Community Led Innovation

One of the truisms of the technology industry today is that innovation has largely plateaued. It is true to say that the big wow moments of the desktop PC, mobile phones or that first time you surfed the World Wide Web are not matched by the launch of another handset or a new app. Today, there’s a feeling that tech establishment companies like HP, Yahoo! and Microsoft are watching their creative thunder being stolen by relative upstarts like Facebook and Uber.

There are a number of reasons why this may be the case. Firstly, technology buyers look radically different. Today, CIOs are more than just a corporate cost centre. CIOs now have a fundamental role in enabling the revenue streams that will transform their businesses for the future. The CIO’s closest colleague used to be the CFO, but today that relationship has been supplanted by the relationship she or he has with the CMO.

This is not simply an enterprise issue, though. Consumers have a fundamentally different experience of technology. We’ve gotten used to the speed of change that technology drives. Take our evening entertainment: In the forty years since Betamax tapes first hit the market, we’ve seen VHS tapes, satellite and cable TV, PVRs, DVDs, BluRay, Apple TV and Pirate Bay to name but a few. We’ve also moved from cathode ray tube cabinets through to Ultra-Thin Bezel TVs and, now thanks to Samsung, Smart TVs that can eavesdrop on our daily routines.

And, because of mobile technology, we’ve developed more personal connections with technology. We can communicate instantly and globally from a device we carry in our pockets, and that device becomes an extension of ourselves. It is a unit of self-expression, and one that we are increasingly dependent on, with people indulging in mobile screen time throughout the day. Arguably, the relationship we all have with our mobile phone is deeply private and personal. Just ask anyone who’s been caught checking out their partner’s phone.

All of that means that we engage differently with the technology we rely on at work and at home. In a strange way, technology has become a very human issue. And that’s another reason why I believe we’re seeing a changing map for innovation in the sector.

A second change is how technology and products are being created—by like-minded individuals or hackers across the world. Hackers have a terrible reputation. The people behind the now infamous Sony hack have successfully reinforced the idea that hacking is an activity undertaken by those with dubious morals and largely anarchic tendencies. But did you know that the word ‘hacker’ was first coined by members of the MIT Tech Model Railroad Club? Hackers identified themselves as people who had a strong desire to understand how things worked and to use technology to improve them. That’s a pretty good definition of the hackers I know today.

In 2007, a group of hackers led by Paul Bohm started a community driven initiative called Hackerspaces.org. A hackerspace is a community-operated workspace where people with common interests—most often in computing, technology, digital or electronic art—come together to share ideas, materials, inspiration and socialise.

Think of a village of super smart, super curious individuals from all walks of life. There are over 1,140 active hackerspaces globally, including seven in India and 12 in Sydney, Australia alone. This loosely connected community holds regular local and global hackathons to work together on projects that are bringing new thinking to life. What the hackers seem to have realised is that together they have much more innovation power than they do individually, and this approach is what has driven much of the crowdsourcing activities that are now almost the norm. It’s about community and understanding human needs.

Corporates are responding by getting in on the hacking act. Smart corporates are thinking differently about innovation. They’re turning to the community led approach favoured by hackers to help them spark new thinking. Our client Tata Communications has held two hugely successful hackathons in 2014 with more to come, and has funded a crowdsourced series of innovation contests to identify new ways to help its partner, Formula One Management, realise the potential of its big data. They are not alone in reaching out and creating communal opportunities to prompt smart thinking.

The second way corporates are changing their approach to innovation is through partnership. In a recent interview in the Financial Times, IBM CEO Ginny Rometty talked about the challenges that come from having so much history behind their brand when competing with nimble, young brands like Twitter, as is evident in the company’s 11 straight quarters of falling earnings. Led by Rometty, IBM is partnering with groups like Apple and Twitter to spark off of their experience in mobile technologies and services like cloud computing to collaboratively create the next wave of technology-enabled solutions. We’ll see more of those kinds of initiatives as companies look to pool capabilities, experience and insight.

The potential for smart technologies that help us live better, longer, healthier and more peacefully is immense, but this industry is still very young. The more we work collaboratively and as a community, the better the end result for us all.

Sara Gourlay, Global Technology Practice Director, Hill+Knowlton Strategies

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