09 January 2010

Learning #1: Innovation is a tricky business.
My thoughts on this got stirred when Don Norman suggested that historically technology, not research has been the driver of major invention: "Design research is great when it comes to improving existing product categories but essentially useless when it comes to new, innovative breakthroughs."

There's more detail in his post but this article caused a bit of a stir to the point that numerous others have responded to his position. Here are a few that surfaced:

1. Steve Portigal
2. Bruce Nussbaum
3. Michael Surtees
4. Eric Small

Does everybody view innovation the same way?
I mention these other posts because the exchange represents an idea that I've been thinking about. Can innovation be universally measured? Today, something deemed innovative in North America might not hold the same position in Africa or Asia. And invention may result from necessity, which I would suggest is the most obvious form of research.

A Case Study to Clarify

The OLPC provides a case study of how more design research might have been extremely helpful for successful innovation and adoption of this low-cost computer (which some would consider to be a major breakthrough). I say this because there is much done in the name of design-invention-innovation-good intention that ends up wasted because it can't actually be sustained (which becomes notable as the new version is being developed).

To me, cultural and/or sociological understanding is vital to the design research process. These aspects force a thorough investigation of the place where an object or service might be introduced. Clearly, an attempt to improve education was a positive aspiration. But is it enough when discussing innovation for impact?

Even with its advances, I'm still left wondering:
a) if enough communication occurred to ensure the views and needs of the user were considered and,
b) if this consideration has improved the system of effective distribution.

I wonder if educational aspirations could be better served by innovating something already available. Could this offer a more affordable and accessible option for every child? Can this be developed even further?

Innovation and systems thinking

In my own circles, I've noticed that the word innovation is tossed around quite a bit. Perhaps I've been defining it incorrectly, but I think it inherently includes systems thinking. In light of Norman's list of inventions, I'm curious to know if we can still measure breakthroughs without clarifying their impact on the system. For example, if the airplane is being taken to task for its impact on the planet, can we continue to allow technology to be the driver of innovation? Does the future of our society and planet allow for it?

Whatever we're shooting for, be it invention or innovation, we should be asking if our design (in all its forms) can be sustained by the public for whom it's been created. I'm guessing we may want to consider how we measure this? Does this measurement need to be equal for everyone or are there unique attributes depending on the location, user and cost?

Moving Forward
In considering how we view invention or innovation, what will the design community pursue more avidly? Would we be satisfied to improve the existing technologies or are we inherently driven to discover the unknown?

One of twelve in this series

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