Success in Innovation (Recipes for Success in Humanism)

We had a long discussion yesterday about the similarities between "social innovation" and "technical innovation" projects. There was broad general agreement that both of these are aspects of the same process, that is, that all social innovation is a form of a technical innovation, and the obverse.

I tried to make the point, though I'm afraid I mangled it a bit at the time in attempting to avoid being long-winded, that one of the most commonly cited paths to success in a technical marketplace is a focus on the human aspects of the change.

Case in point would be Apple (mentioned during the discussion), their technology is nothing special, but they focus on the emotional and social aspects of their technology, so that their customers can identify with their products and see the ownership of those projects as filling a psychological need.

The clear vision of the purpose of the product allows them to focus their energy and make decisions about what really matters, rather than expending energy on elements that are less interesting to their users.

OLPC would be another example, of course. By focusing on the needs of a particular group of people, and enabling a particular social phenomena (primary school education), we have produced a product that transcends the simple operation of the mechanical parts.

Again, the vision allows one to make decisions without mental grid-lock. We don't need the latest processor. We need power conservation. We don't need a huge, super-bright glossy screen for videos. We need a screen that can be read in sunlight with a very high resolution. And on an on, by understanding your vision, you are able to make many more decisions faster, and more reliably than if you are simply trying to build a technical device and see what can be sold.

That is, (as argued way back in my thesis), design is the process of altering a user's perception of their environment (for some purpose), all iterations and ideas beyond that are the details of how you are altering their perception. What we were discussing as "technical innovation" is merely a materialist interpretation of design, the idea that to alter the environment you must always physically change the environment, and that it is sufficient merely to change the physical environment.

MaRS has traditionally been involved in "technology-driven" innovation. Recognising that a particular technology or approach (already produced) would have a particular effect (i.e. recognising the effect that a technology already extant would have when applied to a given environment in a given way) can be successful, but it is likely to be a poorer design when so approached. A design which sees the technological advance as part of a larger goal, which attempts to solve a problem for a user-group, rather than attempting to push a technology at them, is far more likely to succeed.

[Update] Jesse has some comments on the day as well.


  1. Sameer Verma

    Sameer Verma on 10/21/2007 1 a.m. #

    A lot depends on how you define the unit of innovaton. If the unit in case of the OLPC project is the mode of education, then indeed the social/process innovation approach would be more fruitful. However, if we were to examine the project specifically from say, the hardware perspective, a product innovation approach would be more apt.<br />
    <br />
    I am teaching "Emerging technologies and business implications" in our Executive MBA program for the next few weeks and we will be looking at OLPC as one of the cases. The outcome should be interesting. I think there is room for both approaches. The education aspect can be studied as a process innovation, while the hardware, software and networks can be examined as product innovations.

  2. Mike Fletcher

    Mike Fletcher on 10/21/2007 11:47 a.m. #

    You certainly could look any project on both scales, and the general agreement at the meeting was that the two scales are really one, that all technical innovation is just a way of expressing social innovation. No technical innovation becomes useful unless and until it alters people's "social" operations (included there are "personal" operations). That is, while some fascinating technology might allow some other designer to pick up and produce something interesting, without the social innovation of use, and the change in people's experience of their environment, there is little value to the society in the innovation.

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