That morning, I was reading about Alan Kay and tumblred upon a talk he gave presenting Ivan Sutherland‘s Sketchpad project.
A simple idea, demoed well. What went wrong? Why isn’t this included in my version of Illustrator or Autocad?
This reminded me of the Internet Fridge. For the past year, Roo Reynolds has been curating a site , collecting all Internet Fridge ideas and the latest attempts of large white goods manufacturers to address this venn diagram that simply won’t stick: Food management and the internet. Brilliant idea, crap implementation over and over again. But the hope lives on. You could say that the same goes for the 1930s Dick Tracy watch which LG tried to launch and might come to life with Pebble. There is a lot of hope in technology and in other areas of innovation. It can be a useful form of short-sightedness.
So I thought I’d talk about the Internet Fridge Factor (IFF) as a shortcut to a series of ideas around innovation:
- recurring ideas in design
- ideas that are brilliant but make terrible products
- ideas that are old, but so good, people keep wanting them to happen no matter what
- ideas that take forever to come to life
- ideas that age well (we refer to jetpacks almost 100 years after they were first mentioned) and illustrate some parts of our lives haven’t changed that much
- ideas where the implementation is always a disappointment because it doesn’t live up to the hype.
It’s useful to look at crazy demos through this lens and realise how much of our innovation stems from the inability to admit ideological defeat. I get the feeling robots might come under this category for example. Time will tell I suppose, as usual.
Random conversation with Russell this morning prompted a Google hunt for businesses or projects that use the word “innovation”. It turns out that we quite like to put innovation in boxes of various sizes and like to judge its merit on an architectural scale. As innovation is something that’s quite intangible (it’s either happening or not) I suppose its normal we should try to measure it on a scale we understand.
I am starting to hate post-its. Mostly because they require a wall to stick them on or a flipchart, a whiteboard and a collection of otherwise horrible office furniture to make post-its work as a medium for sharing ideas.
And it turns out that type of furniture lives in very particular spaces. Innovation spaces. Spaces where the curators went through the whole catalogue of Unhappy Hipsters without understanding the irony. Those spaces and that furniture is believed to attract innovation and innovative people.
How did we get to this?
If you do the rounds of cities in the UK who struggle to compete with London as a magnet for “creatives”, they’ll all have a creative hub, space or whatever. I remain unconvinced that the Eames furniture, lime green carpets and post-it friendly walls with clever graphics achieve that. To me, it’s like suggesting creative people like living in an IKEA catalogue.
This is a problem of course for everyone. It fools the government into thinking Local Development Agencies (LDAs) attract young creative people in “the regions”, and it fails to support the local young talent who probably prefer hanging out with their laptop in a place with perfect coffee. After all that’s how the Royal Society was created…
The city also boasted some of the oldest coffee shops in Britain: places where those interested in science would meet, indulge in caffeine-fuelled debates, and even sometimes perform ad hoc experiments. (ref)
… much later mirrored by the San Francisco coffee startup culture.
“When you go into a Starbucks and you see people on their laptops it seems they could be sending e-mails to their moms or looking up an address on Google maps,” said Rich Moran, a partner with VenRock, a major venture capital firm in Menlo Park, Calif.
“And when you go into Ritual, it seems they’re either writing code or writing a blog or creating something with a widget that will make money for them this week, and that’s really different from a lot of the other places.” (ref)
I’ve been up and down the UK and those innovation spaces have the worst coffee in the universe. Just saying.
This perversion of “Always be closing” was a joke Mike and I shared as we walked down the streets of New York last January and got me thinking about the topic ever since. As the months trickled by and after working with some pretty big clients, having friends leave some of their jobs in big corporations, and attending last week’s R&D Society event on the topic of Space and R&D things started to crystallise further and I thought I’d share some quick thoughts.
1. Defining innovation is pointless
A theory of mine is that it’s easier to define when innovation is ABSENT rather than defining it ad nauseum.
“Following Schumpeter (1934), contributors to the scholarly literature on innovation typically distinguish between invention, an idea made manifest, and innovation, ideas applied successfully in practice. In many fields, such as the arts, economics and government policy, something new must be substantially different to be innovative. In economics the change must increase value, customer value, or producer value. The goal of innovation is positive change, to make someone or something better. Innovation leading to increased productivity is the fundamental source of increasing wealth in an economy. – says Wikipedia”
Innovation is something new and useful. That’s kindof it. Not a one-liner. Not something fluffy and useless. New. Useful.
The real challenge is exploiting that and fostering it. When it happens, you see it and you recognise it. When you can’t find it, it’s obvious (points to newspaper, publishing, music industry).
2. Corporate innovation is hard.
Start-ups are exciting. Even the EU Commission wants to be more like them according to Luis Rodriguez-Rosello, Acting Director of Directorate. In that spirit, they set up the Public-Private partnerships program (as exciting as it sounds trust me). How to become innovative is a big business, or at least look like you are. The ways in which this is actually done seems to vary according to how big your business is and your industry.
- The R&D Model.
Start an R&D department (Philips R&D is a good example or the now defunct Nokia Insight & Foresight) which is something you have to keep pushing for, ignore ROI for a while and try not to cut when the going gets tough. In the past year or so though, everyone cut R&D. Yahoo! ‘s Brick House is another example that comes to mind. The challenge with this model is in valuing the work everyone else does equally even if they are not part of the “department”.
- The half-baked R&D Model
Companies who don’t officially have a space for innovation but have one or 2 people who are creative and want to do r&d. So they make them do r&d mostly but brush it aside the second client work comes in. Really dangerous as a model as the level of frustration of those people escalates rather rapidly. You’re either dedicated to the idea that people can do good new and useful things in specific conditions where they are isolated from the everyday, or not. Don’t pretend.
- The OSMOSIS Model
Buy the right people through company acquisition (Nokia bought Dopplr and the product hasn’t moved since. They wanted the team, not the product.) and try not to bore them, or make them leave when their “golden handcuffs” are off and basically strive to make the internal culture map the start-up culture they left. Really hard. No easy answers here. Can’t think of examples of that model being a successful way to change the company culture.
- The ALPHA-PERSON Model
Hire the right people (JP at BT, Adam at Nokia and Ben at SIX come to mind.). These are people who will make waves and the point is, I guess, to allow them to rock the boat, because that’s kindof why you go them there in the first place. Does that work. I suppose, only time will tell.
- The START-UP & FLIP Model
So not quite corporate but becomes corporate very quickly. Small groups with lots of ambition and a lot of coffee and some VC backing. Add salt and pepper and wait 20 minutes and whatever it is they came up with will flourish, under specific circumstances, in the right economic climate, with the right backer, etc. Hard stuff but obviously a successful model of “innovation” that places like TechHub in London are attempting to support. If, as the E-myth goes, 80% of SMEs fail in the first 2 years, and 80% of that 20% fail in the subsequent years, you do the numbers. Saul Klein’s presentation on this topic from back in 2008 is very good.
3. So what?
It’s hard to be innovative and I personally think that the innovative stuff I see around me come from small companies with financial independence, lots of personalities and tons of ideas they bother to write about, blog about and express through their work. To build up innovation as a core value of your organisation is hard but worth doing. Apparently when Steve Jobs came back to Apple, he killed all R&D. If it was new and useless, why spend the money right? New. Useful. That’s it.
PS: I might expand on the win conditions in small businesses next time, as this will do for a Saturday in the office :)