Is Innovation Overvalued?

Aeon: “As the pursuit of innovation has inspired technologists and capitalists, it has also provoked critics who suspect that the peddlers of innovation radically overvalue innovation. What happens after innovation, they argue, is more important. Maintenance and repair, the building of infrastructures, the mundane labour that goes into sustaining functioning and efficient infrastructures, simply has more impact on people’s daily lives than the vast majority of technological innovations.”

“First, it is crucial to understand that technology is not innovation. Innovation is only a small piece of what happens with technology. This preoccupation with novelty is unfortunate because it fails to account for technologies in widespread use, and it obscures how many of the things around us are quite old … common objects, like the electric fan and many parts of the automobile, have been virtually unchanged for a century or more. Yes, novel objects preoccupy the privileged, and can generate huge profits. But the most remarkable tales of cunning, effort, and care that people direct toward technologies exist far beyond the same old anecdotes about invention and innovation.”

“Second, by dropping innovation, we can recognise the essential role of basic infrastructures … Third, focusing on infrastructure or on old, existing things rather than novel ones reminds us of the absolute centrality of the work that goes into keeping the entire world going … most of this work falls far outside the realm of innovation. Inventors and innovators are a small slice … The most unappreciated and undervalued forms of technological labour are also the most ordinary: those who repair and maintain technologies that already exist, that were ‘innovated’ long ago.”

“Entire societies have come to talk about innovation as if it were an inherently desirable value, like love, fraternity, courage, beauty, dignity, or responsibility. Innovation-speak worships at the altar of change, but it rarely asks who benefits, to what end? A focus on maintenance provides opportunities to ask questions about what we really want out of technologies. What do we really care about? What kind of society do we want to live in? Will this help get us there?”

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How Walking Influences Thinking

Quartz: “The precise physiology is unknown, but professors and therapists are turning what was once an unquestioned instinct into a certainty: Walking influences our thinking, and somehow improves creativity. Last year, researchers at Stanford found that people perform better on creative divergent thinking tests during and immediately after walking. The effect was similar regardless of whether participants took a stroll inside or stayed inside, walking on a treadmill and staring at a wall. The act of walking itself, rather than the sights encountered on a saunter, was key to improving creativity, they found.”

“It’s not exactly clear why walking is helpful to so many thinkers, but ‘it could be that the brain is focusing on doing a task it’s quite good at’ … which then allows it to free up and relax. Exercise is known to improve mood, and so it’s likely that the aerobic activity has an effect. But it’s not clear whether more intense forms of exercise has exactly the same effect as walking.”

“Barbara Oakley, engineering professor at Oakland University who wrote a book about learning effectively which includes the benefit of walking, says in an interview that we make a mistake of thinking that we’re only learning when we’re focused. In fact, walking allows us subconsciously process and think in a different way … Meanwhile, several therapists have embraced the benefits of walking, by only conducting sessions outside. Clay Cockrell, who runs a walking therapy practice in New York, says he believes the motion, as opposed to sitting on a couch, allows for more free form thinking.”

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Steve Case: The Internet’s Third Wave Is Here

The “third wave” of the Internet is upon us, writes AOL co-founder Steve Case in The Wall Street Journal. “The First Wave was about building the Internet,” he writes. “This phase peaked around 2000, setting the stage for the Second Wave, which has been about building apps and services on top of the Internet.”

“Now the Third Wave has begun. Over the next decade and beyond, the Internet will rapidly become ubiquitous, integrated into our everyday lives, often in invisible ways. This will challenge industries such as health care, education, financial services, energy and transportation.”

“Take education … entrepreneurs are revolutionizing how instructors teach and students learn … Or look at health care … the real action to improve America’s medical system is coming from entrepreneurs. They are inventing better ways to keep us healthy, and smarter ways to treat us when we get sick.”

“The world is changing for all of us, and a new playbook is required.”

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Introducing the Meat-O-Mat!

The Wall Street Journal: “Attached to a laboratory-like plant in this upstate community is a neon-lit vending machine dubbed the Meat-O-Mat, where customers can buy locally raised meat whenever they like. If Joshua Applestone has his way, carnivores will flock to it the way that banking customers visit the ATM. His invention is stocked with pork chops, dry-aged burger patties, bratwurst meatballs and his beloved pork roll, a deli meat native to New Jersey. Customers swipe their credit cards, push a button, slide the door open and retrieve their hormone- and antibiotic-free selection.”

“Mr. Applestone and his partners at Applestone Meat Co., the attached plant, are attempting to develop a new, meat-centric business model. For the past two years, they have been exploring ways of making high-quality cuts available at lower prices by slashing labor costs and considering offbeat distribution methods like the Meat-O-Mat. ‘We’re going for a highway-roadside-attraction type of approach,’ said Samantha Gloffke, the company’s general manager and a part owner. ‘The goal is to make sustainability really exciting.'”

Mr. Applestone envisions them stationed at supermarkets, football stadiums and picnic sites, places where you might welcome the convenience of buying something to toss on the grill. ‘Think about it at any music festival,’ he said. ‘Anywhere someone brings a cooler, you no longer have to bring fresh meat. How much is peace of mind worth?'”

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MIT & Target Take Aim at Truth in Produce

The Washington Post: Imagine a scanner the size of a grain of rice, built into your phone. You go to the grocery store and point it at something you want to buy. If it’s an apple, the scanner will tell you what variety it is, how much vitamin C it has and how long it has been in cold storage. If it’s a fish, you’ll learn whether it’s really orange roughy or just tilapia being passed off as something more expensive. If it’s a muffin, the device will tell you whether there’s gluten in it.”

“Although you won’t be able to do it tomorrow, this isn’t some kind of distant Jetsonian vision of the future … TellSpec and SCiO, are working on handheld scanners designed for consumer use … Target, one of the nation’s largest retailers, is collaborating with MIT and business design firm Ideo in a venture called Food + Future coLab, based in Cambridge, Mass., which has the broad mission of helping consumers better understand their food.”

Target “is putting industrial-strength scanners in its distribution centers … According to Casey Carl, Target’s chief strategy and innovation officer, ‘We’ll deliver better freshness, quality and shelf life,’ because produce that’s old or inferior — or not what the label promises — will never make it to the floor.”

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The Uber Model Isn’t Uber Great for Others

“Investors saw Uber’s success as a template for Ubers for everything … But Uber’s success was in many ways unique,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “For one thing, it was attacking a vulnerable market. In many cities, the taxi business was a customer-unfriendly protectionist racket that artificially inflated prices and cared little about customer service.”

“The opportunity for Uber to become a regular part of people’s lives was huge. Many people take cars every day, so hook them once and you have repeat customers. Finally, cars are the second-most-expensive things people buy, and the most frequent thing we do with them is park. That monumental inefficiency left Uber ample room to extract a profit even after undercutting what we now pay for cars.”

“But how many other markets are there like that? Not many. Some services were used frequently by consumers, but weren’t that valuable — things related to food, for instance, offered low margins … Another problem was that funding distorted on-demand businesses. So many start-ups raised so much cash in 2014 and 2015 that they were freed from the pressure of having to make money on each of their orders … The lesson so far in the on-demand world is that Uber is the exception, not the norm. Uber, but for Uber — and not much else.”

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Sharp’s Quirky Culture is Innovation Key

The Wall Street Journal: “With a nearly $6 billion takeover up in the air, Sharp Corp. this week highlighted its latest lineup of quirky consumer products … Among the offerings: the Plasmacluster, an ionic air purifier that also captures mosquitoes … Consumers in Japan are now awaiting the RoboHon—a mobile phone and pet robot … With the market for smartphones nearing saturation, Sharp hopes the robotcum-phone will represent the next step in mobile communication.”

“One secret to Sharp’s innovation is its laid-back culture … product planning and design were always freewheeling, reflecting a taste of its home base in Osaka, Japan’s comedy mecca … Sharp’s quirkiness isn’t limited to product design. Its official Twitter account features irreverent, self-deprecating humor, even about its products’ sometimes-limited appeal.” Sample Tweet: “We also have earphones, which won’t cap earholes and are very rare. You won’t see them around because many retail stores won’t carry them.”

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Go Cubes: Technology As a Lifestyle Brand

“This year SXSW … feels like a story of how the tech ethos has escaped the bounds of hardware and software,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Tech is turning into a culture and a style, one that has spread into new foods and clothing, and all other kinds of nonelectronic goods. Tech has become a lifestyle brand. … physical products that aren’t so much dominated by new technology, but instead informed by the theories and practices that have ruled the tech business.”

For example: “Go Cubes, the caffeine-infused gummy snacks that have been compared to candied nuggets of cocaine,” from a company called Nootrobox, makers of “supplements that the founders say enhance human cognitive capabilities … The company grew out of an online movement of ‘biohackers’ — people who congregate on sites like Reddit to discuss how a variety of foods and other chemicals, from caffeine to street drugs to Alzheimer’s medicine from Russia, alter their focus, memory and other cognitive abilities. Nootrobox aims to find the most effective of these compounds — and only the ones deemed legal and safe for use in the United States — and turn them into consumer products.”

“Traditional coffee is an inconsistent product, they argue — each cup may have significantly more or less caffeine than the last — and it can have undesirable side effects, like jitteriness. Go Cubes … are meant to address these shortcomings. The cubes are more portable than coffee, they offer a precise measure of caffeine, and because they include some ingredients meant to modulate caffeine’s sharpest effects, they produce a more focused high. The cubes run about $1.70 for the price of two that are meant to equate to a cup of coffee.”

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Nike’s Blue Ribbon Studio: The ‘Ultimate Creative Indulgence’

“On the western edge of the Nike campus there is a glass and steel building that is not like the others,” reports The New York Times. “It is not named after an athlete, like the John McEnroe building, where the executive offices are, or the Tiger Woods, where the conference center is. It is not all blond wood and long corridors, as are the rest of the structures.”

“Rather, it is an airy, loftlike space called Blue Ribbon Design Studio, which opened just a year ago. It is full of bolts of fabric and sewing machines, silk-screen printers and other creative tools, and looks like nothing so much as ‘art school but better,’ according to Ryan Noon, who directs it … The space even has its own scent, which Mr. Noon created and named ‘Freedom of the Creative Mind,’ a combination of canvas, gesso, sawed wood and ‘sexy Nike designer sweat,’ he said. Also its own uniform: graphic light blue and white smocks, ‘like what they wear in couture ateliers.'”

“Blue Ribbon was built, he said, because Nike realized that its designers needed an unstructured space where they could just play around and make things — almost anything they wanted. It is the ultimate creative indulgence.”

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John Maeda: Three Kinds of Design

John Maeda, a design partner at Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers, highlights three kinds of design, reports Wired: There’s design (‘classical design’), business (‘design thinking’), and technology (‘computational design’).”

“The last two have to do with creating products with empathy for the customer, and keeping pace with current paradigms in technology, respectively. They also tend to have more reach. Where classic design might impact a million active users, design thinking and computational design stand to affect hundreds of millions.”

“What’s more, classic design projects tend to be finite; whether it’s a building or a page layout, once they’re built, they’re done. In business or technology design, the product is always evolving.” Maeda says the three categories “are co-dependent” but that design thinking and computational design are where the growth is.

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