Innovation discussions underwent a real shift in the last couple of years, from an astringent need to push tech capabilities forward to a desire to find a relevant meaning for what’s available. It’s not about needing what you don’t have; it’s about using what we do have in a way that matters. Debates and arguments are exchanged between industry leaders and disruptive underdogs alike—in a series of conversations where silence means a battle lost before it’s even begun.
As we move past tactical obsessions and mature into an industry applying innovations in a more strategic way, it becomes apparent that technology’s new best friend is philosophy.
Over the past few years, chips, semiconductors and computer graphic card releases owned the technology spotlight; as the technology industry slowly grows up, more overtly philosophical questions occupy the conversation. Virtually every industry in contact with technology faces a challenge with more questions than answers on the horizon. And so, given a lack of concrete answers, maybe it’s just enough to explore the questions?
As far as brands are concerned, unexamined technology is squandered opportunity. In this environment, the brands that pick a side are the ones who will stand out from the overly saturated herd. Take CES as a snapshot of the market: more than 4,000 companies had a representation at the convention center, and while all of them need to manage change, how many of them do you think will decide the course of that change? Three? Ten? The industries asking the right questions to pave the way ahead are rising to the forefront of the experience.
Car manufacturers are one of the clearest examples; the advent of the ride-sharing unicorns and the inevitable displacement of the driver through autonomous technologies challenges a business model predicated on a single purchase—further making us ponder the way our cities are built around them. The conversation has shifted from engines and horsepower, diesel vs. electric to philosophical debates about mobility vs ownership. Fundamental notions of transport, of people and products, are being turned upside down—with the Toyota e-Palette as a prime example. (The demo video is equal parts modern practically and "Whoa! We are living in the future!")
Another example is the financial industry. With a monsoon of blockchain initiatives (demonstrated by a crypto-alley with more than 30 companies on the expo), definitions that haven’t been challenged in over a century cast a shadow of uncertainty. Questions like "What does money really mean?" or "Are we in late stage capitalism?" are asked by top industry executives and crypto-optimists alike. KODAK recently launched its own cryptocurrency, "KODAKCoin" the latest comeback attempt from the American manufacturer; their stock soared 300 percent after the announcement.
In exploration and bravery, in the application of what’s in front of us, we see immediate returns.
In the bigger picture, quantum computing—the newest focus from IBM—challenges our understanding of the human-computing relationship and hints of a future where unlimited computing power is the norm. In these cases, we consistently find that leadership starts from a willingness to ask "What if?" in the context of technologies that have been in development prior. But our current market is not a forum for wishing; it’s a forum for the questioning and application of purpose.
With more questions than answers coming from the tech industry, brands must have a point-of-view to be a part of the conversation—and to lead. The time of incremental innovation as the path forward is almost gone. The companies who dare to show their version of the future are the ones taking the profits this year.
There is a saturation point: our industry is plagued with hundreds of vendors figuring out newer and more humane applications for technologies that have long existed. Which is to say: the roads you can go down with your exploration are numerous, and it’s easy to get distracted. Extreme focus is the north star of this process—understanding what you don’t know and working in the liminal space between uncertainty and possibility. The winners in the space know that if they can flip their perspectives, they can flip their business models. They’ve seen enough industries reinvented to understand that they can do the same for their own.
Innovation isn’t necessarily tied to the latest technologies; a compelling vision and creative confidence are the only two ingredients necessary. "Minimum viable innovation" is a concept better explained by example, and one of the most notable parallel thinking exercises in recent months is the Nintendo LABO—a platform for discovery built with simple cardboard and using the company product (SWITCH) as the core of the experience. The move isn’t intended to compete with the latest announcements from Microsoft or Sony, but to share with the world a vision of play and unlimited possibility empowered by a group of humble Japanese fun-makers.
Brands have a proven history of connecting technologies with audiences, utility and purpose. Marketers and brand innovators should prepare for tough questions and articulate speculative visions of what the future of their industry should look like.
There is nothing worse than ignoring the elephant in the room. Creative and communicative bravery are the best path forward.
Mauricio Ruiz is Head of Creative Technology at Grey.