The Future of Innovation

Stephen DeAngelis

January 7, 2010

Innovation often starts when an individual with an inquisitive mind bumps up against a challenge and asks why current solutions to that challenge are inadequate. The next step in the innovative process is when that same individual creates something that works better. Sometimes the answer is simply a matter of coming up with a better design. Designers are certainly creative people; but, Don Norman, a cognitive scientist who studies, teaches, and writes about the relationship between technology and people, believes that designers sometimes take themselves too seriously [“Technology Vs. Design–What is the Source of Innovation?,” by Bruce Nussbaum, BusinessWeek, 22 December 2009]. Nussbaum writes:

“Norman tells designers to get over themselves. It is science and technology that drive truly disruptive innovation, not Design’s focus on the needs and wants of people. Ethnographic research, Norman says, can generate small, incremental innovations but the blockbuster game-changing stuff, comes from the lab, not the village or the mall. Norman states: ‘I’ve come to a disconcerting conclusion: design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs.’ In short, tech trumps culture. New technology comes first. Inventing new products comes second. Finding new needs for those products comes third.”

I think Norman is absolutely correct that technology comes first while products and their uses follow. I’ve often noted in my blogs that innovators never really know how their innovations are going to be used until they get them into the hands of a lot of different people. Technologies of all kinds have been repurposed for uses other than their original one. Nussbaum is surprised, however, that these conclusions come from a man whose most famous books are The Design of Everyday Things and Emotional Design: Why We Love (or Hate) Everyday Things and author of “dozens of pieces on user experience and emotion. Nussbaum, however, is not so sure that Norman is correct. He continues:

“It is within an intellectual spirit when I say that Don Norman draws erroneous conclusions from the weirdest atavistic analysis I’ve seen in a decade. To me, the key to innovation, big and small, is the socialization of invention. It is the designer who is the interlocutor between technology and society. In fact, it is often the designer who is the vector of technology to society (and I am deeply indebted to Paula Antonelli, senior curator at MOMA in New York, for teaching me this through her incredible exhibit, Design and the Elastic Mind and many shared conferences). Norman has a model of innovation that is top-down, one-way and very old. It goes this way. Engineers invent. Marketeers construct products around the new technology. Designers put on a pretty face. And then the stuff is thrown at the consumer marketplace, with the hope that it finds a need or a want. In the past, sometimes it did. Often it didn’t. You could argue that this, in some sense, was socialization of invention into innovation and I would agree. But it is a wasteful, inefficient hierarchical process that is out of date today. Paul Saffo says that in the past, inventions often took 20 years or a generation to get accepted in society and have an impact on economic growth. Nuclear, genomics, robotics are all about two decades old now and we’re still waiting for the big innovation payoffs. Maybe we’ll get it. But we don’t have to wait and repeat the past.”

I’m sympathetic to Nussbaum’s point. I’ve also written that something isn’t truly innovative until it moves from the realm of ideas and becomes reality. But I’m not sure that Norman is arguing something different. Norman is answering a “chicken and egg” question (noting that the egg (i.e., technology) comes first, but that doesn’t mean that the chicken that follows isn’t important). In many ways, inventors and designers are two sides of the same coin; but Nussbaum appears to want to pit them against one another while Norman does not. What Nussbaum really wants to do is throw his support to a new process for innovation that he thinks is less linear than the process described above by Norman. He writes:

“Thanks to design thinking and new tools and methods in ethnographic research, we now have a new model of innovation that is flat, open-source and dynamic. It pulls people into an engagement with technologists early and perhaps more productively, rather than have them wait for technologies that may evolve into innovations they can actually use. Ethnographic research is especially important in an era of co-creation and social media, where consumers demand a say in creating the products and services they use, whether it is music, health care or education. In fact, technology today is more about building open platforms that are tools that consumers then use to make, often in collaboration with friends, their own stuff. It’s all about the social. The iPhone and applications are the best examples of this. No wonder economists are talking about the ‘iPhonization’ of the US economy.”

Even in Nussbaum’s innovation model, technology precedes design. What’s new is that design gets thrown in much earlier in the development process so that socialization comes faster than in the past. I agree wholeheartedly with what Nussbaum argues next:

“It is often said that invention is not innovation and I believe it. Invention has to have socio-economic value to become innovation. It has to be socialized or else it sits in the lab. Xerox Parc was famous for the huge number of digital inventions that never became innovations until people outside Xerox connected them to what people wanted in a PC. Dean Kamon’s Segway is a great invention still waiting for socialization to become an innovation that adds value to people’s lives. The entire Japanese robot technology industry is an example of invention that is not innovation because outside the labs, there is no use for them (unlike the lowly iRobot Roomba which does something useful–it cleans our floors).”

In a previous blog, I wrote something very similar: “A lot of innovations are the result of someone with a passion asking questions about things that others either put up with or never wonder about. Often the result causes people to slap their foreheads and ask, ‘Why didn’t I think of that?’ There is a big difference, however, between ideas and innovations. Ideas without actions are simply dreams and never result in that ‘head thumping’ moment. Innovations are ideas in action. All innovators know that the path between idea and innovation is a difficult and often long one.” Nussbaum is arguing that even prototypes don’t count as innovations. Only the widespread, life-changing use of technologies really counts. He concludes:

“Now sometimes inventors act as designers and connect their inventions to society by understanding the needs of that culture. Edison was clearly both an inventor and designer, which made him an innovator. The US has just had its own Lost Decade of prosperity precisely because it failed to understand the distinction between invention and innovation and the critical role design research can play in socializing technology and generating economic growth. I’ve just returned from a trip to Asia where the conversation is about moving away from math, science and technology toward design and social science in order to promote innovation only to find the conversation in the US moving in the opposite direction.”

Mary Tripsas, an associate professor in the entrepreneurial management unit at the Harvard Business School, agrees with Nussbaum that socializing technology and ethnographic research are becoming more important [“Seeing Customers as Partners in Invention,” New York Times, 27 December 2009]. She writes:

“In a world of online user communities, social media, interactive blogs and other technological means for companies to elicit customer feedback, you might think that face-to-face interaction is a thing of the past. Think again. As a company, 3M is at the forefront of a movement that appears to be gaining traction: customer innovation centers, typically located near company research facilities, that provide a forum for meeting with corporate customers and engaging them directly in the innovation process. When many people hear the name 3M, they may think only of canary-colored Post-it notes. But the company is applying wide-ranging technical expertise to a portfolio of products including transportation systems, dental and medical devices and electronics. One of its latest is a pocket-sized LED projector that connects to cellphones, P.D.A.’s and digital cameras. The company opened its first customer innovation center in Sumitomo, Japan, in 1997, followed by others throughout the world, including sites in Brazil, Germany, India, China and Russia. This month, it announced that it would open its 23rd center next year, in Dubai. The idea behind the centers is to foster innovation by combining a richer understanding of customer needs with creative links among 3M technologies. ‘Being customer-driven doesn’t mean asking customers what they want and then giving it to them,’ says Ranjay Gulati, a professor at the Harvard Business School. ‘It’s about building a deep awareness of how the customer uses your product.’ Professor Gulati recently completed a book, ‘(Re) (Organize) for Resilience,’ about how to make customers the center of a business.”

The design firm IDEO has been using design teams that immerse themselves in the user’s environment for years, but innovation centers are more directly tying inventors to users early in the process. Tripsas explains:

“A typical customer day at a 3M center begins with a team from a visiting company presenting an overview of their business to a group of 3M marketing and technology experts who pepper them with open-ended questions. The goal is to understand ‘what our customers are trying to accomplish, not what they say they need,’ says John Horn, vice president for research and development at 3M’s industrial and transportation business.”

Another Harvard Business School professor, Clayton Christensen, noted in his book The Innovator’s Dilemma that one of the things that many businesses do wrong is to listen to their customers. By that he means that manufacturers give the customer what he or she says they want without really understanding what they are trying to accomplish. The approach described above is meant to avoid that pitfall. Tripsas continues:

“Next is a visit to the ‘World of Innovation’ showroom. The company has more than 40 of what it calls technology platforms — core technologies in areas like optical films, reflective materials, abrasives and adhesives — that can potentially be combined and applied to meet a range of needs in different markets. By exposing customers to these platforms, 3M hopes to prompt the type of novel connections — like using dental technology to improve car parts — that drive innovative solutions. ‘We never show completed products,’ Dr. Horn says. ‘Doing that would constrain people’s thinking.'”

Horn confirms what Norman was saying (i.e., technology comes first); but he was also supporting Nussbaum’s arguments that by letting customers provide input early in the lengthy, more linear process he believes Norman was promoting, the “concept to consumer” process can be speeded up. Tripsas then asks, “Does it work?”

“Dr. Horn says that ‘the innovation center experience isn’t just about making everyone feel good.’ It has helped 3M to establish productive, long-term customer relationships. For instance, 3M and the Visteon Corporation, an automotive supplier that is one of its customers, have worked together in the development of a next-generation concept vehicle that incorporates 3M technologies not originally developed with automotive applications in mind. Visteon’s visit to the innovation center, combined with follow-up collaboration, led to the idea of using 3-D technology from 3M for navigation displays, Thinsulate materials to reduce noise and optical films to hide functional elements of the dashboard unless the driver wants them displayed.”

Tripsas notes that 3M is not alone in opening up innovation centers. Other corporations that have opened such centers include the Hershey Company and Pitney Bowes. She concludes:

“The terms ‘customer driven’ and ‘solutions’ seem to be in every manager’s lexicon. But as Professor Gulati notes, ‘it’s an execution problem.’ Companies, he says, ‘aren’t generally structured to access, absorb or utilize customer insights since they are organized by product, not by customer.’ By focusing on the customer, innovation centers may be a way to turn good managerial intentions into concrete, valuable products.”

I don’t see a big disconnect between what Norman was claiming about the importance of technology versus design and what Nussbaum and Tripsas were advocating about socializing technologies early in the process. In a world whose pace is ever quickening, it makes sense to promote processes that also quicken the pace of technology socialization. As we begin a new decade, let’s hope that it is not a “lost decade” like many people are claiming the past one has been. That will only happen if technologies turn into innovations that create jobs and help make the world a more productive, cleaner, and sustainable place to live.