 2006 until 2016, did not take this challenge to his passion lightly, so he began to work on designing a quieter aircraft. The result—the Voltair—is the first commercial electronically-powered aircraft. The aim ultimately is to have one that has zero emissions, but the real innovation, he says, is how quiet the plane is. The noise from this new aircraft’s engine is barely a whisper compared to the roar of a typical engine. Of course, if the plane is quieter, it would not run afoul of noise-level restrictions in France or anywhere else, which means it can be flown at any hour of the day. The more a plane can fly, the more valuable it is to the airline that owns it.

I hosted Botti at a recent gathering of other Korn Ferry partners in San Francisco to talk about what companies can do to spur innovation. What quickly emerged was a discussion on passion and, more broadly, human needs. Indeed, when Botti talks about innovation his focus is on those needs and on creating more meaningful lives. Technology that is not developed to serve mankind should not be considered as innovation, Botti says. That sentiment drove the development of the Voltair as well, Botti says. Like other commercial aircraft, the Voltair can essentially fly itself, but it is not trying to replace the pilot. Pilots, after all, are pilots because they love to fly.

This is why Botti is skeptical of the prospect of a world where there are only self-driving cars. It is not a question of whether the car can power and navigate itself—that technology is essentially here—but whether all humans really want to be driven around. “Humans have to be in charge of their destiny,” Botti says. He questions whether people really want a self-driving car or just technology that makes driving safer and simpler.

After years of driving innovation with Airbus, Botti joined Philips Healthcare as Chief Innovation and Strategy Officer. He envisions the possibility of tremendous advances in healthcare, particularly in the use of artificial intelligence to diagnose maladies. But neither AI nor robots should be the ones delivering that diagnosis to patients. Human nature shows that we all need some degree of empathy in those situations, not a calculated response from a robot. “Innovation can be anything but myopic,” Botti says.

It is a lesson for all companies that aim to be innovators.