At the start of every year, people ask “What technologies I think will have the biggest impact on innovation in the coming year?” I find that question a little odd because I have always felt that when it comes to innovation, technology is an artifact. Why? Because what defines innovation isn’t the technology you get but the process you use to create that technology.
As a human activity, technology predates both science and engineering. It is the embodiment of our ability as humans to produce practical, reproducible results by designing tools, machines, and procedures to simplify the problem-solving process. Today, with the pace of change we experience, it’s not unusual to hear about exciting new technologies or companies every day. Somewhere in the mix, we place so much emphasis on technology that we lose sight of the reasons why humans create new technologies in the first place. What’s worse is we create myths around those technologies where there are none. This confusion is illustrated well by this quote from Weaving The Web by Tim Berners-Lee.
Journalists have always asked me what the fundamental idea was or what the singular event was that allowed the Web to exist one day when it hadn’t before. They are frustrated when I tell them that there was no eureka moment. It was not like the legendary apple falling on Newton’s head to demonstrate the concept of gravity it was the process of accretion (growth by gradual addition) – Tim Berners-Lee
We don’t always know about the things that failed because history pays so much time telling us the success stories. The stories of partial failure are critical too because they provide insight into how innovation works.
If not technology then what is innovation?
To answer that question I think you need to know the definition of technology:
Technology is the branch of knowledge that deals with the creation and use of technical means and their interrelation with life, society, and the environment, drawing upon such subjects as industrial arts, engineering, applied science, and pure science.
That’s it. No mention of computer code, microcircuitry, no discussion of resolution, platforms or languages. The truth is, technology is the easiest part of the complex issues we will face in the coming years. Anyone can create technology, but not everyone is creating technology solutions that people want to use.
To consistently create solutions that people want to use you have to pay attention to the life, society and environmental components that so often get overlooked in today’s world. While we have become excellent at making business efficient, we have ignored the things that made great inventors pursue their inventions and passions – human necessity.
When I was 12 years old, I fell in love with programming. Back then I thought it was because I liked to program and make things “better.” Over time, however, I realized that my interest in programming was about exploration and the excitement of creating something useful.
I’ve learned that technology can help us build things that are more advanced, but that doesn’t necessarily make them better. Building things is why I started programming when I was 12, making things that are relevant is why I embraced creativity, design, ethnography, and psychology.
Without an understanding of how to create solutions that people want, we will continue to build unfriendly technology.
Start asking “why” instead of what
For as long as I can remember when someone told me to make something I always wanted to know why. For me creating wasn’t a how or what problem (how to build stuff), it was a why problem (what should we build and why). When you don’t ask “why” you run the risk of creating an “artifact” that has no relevance to the user.