In my new role as director of the Innovation Lab it’s fascinating to check out the various formulas for innovation: not just to see how they come about, but particularly in terms of the effects. Hardly a superfluous luxury, you might think, in a world overflowing with exponential changes and increasingly shorter times to market.
The world is strongly marked by a previously unknown tsunami of technological change, including new generation robots, artificial intelligence, advanced brain science, genetics, nano technology and quantum computers. It’s hardly surprising when the experts suggest that we are on the cusp of a new industrial revolution. In turn, this imposes stringent demands on innovations: far more than in the past they must rapidly outpace the level of charming hobby projects; they will need greater impact and scale while winning the acceptance of large groups of users. In so doing innovations can help realise higher aims, also covering areas such as safety, sustainability and mobility.
Smoothly running diesel engine
It doesn’t take a prophet to point out that the current (linear) organisation is not the most ideal route to this type of innovation. Over the past several years this organisation has been magically transformed into a smoothly running diesel engine, based on values including ‘makeability’ (i.e.: predictability), ‘standard’ (one size fits all), ‘are you in control’ (no risks) and ‘who’s actually in charge’ (position and power). This organisation has the feeling of a stringently scheduled trip. This organisation is decked-out with complex reports and detailed schedules to enable answers to issues of steering, governance, budget and resources. And all this is packaged in slick management contracts.
Hierarchy versus network
So, it’s quite logical that innovations are organised side by side. This enables crucial ingredients, like network leadership (horizontal, triple helix based alliances), co-creation (with strongly developed interfaces between the various participants) and thinking rooted in higher societal objectives or higher functionality (rather than institute or organogram based). This permits ‘learning by doing’ steps – far removed from stifling blueprint thinking. In fact, this is nothing more than the difference between hierarchy (vertical, top-down) and network (horizontal, equal). After all, routine requires hierarchy: a single decision-making forum, clear starting and end points, a problem formulation whereby content has been defined and there is an approachable structure. Meanwhile, innovations require network-type settings with more decision-making rounds, actors that come and go and strategic actions, various forums, no fixed starting or end points and an issue open to multi-faceted consideration.
Well, maybe, but with all due respect to upmarket terminology like ‘triple helix’ and the troika of government, education, entrepreneurs: this party will always be supply-driven. The question then arises: how does one organise this social innovation? How do you get the user on board? How do you make sure that the end users modify their behaviour to meaningfully embrace the innovation? How do you enforce real break-throughs, entailing impact and scale? The answer is environment/user. And this counters the ‘We-are-building-a-bridge-what-a-pity-that-people-will-drive-over-it’ phenomenon.
I believe that there is one dominant key here: approach the issue from the angle of the end user. Whereby functionality takes a central position, self-evidently embellished with experience. This demands an integral approach with government and market working together! The example below shows safe, clean and reliable mobility, evidencing a strong ambition (no fatalities, no CO₂ emissions and no tailbacks):
Christmas eve 2020. Outside the wind cuts like a knife, inside there’s a cosy fire. Everybody looks forward to a special evening. You and your family take an Uber-like shared electric car from Breda to Eindhoven. Your journey is predictable – before you leave you get an exact briefing on your ETA, based on real time information on the traffic situation -, and you drive, via green waves, to the motorway, where your car is connected with its predecessor via a sort of wifi. This creates an organic traffic outlook, with everyone driving safely at the same speed – with no shockwave traffic jams. The fact that the government has applied financial incentives (based on the surcharge tariff) means the new concept has been embraced by all road users. In this context traffic management is service-oriented, based on the principles of predictability and self-steering, using floating car data.
A little voice tells me that this matches seamlessly with the message of the great Steve Jobs: ‘You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work back toward the technology, not the other way around.’ This is true in any language, that’s how he sold a billion iPhones.