March 25, 2015
An innovation is a newly-invented product (service or technology) which has been successful on the market. When the first tablet came out, I was sceptical. How could it be better than a laptop computer? Being half the weight and offering twice the battery life surely did not make up for the missing keyboard and USB port. One day, a colleague handed me the device and showed a couple of applications he had installed on it. I only needed half an hour to change my mind. I realised that rather than replace the laptop, the tablet complemented it, offering new quality of communication. The tablet is always ready and intuitive to work with. To this day, and I started a good few years ago, I have not needed to consult the manual. The tablet is much better suited for reading daily newspapers and it is a handy resource for specialist articles, studies and books which you can access at any time. In other words, it was a device for which I had been waiting for a long time without even realising it. The success of the tablet showcases the tremendous potential of latent demand, which only becomes an economic force (effective demand supported by money) after being confronted with its ‘object of desire’, i.e. an innovation. However, we only realise that something is an innovation when the product meets latent demand, transforming it into effective demand. Few accomplish this feat. How do they do it and what makes them special?
Innovators observe reality and notice what others overlook: unsatisfied needs and unsolved problems. What makes them special is that they look at the world from a point in the future where these specific needs have been satisfied and the problems solved. They have a vision of a world they have changed and focus on making this vision a reality. Bear in mind that the innovative idea comes after the vision, so typically it is not clearly defined in the beginning. A long process of trial and error is required before the right solution is found. For instance, windscreen wipers could only work continuously up until 1969. Attempts were made to solve the problem of adapting their speed to rain intensity mechanically. However, it was the simple circuit breaker constructed by Robert Kearns that became a breakthrough. The history of the invention is worth knowing for one other reason as well. Notably, it demonstrates that innovations are created using components which have already been invented for a different purpose. Having patented the intermittent windshield wiper mechanism in 1964, Kearns decided to pitch the technology to the automotive industry’s Big Three. Although the idea had been rejected by all three companies, they started producing cars equipped with intermittent wipers as early as 1969. In 1978, Kearns took the Ford Motor Company to court over patent infringement, and did the same thing with Chrysler in 1982, but proving his case was not easy. The automotive companies argued that an invention should contribute something that is original and new. Ford maintained that Kearns’s patent was invalid, because his invention failed to incorporate any new components. Kearns countered that his invention was like a novel, which is composed of words which already exist. Having lost the case, Ford had to pay Kearns USD 10.1m in damages and agreed to drop all appeals. Kearns also won the case against the Chrysler Corporation. The history of the invention and the legal battle against the Ford Motor Company that ensued was pictured in the 2008 film “Flash of Genius”.
How to create breakthrough inventions? The most important thing is to start with a specific problem that needs to be solved, rather than a specific process that can be upgraded. Starting with the problem produces synergies which are hard to achieve if we take an existing technology as the starting point. What we need then is a vision of a future in which the problem has already been solved. The next step is to try and find solutions which will make this future a reality. In the beginning, there will be many innovative ideas, which we should not abandon. Later on, we will see that some of these are useless, some might help solve problems which are as yet distant, and so will not be pursued at the present time, while others are too expensive and should be shelved for now. A lot of water has to go under the bridge before the right solution is found and commercial success achieved. Nonetheless, the ideas rejected for various reasons along the way might help us solve other problems, such as building a circuit breaker for windshield wipers.