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Innovating with technology

Innovation: A Very Short Introduction

By Mark Dodgson and David Gann

The next big thing in innovation lies in the ways we innovate using technology. We’re used to thinking about innovations that are technologies — the computer, the Internet, the laser, and so on. But technology is now being used to produce better innovations than ever before. By better, we mean innovations that meet our personal, organizational, and social requirements in new and improved ways, and aren’t just reliant on the technical skills and imagination of corporate engineers and marketers.

Here’s some examples of what we mean. If you have ever been lucky enough to design and build a home, you would have been confronted by technical drawings that are incomprehensible to anyone but trained architects. Nowadays you can have a computerised model of your house that lets you move around it in virtual reality so that you get a high fidelity sense of the layout and feel of rooms. You get to know what it really will look like, and make changes to it, before a brick is laid.

Move up a level and consider the challenges confronting the redesign of Cannon Street station in London. This project involved not only redesigning the station, but also building an office block above it, whilst maintaining access to the fully operational Underground station beneath it. The project used augmented reality technology to assist the design and planning process. Using a smartphone or tablet, augmented reality overlays a digital model on the surrounding real world, so you can see hidden infrastructure such as optical fibers, sewers, and gas lines — and get a sense of what things will look like before work begins. This is especially valuable for dealing with various vintages of infrastructure in busy city environments and when there are concerns about maintaining the integrity of listed buildings.

The key principle in these examples is that non-specialists can become involved in decisions that were previously only made by experts.

Other technologies that encourage this ‘democratization’ of innovation include rapid prototyping. This technology changes the economics of manufacturing, so it becomes feasible to make bespoke, individualized products cheaply. If you design something yourself, you don’t need expensive molds, dies, and machine tools to make it. We are quickly developing technologies that can produce your designs on the spot on your desk.

The Internet underlies much of the advance in the ways we innovate. It allows us to collect information from a massively increased population of designers, producers and users of innovation. It connects ideas, people and organizations. Also important is the ‘Internet of things’ that is the vast number of mobile devices and sensors that are connected together and produce data that can be valuably used to make better decisions. Drivers’ mobile phones, for example, can locate cars and traffic jams and allow better planning of transport flows. We have it from a reputable source that more transistors — the building blocks of sensors and mobile devices — were produced last year than grains of rice were grown. And they were produced at lower unit cost.

We’re all much better attuned at processing images rather than text and data. Half our cerebral cortex is devoted to visualization. Technologies developed in the computer games and film industries — think Toy Story and World of Warcraft — are being used to help innovators in areas ranging from pharmaceuticals to emergency response units in cities. The capacity, which these new technologies bring to produce dynamic images of what was previously opaque technical information, underlies the greater engagement in innovation by a wider range of people.

The technology that seems likely to have the greatest impact globally on innovation is the smartphone. Just think how short a period of time we’ve been using them and yet how much we use them for. Quite apart from putting us in direct contact with the majority in the world’s population, we use them to shop, bank, pay bills, and map our way. We use a myriad of apps for all sorts of productive and entertaining purposes. Nearly 6 million of the world’s 7 million people have mobile phones and in many developing countries there are more mobiles than people.

These devices provide opportunities for innovation amongst billions of people that have previously been excluded from the global economy for lack of information and money. Smartphones provide everyone with access to all the staggering amount of information available on the web. They can also allow access to finance, especially small amounts of money. Less than 2 billion people in the world have bank accounts and banking on smartphones allows billions of previously disenfranchised people to borrow, trade, and be reimbursed for their ideas and initiative. In this way, technology makes innovation more inclusive and less the privilege of corporations with research and development departments. We look forward to a massive wave of exciting new and unimaginable ideas from all sorts of people from everywhere around the world.

Mark Dodgson is Director of Technology and Innovation Management Centre, University of Queensland Business School, and David Gann is Head of Innovation and Entrepreneurship at Imperial College London. They co-authored Innovation: A Very Short Introduction.

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Image credit: Above Cannon St Station, London, by Tom Morris (Creative Commons License). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

  1. Nasrin McGuire

    “Less than 2 million people in the world have bank accounts”

    According to the Economist in the West 89% of adults have accounts.
    According to the World Bank: 50 percent of adults worldwide have an account at a formal financial institution, though account penetration varies widely across regions, income groups and individual characteristics.

  2. Mark Dodgson

    Typo! 2 billion…

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