Three New Ways to Innovate and Stay Relevant

ILab Notes
How the social generation, armed with technology, changed the rules of innovation.

Note from our editor:

Last week, our lively post-millennial interns Diego and Marc wrote about how their generation sees innovation and the workplace; and gave us tips on how to design for them. This week, they focus on their collaborative mindset, with Diego debunking some assumptions companies have about social media and Marc explaining how the new innovation formats fit their wirk ethic. On this article, Marc explores three formats of innovation that are made for the way his generation approaches life: collaboratively and using technology. And although some of these new formats, like hackathons, have been going on for 20 years, it is not until now, as the new generations take over, that it left the realm of code-only competitions to approach innovation for all kinds of problems. Enjoy the words of new wisdom from our youngest ilabbers.

When it comes to innovation, don't dare look away.

Written by: Marc Velten-Lomelin,

Innovation is not what it used to be... thankfully.

Hiring the best minds from the best schools and throwing money at their pet projects no longer produces the transformative innovations that companies across all industries, and even government organizations, need to stay relevant and agile. Even the traditional methods of figuring out what customers want no longer work at ensuring you stay on top of your game. Relevancy has never been more fragile and you know it.

You know where the same old path to innovation will lead you...

Welcome to the world of technology-enabled collaborative innovation that produces the next big thing and solves the world's most pressing problems. This is the world of crowdsourcing ideas, of incubating startups and of breaking-through with hackathons. This is the world of the generation who grew up with social media and a more participatory education system that focused on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) to solve complex problems all around the world.

This social generation, which is rapidly becoming the bulk of your workforce and your market, innovates on their own "social" terms. In this article I explore three of the most effective ways to empower us to innovate your future.

1. Crowdsourcing innovation

When a startup like Bragi raises $3.4 million from strangers to bring to market "A.I. for your ears," its success doesn't have to be predicted by a know-all venture investor. Kickstarter didn't simply invent a platform for funding ideas using the crowd. They invented the most accurate success-prediction funding model ever. The people who paid Danish inventor Nikolaj Hviid $299 for a pair of earphones that didn't exist demonstrated real demand with their wallets while funding the company, making Bragi one of the "ten most successful companies built on Kicstarter," according to Forbes.

In 2015 energy company Tesla used the same crowdfunding model and "pre-sold" the non-existent Model 3 to 400,000 customers who paid $1,000 each, not only demonstrating overwhelming demand for a cheaper electric car, but raising big money towards building the plant to actually manufacture it. In 2006, even before Kickstarter even existed, Doritos transferred the creativity for its Superbowl ads to the crowd - having consumers use their cameras to film their ad entries and other consumers vote for the best - saving millions of dollars and time in creative talent from ad agencies, and most importantly, not having to guess what their consumers wanted to watch.

From raising money for a startup to predicting demand for the next Tesla to coming up with the Superbowl Doritos TV commercials, crowdsourcing as an innovative way to bring about transformative solutions is now pervasive. The new generations actually expect it from you. You're most likely already part of somebody's crowdsourcing innovation - comments on social media like "I wish this app could do..." go up to the cloud and into big data systems to help companies like Instagram and Linkedin develop new features people actually want without ever having to ask them. Several companies in Europe are applying crowdsourcing principles internally, using platforms like ProjectPad to foster internal innovation and have their employees come up and promote ideas that other employees pay to work on.

2. Incubating innovation

In February, Entrepreneur magazine published an article for entrepreneurs advising them that "You may need funding, but the benefits of corporate incubators and accelerators may do more for your startup than the money." The benefits go both ways. When dozens of people are already working on the next idea that will make your product irrelevant, the best way to survive is by bringing them in to collaborate with your team while they develop their idea. You can also do the same for technologies that make you more efficient and say goodbye to your traditional vendors before they're gone.

Incubating startups is a low-risk way to pay-to-play and ensure you're on top of the next big thing before it is on top of you. Time and again, big companies with plenty of resources to innovate simply don't, and before they know it, the market is disrupted by a bunch of twenty-year olds working from their basement. This is why AirB&B, and not Holiday Inn or Hilton, is the largest hospitality company in the world, or why you order an Uber before even thinking if taxis still exist.

No matter what you do, odds indicate that if you're a big company, you will not see transformative innovation coming your way until you're playing the catch-up game to the next Mark Zuckerberg. Unless, however, you expand your innovation capabilities by incubating startups, inviting those needy twenty-somethings to ruffle some feathers around and show your people unexpected ways of doing things better. Check out some of the incubators we run at Innovation Lab here.

3. Hacking innovation

Paradoxically, the marketing team at now defunct server giant Sun Microsystems came up with the term "hackathon" in 1999 as a mash up of the words "hack" and "marathon." Which is exactly what a hackathon is: a group of people competing to solve one issue in an "impossible" amount of time - usually a few days. Since then, organizations of all sizes run hackathons to tackle problems their internal teams have not been able to crack within their normal environments and timelines. Despite the constraints of time and focus, it is actually a rare occasion when the "hack" problem has not been successfully tackled - no matter what the hackathon was about.

Hackathons are used by forward-thinking companies and organizations to innovate in a myriad of areas. For example, earlier this year, Innovation Lab and Siemens ran a two-day hackathon amongst Siemens' internal team of engineers to make wind turbines more efficient. Just last week Innovation Lab ran another hackathon for Maersk. This one was with outside teams to source ideas for the future of tankers.

Also last week, fuel cell developer Arcola Energy in the UK ran a hackathon amongst teams of 8 to 18 year-old kids to "hack gadgets, appliances and toys to make them move faster, longer or to take first steps as an animate object," using hydrogen. This hackathon was also sponsored by Toyota and Shell, two companies definitely interested in things that move and the stuff that powers them.

Energizing innovation

From energy sustainability to education and health, the world needs transformative innovation. Us, the new generations that are taking charge, know that collaboration and sharing, magnified by technology as never before, is the way to get you there. Expect to see these new collaborative innovation models proliferate, and new ones sprout as we take over.

Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.