Meaningful innovation reduces complexity
From the design perspective, innovations have one thing in common: they simplify life for their users. They reduce complexity to a manageable level and a comprehensible order. Design methods help create simplicity and separate the important from the unimportant. In this way, they help us to reduce complexity to a level that can be processed by humans.
To strive for this reduction, however, is much easier said than done. This is because chaotic challenges arise between complicated technology, underlying business conditions and the human context – the users of innovations. These challenges have to be transformed into clearly demarcable, reorganized systems. Our work as designers is to search the confusing chaos of expectations, requirements and processes for patterns that make their reduction possible. The result of creative work here is recognition, not addition. Good design reduces the complexity of our world. It organizes, it summarizes and thus creates innovations that make chaos more bearable. And that is hard work.
At the same time, however, it is precisely here, between the dimensions of technology, business and the human context, where there is a search field for meaningful innovation that brings long-term benefits to all those involved.
For meaningful innovation should ultimately make an impact at all three of these levels:
- the technological one, which aims at a meaningful and sustainable use of technology;
- the human dimension, in which the wishes and problems of users are identified and/or solved in the long term;
- and finally the business level, at which suitable business models make a company’s idea economically successful and enhance its diffusion.
It is this universal benefit that ultimately creates meaning through the reduction of complexity.
The human context: From complicated to complex innovation processes
Innovation between business and technology is complicated
To this day, innovations in the economy often emerge on an axis between economic calculation and technology as a driver. Rooted in a company’s processes, these dimensions of business and technology come together quickly and naturally: Because they already coexist in most enterprises. Innovation processes can be driven by technological breakthroughs that are then marketed, or vice versa, decision-makers initiate innovation efforts based on economic considerations.
The concept of innovation often focuses on technological feasibility and the marketability of innovations. While technology and business are intensively considered here, the human being – as the consumer and/or user of a product – is only an afterthought at the end of this kind of innovation attempt.
If you add the human context to innovation, the process becomes complex
However, we can only speak of meaningful innovation when the human context is brought into the spotlight; when we make people with their needs, behaviors and attitudes an equal dimension in the innovation process alongside technology and business. (And not think about them as “only” customers.) Since only humans can attribute “meaning” to things, meaning can only be created through their inclusion in this process.
We are seeing the success of this approach everywhere in the economy today. Numerous companies have demonstrated it by placing the user at the centre of their business and making user centricity a buzzword. However, concentrating on the user is by no means a new recipe for success and is worthwhile for companies in all industries.
The challenge in this respect is the following: Innovation with technology and business models is already complicated; but when the human factor is added, it becomes complex. Complex requirements between business and technology turn into complex problems that have to be approached with new ways of thinking, and working. This complexity stems from the fact that the dimensions of economy and technology do not disappear in this context, but rather are interacting with the human context. We no longer consider questions of feasibility or marketability alone, but also of comprehension, utility, acceptability, personal abilities and expectations.
Thinking about innovation with a focus on people therefore means asking oneself new questions. How will the use of the product affect their lives? Does a product only satisfy supposed short-term wants or does it address real needs of people and improves their situation in the long term?
The complexity of the human context leads to new questions
People’s needs change over time, context, life situation and also with technological change. How do we approach the context of the individual and how can it be taken into account?
Not all people (and therefore users) are equal. How do you reconcile their wishes and needs as well as the peculiarities of different user types? How do we deal with the complexity that arises from their interaction?
The human brain, its classification of information, its making of decisions and the formation of wishes and goals often works irrationally. How do we find out the real needs of the users?
The complexity that arises from these questions is no obstacle: on the contrary, it opens up a new space of possibility. When we face up to this chaos and identify pain points and problems, new questions arise and new ideas emerge.
The automobile as an example: from a complexity killer to a complexity driver
Innovations are characterized by the fact that they change the behavior of a large number of people. They do this by simplifying their everyday life. Take the car, for example: as a means of transport, it has solved people’s various mobility problems and created a new feeling of freedom.
There have been horse-drawn carriages before, but the car is faster and makes day trips to distant cities possible, it is easier to handle and a more comfortable means of transport, and it is easier to park a car at home than to “park” a horse, which also needs more food and is harder to control. Basically, the car makes it very easy to transport things, to travel (even spontaneously and with family) or to work at a distant location. It is not surprising that so many people integrated this complexity killer into their lives.
You can see very clearly from this example how technology, business and human context interact. Human behaviour is the driving force behind innovation, which in this case has spread across all of society. New habits and economic sectors emerged around the car, for example passenger transport, shipping of goods, motor sports, repair shops, commuting, domestic holidays, gas stations or used car trade, to name but a few. It has changed our working and private lives in a way its inventors never imagined.
The car has always been more than a means to get from A to B. It is and remains also a personal Declaration of Independence.
Dieter Zetsche, Vorstandsvorsitzender Daimler AG
However, it is precisely because of this ubiquitous use that this highly useful invention has mutated into a problem today. Because so many people use the car it generates traffic – and traffic becomes a complex task for us. Not only does it need structures such as a transport network and access to gas stations, it also creates traffic jams and shortages of parking spaces. Transport also suddenly confronts individual freedom with the socially necessary desire for responsibility, creates environmental and resource problems as well as economic dependencies.
Although this initially led to a reduction in complexity for the individual, the consequences of human interaction have created new complexity on an individual and societal level. In this way the car now inhibits the feeling of freedom it originally created. But the questions that could have foreseen this development have not been asked during its creation. The main focus here was on technology.
Creating meaning is a design task
The objective with future innovations now is to simplify this complex reality once more. In this endeavor, we must be careful to ask the right questions to minimize further unintended effects. The challenge is to find out what future implications additional innovations will have and what impact they will have on the world. We have now seen that this is not easy, because the interplay of technology, business and human context will continue to create new conditions over time. Finding out what can generate long-term meaningful innovation is a design task. And the search for the right answers becomes our responsibility.