Innovation: Standing at the Intersection of Technology & Humanities

by Akbar Jaffer
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We all grew up with the phrase “need is the mother of invention.” The same notion holds true for innovation. As the market for goods and services becomes commoditized and differentiations erode, most innovations are being driven by the need to beat the competition in sales and to reduce costs to increase profits. However, there are many other motivations for innovating and there are other places within a business to innovate.

When it comes to products, generally speaking, we use only a fraction of all the features and functionality of what we buy, be it your car or your iPad. When consumers in a commoditized market use so little of the products they purchase, the creators of those products focus too much on watching the competition and hence remain in the common conventions of their market. This essentially creates the tunnel vision that kills the process of innovation.

So the burning question is, how to go about innovating? We shall explore what innovation is and why some companies are able to lead while others follow. While answering these questions, we will also explore the examples of Toyota and Apple vs. Ford and Google.

Innovation: Intersection of technology and humanities Blog logo.Real innovation has always been driven by serious deficiency in systems, processes, products and services, and it has always been fueled by creativity and imagination. We see innovation in economic policies, business models, and in the way customer service is delivered to name a few. Whether it’s the invention of the light bulb, Ford Model-T re-inventing the automobile industry, Ray Dolby inventing the noise reduction system, or iPod sending a jolt through the digital music world, they all had one thing in common. They contained, within their veins, the “human” elements. These inventions and innovations came about because the people involved viewed human beings as more than just mere data, metrics, and statistics.


Innovation vs Invention

In its simplest sense, an invention is the creation of a product or introduction of a process for the first time. It has potential value through utility like GPS. On the other hand, innovation is when improvements and significant contributions are made to an existing product, process or service like navigation applications using GPS. However, today we use the word innovation quite loosely. May I propose the idea that incorporating a slightly modified version of something somebody else is already doing is NOT innovation.


So what does it take to be at the intersection of technology and humanities?

A light bulb or an iPad only comes along once or maybe twice in our lifetime. Apple has done a phenomenal job of introducing several innovative and industry-changing products in the course of the last 15 years. So what makes Apple (or others like it) so different than its competitors?

In this post I will barely scratch the surface to answer this question. There are many more answers and each deserves at least a full article’s treatment, if not more.

Train your brain

Cognitive tunnel vision is the enemy of innovation. It’s what makes a company call its “just another finger swiping gesture” innovative. Training your mind to think outside the box, to read, to be curious, to get inspired, and to question the status quo; this is what drives innovation.

Have the team

A handful of automotive workers came to Henry Ford with the idea to implement conveyor belt system where parts move and people stay at their station. Steve Jobs recruited the best of the best to work on hardware, software, and marketing. Both teams had one thing in common: They were the experts in their respective fields that came together as an inter-disciplinary team.

Have a gutsy leader

It’s a new form of democracy. Some people call it top-down leadership. Your innovation team will have all “A” players with strong opinions, flying tempers, and igniting sparks. At the end of the day you’ve got to ship a product, and somebody has to make the final decision.

Have guiding principles

Steve Jobs used to say about a product or its design, “it’s either shit or it’s amazing.” Refusal to accept anything less than incredible and having the courage to stand by your words are the type of guiding principles innovating teams need. You must choose between what’s right and what’s easy, every time.

Study Humans

The more disciplines an astronaut is trained in the more valuable he or she is and the more likely candidate for travel to space. Similarly, innovators must be multi-disciplined. In order to innovate and come up with great products that people want to buy, you must study humans. Marketers do it all the time; they call it studying their “target market.” Don’t you wish you hadn’t slept through those sociology, psychology, and drama classes?

Keep the Faith

Steve Jobs in his famous Stanford commencement address said, “You can only connect the dots retrospectively.” In the moment, you don’t know how or when or even if you’re going to be able to use the information that you’re learning today. This takes having a lot of faith in your future. Unfortunately our short-term gratification culture doesn’t help us here. We tend to pay attention to only things that we see an immediate need for. This is a serious limitation we impose on our ability to come up with new and amazing ideas.


So what do innovations that are driven from the intersection of humanities and technology look like?

It’s the Apple Watch tapping the wearer on the wrist when they have to make a turn instead of forcing them to walk around starring into their wrists – a rather unnatural thing to attempt.

It’s Toyota’s hybrid car that, instead of using the gas engine in stop-n-go traffic (which is where we spend most of our drive time), uses an electric battery, essentially reversing the gas consumption paradigm, not to mention leading to a huge savings in gas.

It’s the Nintendo Wii, with its integrated interface using foot and hand gestures that created a whole new market for video games, as senior citizens began to enjoy technology.

I must mention the failure of Google Glass. A good idea that probably resulted from Google’s analysis of massive quantitative market data, but the company failed to incorporate the human elements: people’s psychology, their privacy concerns, and the unfashionable design.


More Famous Innovators Who Stood at the Intersection

An understanding of the intersection between technology and humanities was once a common denominator for creative and artistic souls. However, as the world has sped up, people have moved heavily towards technology, forgetting that the humanities and art are what gives technology its soul. There are many famous personalities that embody the principles of this intersection.

Albert Einstein had a vast imagination, a love of music, and a rebellious spirit. He questioned everything around him, and his inquisitive nature implored him to study things and learn about them for himself. Everything around him excited him, and he found himself wanting to learn more about how things worked. Through his curious nature, he went on to develop the theory of relativity.

Benjamin Franklin was both a scientist and a writer. As a scientist, he conducted experiments and found ways that science could help people by providing them things they needed. His discovery of electricity is something we can all still be grateful for today.

Perhaps the best motivating principle for innovators are the famous words from the back cover of the final edition of The Whole Earth Catalog,

“Stay hungry stay foolish”

Back cover of final publication of the Whole Earth Catalog, Stay hungry stay foolish.

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