What’s New in Innovation: Five Trends Worth Thinking About

fraser ethical funds
I haven’t written much about innovation lately, but that’s not because it isn’t important. It’s mostly because, at levels of energy that have a broad social or environmental impact, there simply isn’t much of it going on. Lots of R&D, lots of design aimed to make products sexier (and sometimes more user-friendly), and, depressingly, a ton of marketing aimed at making consumers feel better about paying too much for foreign-made crap and lousy service.

But among all this business-as-usual there are five trends that are promising, and which, if they continue, could actually help meet real human needs and make the world a better place:

1. Co-development with cohorts: The idea of co-development and peer production of products and services with customers, citizens and employees is still relatively new, and gaining steam slowly. What’s interesting is its corollary: That co-develoment and peer production is probably best done by cohort groups. In terms of the need/affinity matrix that means that once a group with a common need or affinity has co-developed one new product or service, it probably makes sense to tap their energies and talents to co-develop more, instead of establishing new cohort groups around other needs or affinities. Why? Because these cohorts are more likely to share values, worldviews, experiences and needs that would make such co-development easier, more enjoyable and more fruitful. What’s more, it takes a while for a group working on some open source or peer production project to gel, to get to know each other, so once they’ve done that they’re further along the collaboration learning curve and hence more likely to be effective, faster, in their next project. And as they age, their needs are likely to co-evolve along similar lines, so they are likely to endure as cohorts.

2. Government-supported user-centred entrepreneurship: Instead of spending R&D moneys on self-serving large corporations, oligopolies and academic institutions, we should be following the Danish model of investing R&D in user co-development and peer production groups who are driven by personal needs to produce something of value (often to the point they will do so even if there is no funding whatever). It only makes sense that the ROI on such an investment is likely to be much greater than investments in big organizations whose main skill is crafting clever funding proposals for governments. And the average user-centred investment is likely to be much smaller, allowing many more projects to be funded. The problem, of course, is the government approval bureaucracy ñ it probably needs to be dismantled and replaced by an agency that is measured by the number and diversity of initiatives it sponsors rather than the amount of paper it produces. Who knows, such an initiative could produce thousands of disruptive innovations like this entrepreneurial one in the guitar market, and in the process break down oligopolies instead of propping them up.

3. Engaging the subconscious mind in innovation: The innovation programs I’ve been involved in have mostly been tightly managed and measured by ‘objective’ criteria, and discouraged the kind of wild ideas that come out of holistic thinking (ever seen a chorus of raised eyebrows shut up a brilliant, half-thought-out, totally unorthodox idea before it can even be considered)? We are taught to believe that only intellectually-reasoned, consciously thought-out concepts are defensible, and to distrust our instincts, emotions and senses if they ‘tell’ us to do something different from what simple rational linear thought would dictate. Indigenous cultures know that allowing our unconscious minds time to integrate instinctive, emotional and sensory information (much of it subconscious) with conscious thinking leads to better decisions. Even our unimaginative culture acknowledges that ‘sleeping on it’ can help clarify and focus and bring new ideas to bear on a problem. What we need are innovation programs that teach and encourage such holistic thinking and the synthesis of all four types of knowledge.

4. Giving customers and citizens an ethical alternative: As Karen Fraser argues in the HBR breakthroughs list (the graphic above is from her article), the reason many of us continue to buy from unethical vendors is that we don’t have any ready alternative. The oligopolies love this, since it causes the customer to give up trying to live a socially and environmentally responsible life, and instead become a mere consumer of what the oligopolies are pushing. When a company like the Body Shop comes along to rock the boat, its industry first heaps vitriol on the threat and then copies it, usually dishonestly, using misleading ads and greenwashing to try to represent itself as ethical when it really isn’t, so that when the fraudsters are finally exposed (BP, Shell, etc.) the public becomes even more cynical and is less likely to believe any truly ethical alternative exists. What we need to do is understand how the real ethical alternatives, companies like flooring manufacturer Interface Carpets, manage to become powerhouses in their industries, and then we need to find ways to publicly sponsor promotions for such companies (they are, after all, providing an important public service, even if they are profit-oriented). [Full disclosure: I have some shares in Interface].

5. Letting us all be virtually beautiful: As gasoline becomes more expensive, we are going to be spending more and more of our time communicating virtually instead of face to face. That’s a shame in a way (communication is nearly always better face to face) but new technologies are emerging that make virtual communication less awkward, and less travel also has environmental benefits. But this article hints at the possibility that we may be able to make ourselves ‘virtually’ more beautiful as well. And what’s the harm in that? If we’re looking at people on-camera, it’s nicer to see people who are attractive-looking. It can help our self-esteem to be seen as attractive and complimented for it. It may even positively affect our credibility and career success (lots of studies suggest beautiful people are considered more honest, and get ahead further and faster than their similarly-competent but less attractive peers). So if you look more attractive to your customers, your boss, your staff, your parents, your grandchildren, than you really are, is that dishonest? Does it indicate some personality flaw to want to do so? Maybe. But we all like attention and appreciation, and if technology can help us get it, I think that’s a plus. Of course, virtual dating services may have some problems with it. But is it really all that different from makeupand girdles?

Thanks to Innovation Weekly for all the links above.

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2 Responses to What’s New in Innovation: Five Trends Worth Thinking About

  1. patrick says:

    ‘Does it indicate some personality flaw to want to do so?’In response – yes. we are so inundated with messages of lack of essential beauty that we feel the need to change our appearance. makeup and girdles aren’t an indication in and of themselves of insecurity, but my guess would be that the majority of people use them to cover up something they believe is unattractive. playing into this by suggesting altering ourselves is just another way to abstract from reality and face the hurt inside. we need to stop trying to be something else.

  2. Perry says:

    The Body Shop was misleading customers all along. They built their “animal-free” testing reputation on the backs of all the other companies that came before them. And then they sell-out to L’Oreal. To most companies, money trumps ethics.

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