Innovating in ever-faster world

The pace of change is quickening as successive technological breakthroughs accelerate innovation, writes Charles Orton-Jones

When will robots overtake humans as the most intelligent life forms on Earth? Futurist Ray Kurzweil reckons the moment will arrive in 2045. That’s closer to today than when Bruce Springsteen recorded Born to Run. Kurzweil sees a world where machines take control of their own development, and Homo sapiens merge with silicon and metal in what really will be a cyber-age.

The details of this new world are sketchy, but the timeline is posited with a spooky level of confidence. When another futurist pooled a range of forecasts in his profession at the Singularity Summit last year, the median estimate for the dawn of the post-human era was 2040. Stay off the fried food and you should live long enough to see it.

The really fascinating part is the reasoning behind these forecasts. Futurists point to the Law of Accelerating Returns. Each breakthrough helps foster further breakthroughs. The time between each eureka moment decreases as the speed of innovation accelerates. Plot technological progress on a chart and you have a line shooting for the stars rather than a straight line. Improvements get faster and faster and faster.

Take computer chips. The founder of chip-maker Intel, Gordon Moore, forecast in 1965 that the transistor-density of computer chips would double every two years. The law has held true –which is astounding. When something keeps doubling, the impact of the last iteration is as great as all the previous improvements put together. This is why computers have gone from the size of warehouses to wafer-thin silicon so cheap you’ll find them in musical Christmas cards.

Set big hairy audacious goals… then invite a range of cross-functional free-thinkers to join you in thinking the impossible

Exponential improvement can be found in every field of technology, from the cost of digital storage, the cost of sequencing a human chromosome, sending a megabyte of data wirelessly or the growth of data produced by humans. Improvement is accelerating.

So what does this mean for you? The obvious answer is that you need to be surfing this wave of improvement. You need to be innovating and harnessing the innovation of others.

Perhaps more interesting is how you innovate. Will Chadwick, vice president of Tata Interactive Systems, advises: “Set big hairy audacious goals for a period of at least three years hence, visualised by a graph showing a steeply increasing curve, that cannot be achieved by ‘business as usual’. Then selectively invite a range of cross-functional free-thinkers to join you in thinking the impossible.”

Education giant Pearson has launched Pearson Catalyst, an incubator for the most ambitious start-ups in education. Pearson knows that education is on the brink of a technological revolution and knows that it needs to be in touch with the most creative minds in the industry. The scheme will provide mentoring and advice for ten lucky start-ups. More than 200 firms have applied – evidence of just how fertile this niche is set to be.

A universally applauded innovation technique is to gather ideas from as wide a range of parties as possible. The world’s largest carpet-tile maker, Interface, has a strong system in place to ensure this. “The only way to achieve genuine, long-term innovation is to listen to people and their opinions, no matter who they are,” says Interface’s chief innovations officer Nigel Stansfield. “We use a ‘crowd sourcing’ platform to do this called the Innovation Farm. This is an online forum that allows people to put forward suggestions or ideas which the entire global company can share and comment on.

“This collaborative approach, which we call ‘co-innovation’, enables everyone to innovate together across regions and business functions, allowing the best ideas to rise to the top naturally.” The result has a been a long list of industry firsts, such as switching from nylon to eco-friendly castor-plant oil and recycling discarded fishing nets in the Philippines into carpet tiles.

Accumulation of little improvements or the “aggregation of marginal gains” turned the British Olympic cycling team into serial gold-medal winners and will work in your firm too. The London Air Ambulance Service worked with mobile network EE to replace printed call-out sheets with iPads. A tiny switch, but one which shaves minutes off response times and allows liaison with on-the-ground medical staff.

And the don’ts? Brian Millar, head of strategy at Sense Worldwide, points to focus groups as the villains of innovation. “Focus groups are an idea-killing machine. They’re as useful as throwing somebody in a river to see if they’re a witch,” he says.

“Aeron chairs, Red Bull, PCs and Pop Tarts all died in research. The only way to test a product is to launch it. Launch prototype versions in test markets. Recruit groups of creative, design-literate customers who’ll bring you feedback. And if they don’t like it, don’t kill the idea straight away. Do what they do in Silicon Valley – ask if the technology can be repurposed and pivoted.”

Above all, never stop trying to innovate. The race for technological supremacy is getting faster all the time. Only those who set out to win stand any chance at all of surviving.