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The Google offices in Cambridge, Mass., were hit by layoffs last year. During 2023, more than 260,000 tech jobs were eliminated in North America, including many with six-figure salaries and all the benefits trimmings.SOPHIE PARK/The New York Times News Service

Gus Carlson is a U.S.-based columnist for The Globe and Mail.

The sweeping layoffs in the technology sector over the past year have raised this concern about innovation: If the recognized champions of curve-jumping thinking are discarding big brains in big numbers, doesn’t the ability to generate big ideas decline proportionally?

It’s a fair question, because it’s been a bloodbath across the tech waterfront – the worst since the dot-com bubble burst in the early 2000s. During 2023, more than 260,000 tech jobs were eliminated in North America, including many with six-figure salaries and all the benefits trimmings. The new year has brought no relief – another 24,000 positions disappeared in January, and more are expected. Members of tech’s so-called Magnificent Seven – Alphabet, Amazon, Apple, Meta, Microsoft, Nvidia and Tesla – have accounted for much of the carnage.

All bad news for innovation, right? Not necessarily. Decentralization – or democratization – of know-how away from the big players may see innovation returning to its roots: the garage. After all, that’s the hallowed ground where icons such as Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Jobs and others hatched and developed innovative ideas that changed our world.

First off, it’s not as if the tech giants in their current forms are paragons of innovation. Like big companies in almost every industry, they long ago shifted from growth mode, which saw an industry-wide hiring binge, to focus on productivity and profitability.

They have also hit the wall that so many big companies – even the most innovative – hit eventually: The bigger you grow and the more accountable you are to stakeholders – including delivering that next quarter for investors – the lower your tolerance for risk tends to be. And innovation depends on and thrives in a risk-taking environment.

The fact that such a mass of tech talent is now unshackled from the ossified corporate establishment means innovation can start in the garages again.

And it’s different this time. While Mr. Gates, Mr. Allen and Mr. Jobs were armed with soldering irons and extension cords in their quests to make their visions reality, the next generation of innovative geniuses will have much more powerful tools at their fingertips – namely, artificial intelligence.

AI has the potential to create a whole new ballgame. One person – or a small group – armed with laptops and AI can generate and develop big ideas quickly and at a fraction of the cost of such development in the old days.

Since innovation is driven by the propensity and ability to take risk – often advancing by trial and error – AI is a godsend. It will allow innovators to fail fast, testing propositions, assumptions and structures quickly, before moving to beta and beyond. In effect, AI will enable them to have a pretty good idea of whether or not the spaghetti will stick to the wall even before they throw it.

For investors and garage innovators alike, this prospect is like Christmas morning. Today, a modest angel investment of a few hundred thousand dollars has as much power – maybe even more – as one of millions of dollars 20 years ago. That’s because it now takes less money – and less time – to do more than ever before.

Will the renaissance of the garage as the preferred workplace for innovation answer the tough questions raised by the recent deep job cuts in tech? Can the modern tech whizzes capture lightning in a bottle the way Mr. Gates and Mr. Allen did in that cramped space in Albuquerque, N.M., and Mr. Jobs did in his childhood home in Los Altos, Calif.?

Maybe not. But there’s a good chance the big brains behind the next Magnificent Seven will come from the ranks of risk-takers whose visions aren’t dependent on – and, at times, stunted by – corporate shackles. They may even be out there now among the almost 300,000 laid-off tech workers looking for a little seed capital to launch their own ventures.

After all, that’s how the founders of many of the original seven started.

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