Posted by: Helen Walters on May 13, 2008
Yesterday, we published an article by Bill Buxton, currently Principal Scientist at Microsoft (MSFT) and someone who has been at the forefront of technology innovation for years (he was involved in the development of enormously influential animation package, Maya, whilst at Alias Research in the early 1990s).
His piece sets out a really interesting proposition for harnessing and developing creativity. But the insight that really struck me is that the real power of innovation is in thinking about technology in large, cultural and societal terms. Technology can be a driver of innovation, for sure, but it is no end game in and of itself. Rather, thinking about technology’s impact on the world, of how we’ll work, live, play and exist, is a way to ensure that developments are meaningful and longer lasting.
Bill’s realization in the early 90s that dramatic changes in display technologies were on the horizon led to him asking a whole host of questions which had almost nothing to do with the nuts and bolts of what was possible with existing or approaching technology. Rather, his “what if”s got him framing his thinking in a whole different way. I don’t want to just paraphrase what he said here, but if you reduce his ideas ad (almost) absurdum, the logic has it that this process and his early experiments led first to Maya, enabled Surface and will lead to who knows what next down the road.
Or as he puts it rather more elegantly (seriously, just read the piece):
By asking the right questions, and then pursuing a path to answer them, we not only gained early insights into where things were going, we were able to incorporate those insights into our existing products, thereby both reaping benefits in the short term and preparing a product line for the future.
Many companies employ ethnographers and anthropologists to observe, monitor, assess what’s going on in order to inform developments now and in the future (check out our much earlier interview with Jan Chipchase from Nokia (NOK), who’s become something of a poster child for the movement). But the ability to step back and ask the big questions, the whys and the what ifs, should be ingrained in all facets of company culture. We’re all human, after all, whichever department we work in, and firms that can step back to look around and peer ahead will find they already have a foot in the future.
What comes next? The BusinessWeek Innovation and Design team of Michael Arndt and Helen Walters chronicle new tools for creativity and collaboration, innovation case studies in both the corporate and social sectors, and the new ideas that have the power to change the way things have always been done.