Meaningful innovation in a World awash with ideas | Roberto Verganti | TEDxPolitecnicodiMilanoU

Translator: Leonardo Silva
Reviewer: Elena Montrasio If we ask people, "What is the most
powerful symbol for innovation?", most of them will say, "The light bulb." I mean, that's reasonable because we assume that innovation
is a matter of ideation. There's a problem in front of us,
we struggle in the darkness, in search for a solution, and finally, someone
comes up with an idea. And this way of picturing
innovation is meaningful. I mean, it used to be meaningful because
we used to live in a world that was dark. Ideas were rare,
there were fewer opportunities. But today, the world
is not anymore like this. The world is like this. We live in a world
where ideas are not rare. We live in a world overcrowded by ideas. We see it every day
when we open our phones. There's plenty of opportunity, and maybe someone can tell you,
"You know what? I understand. There are many, many ideas around,
but I still miss the big idea, that idea that changes the world." And in reality, most of the times, the big idea is in front of them,
but they cannot see it, not because it's too dark,
but because there is too much light. Why? Why do we live in a world
where there are so many ideas? For three reasons. First, people:
there's more creative people. Second, tools: we have
better tools to be creative; And third, especially:
digital technologies. With our digital devices, we can easily access ideas
wherever they are. So, in 2011, you probably remember, in the Gulf of Mexico,
there was an explosion in an oil rig, and this was the most dramatic accident
in an oil rig, in history. And for a few weeks,
you probably remember, they couldn't stop the spill. So experts had proposed,
"Why don't we set up a website so that people can propose ideas,
How can we stop the spill?" They set up the website,
and in a few weeks, they'd gotten more than 20,000 ideas, for free. And this approach of sourcing ideas – I mean, there are more
than 1,000 websites nowadays where a company can go, post the problem,
and receive ideas from people. So, we don't live anymore
in a world where ideas are rare. We live in a world awash with ideas. And this is great. I don't mean that we need to reduce
the number of ideas, of course. We need a lot of ideas
to solve the problems of the world. But what's the consequence of this? The consequence of this is that the nature of innovation
is changing dramatically. In a way, we are still blinded,
and you are still blinded. But you're not blinded
because it's too dark. You're blinded because
there's too much light. And unfortunately, the tools
for innovation that we use today, they were created
when the world was dark. Design thinking, open innovation,
they were created 15 years ago, when the world was different. Their purpose was to create more light,
to create more ideas, and they succeeded. In reality, there are
much more ideas nowadays. So, what's next? How can we profit
from this amount of ideas, and create change for real,
now that there is too much light? So, in my research
I found three different mindsets that can enable us to create innovation
in a world awash with ideas. And these three new mindsets
are exactly the opposite of the mindset we have been
using until now, in a world that was dark. So to start with, let's dim down the light, and maybe we can light up a candle here. Thirty years ago, if I asked my mom, "Mom, do we have a candle at home?" – "Yes, yes, we have one. You know, in case the power goes off." You know, in Italy, at that time, electricity was not so reliable. But nowadays, I mean,
that doesn't happen anymore, and if this really happens, we have our phones,
you know, close at hand. So, you know, why should we
buy a candle nowadays? This industry should have
disappeared by now. It just makes no sense
to buy candles nowadays. People had never bought candles
as much as they do now. They love candles. Families' spending in candles nowadays is much higher than how much
families spent to buy light bulbs. And why am I using this example? I'm using this example
because it's a very simple way to explain what the promise
of innovation nowadays is. There are two different
levels of innovation. One level is the level of meaning, and the other level
is the level of solutions. So – the meaning is the purpose
that we want to achieve when we create innovation. The solution is the product,
the service or the process that we create to achieve that meaning. The meaning is a direction,
why we innovate. The solution is how we get there. So, in a world that is
overcrowded by ideas, creating solutions is quite easy, but creating and finding
a new, meaningful direction is much more complicated. And candles succeeded
not because they're a better solution. The candles we have nowadays
don't illuminate better than they used to do 30 years ago. But they're totally different than
the candles that my mom used to buy. These are candles that people buy
for a different reason, for a different meaning,
for a different why. They buy them to create a cozy room; actually, to make the light dimmer. So, we have a lot of solutions,
but the more solutions we have, the more it's difficult to find
what is meaningful. And indeed, if we look
at the industry of candles, most of the companies that were leading
the industry of candles in the past are not succeeding anymore nowadays. Price's Candles, founded in 1830, was the leading manufacturer
in the industry of candles. They filed for bankruptcy exactly in 2001,
when the industry was exploding. But imagine for a moment that, you know,
you do a brainstorming session you create a lot of ideas and you're searching for candles
that can illuminate better. And, you know, actually,
there are many, many ideas, there's a lot of innovation in candles: different materials, LED candles,
electricity/butane candles, everything you can do
to create candles that illuminate better. But imagine for a moment that in this wall that is full of Post-its
there is one little Post-it there, and there is a drawing: "Why don't we make a candle
where the wax stands inside the jar, and we put a big label around the candle, so that you can't see
the flame when it's lit up?" People say, "Come one, nice idea,
but it doesn't make any sense." This is a candle with the wax inside a jar
and a big label in the front. So you can't see the flame
when the candle is on, which doesn't make any sense if you're looking for candles
that illuminate, but it's totally meaningful if you're looking for a candle
that creates a nice, cozy atmosphere. And Yankee Candle, the company
that created this candle, is a newcomer in the industry, but they're leading the industry now
not because they have a better solution, but because they changed
the meaning of things. So, the first mindset is that
when we are in an overcrowded world, a world full of opportunities and ideas, innovation is not about
searching for solutions; innovation is about searching for meaning. Actually, searching for a new meaning. And how do we find this new meaning? Well, the problem is that
the existing methods for innovation – we've said before:
design thinking, opening vision – they have been created to address problems
at the level of solution. They're capable of creating
a lot of solutions, but when they move this method
to the level of meaning, they struggle, they fail. For example, most of these methods
suggest that when we do innovation, we need to start from the outside. So we go out, meet users, engage outsiders, we need to think outside of the box . So, innovation should come
from the outside in. What happens if we apply this principle
to the level of meaning? A company in the industry
of thermostats, a few years ago, did an innovation program. They wanted to innovate thermostats. So they applied this method. They started from the outsiders,
they met users, they engaged outsiders, they did brainstorming sessions
and they had a lot of ideas, and most of these ideas were about
what we called programmable thermostats. A programmable thermostat is a thermostat in which
you can set up the hours and the moments of the day in which you
want the temperature to go up, go down. Most of these ideas were to provide more features to people, so they could program
the thermostat better and control the temperature better. But among those ideas,
there was a new one, which was a learning thermostat. A learning thermostat
is a thermostat that you can't program. It's a thermostat that programs itself
by learning the habits of your family: when you get back home, when you leave – And slowly and progressively, over days,
it sets up the program itself. I mean, it was not a better idea. This thermostat was not
so precise as the other one. You can't program it perfectly. But it was a new meaning. It's for people who don't want to spend
their time programming a thermostat. They want to forget about this. They want to let
the thermostat do their job. So, it was not so precise, but they tried. They built different prototypes –
the other thermostat, these ones – and they showed them to users,
and this is what they found. This is what they found
about the learning thermostat, "We found that consumers
prefer to control the thermostat, rather than being controlled
by the thermostat." So, they dismissed the idea, they left it. A few years later, two former managers of Apple left Apple and started a company
in the industry of thermostats. And they didn't do all this analysis,
they didn't move from the outside, they didn't do brainstorming,
invite outsiders, meet users. They started from themselves, they started from one vision, their understanding of what
could be meaningful to people. And they believed that for people it's much more
meaningful, when they are home, to spend time with their family, rather than spending time next
to the thermostat and programming things. They did it, they founded
a company called Nest, they launched the first
learning thermostat, and people loved it. What does it mean? It means when we start from solution,
when we search for solution, it is fine to go outside
and search for input from outsiders. And when we search for a new meaning,
the new meaning should come from ourself. Innovation should move
the other way around; not from the outside in,
but from the inside out. And this is quite reasonable because,
I mean, the solution can come from others, but the meaning, the direction – I mean, we cannot
ask someone the direction, the direction should come from us, also because, I mean,
at the first mistake, at the first problem – and when you do innovation,
there are several problems – if you don't really
believe in it, you stop. If you don't really believe in it,
people will never love it. In a way, I mean, doing innovation
in a world awash with ideas is like making gifts. What is the mindset you have
when you make a gift? The problem is not the solution,
you can buy whatever you want. I mean, you can buy everything – a Christmas gift to your
girlfriend or boyfriend. The solution is not a problem. The problem is: is it meaningful? And you cannot ask her. I mean, you can call her, "Hello, darling.
What do you want for Christmas?" I mean, she will take it,
but she will never love it. And you cannot ask outsiders, "You know, can give me an idea
for a gift to my girlfriend?" Come on! She would feel it, she would smell it,
that it doesn't come from you. A gift that a person loves
is something that comes from you, comes from your own interpretation
of what is more meaningful to her. It's your capability
to expand her possibilities. So, when you move innovation
one level higher, in a world awash with ideas, innovation moves the other way around, inside out. It comes from your understanding of what could be
more meaningful to people, what people could love. Well, this is just the start. But then, we need a second
mechanism to balance this. Because it doesn't mean
that people will love everything we love. I mean, if we don't love it,
people will never love it, but it doesn't mean
that if we love it, people will love it. So we need something else there. We need a third mindset here
to counterbalance this. And to understand this mindset, let's go back to the example
of the company. They tried the learning thermostat,
but they dismissed it. I mean, the idea was in front of them. But they said no. Why? Let's look carefully
at the title of this person. What is his role? This is the President of the Division
of Environmental and Combustion Controls. I mean, "controls." If your role is the president of the Division of Environmental
and Combustion Controls, guess which word you're more sensitive to. "Control." And this is the point, that in a world awash with ideas,
we use filters to filter information, and we tend to see what we want to see. So, of course, we need to start from us,
there's no other way, but if we start from us, then we need to be sure that
we don't see only what we want to see, that we don't keep going
in the same direction. In other words, we need criticism. In a world awash with ideas,
we don't need more ideas. We need to cure the ideas
that we use to interpret life. And criticism doesn't mean to be negative. It means going deeper, starting to see things in a different way and slowly, slowly, slowly,
turning in a new direction. How? Let's go back to the story
of the two founders of Nest. I told you, they didn't do
any brainstorming or user analysis. They started from a vision they had,
something they believed in. And how did it start? They left Apple and they met
at a restaurant, and this is the story. "Tony, I want to start a company.
And I want to start a company with you." "Huh. What do you want to do?" "I want to build a smart home company." "You're an idiot." It doesn't sound
like a brainstorming session. "No one wants to buy a smart home,
smart homes are for geeks." I mean, maybe you can be a little milder
when you express criticism to people, but in any case, the point is that Tony Fadell was not
dismissing Matt Rogers' ideas. He believed in them. Actually, they moved farther, and they moved farther in a new direction. Otherwise, they would have created
another programmable thermostat. So, this is the core
of what it means to do innovation. in an overcrowded world. It means that we need to start from us, there's no other way; From our understanding
of how the world is changing. From our understanding of what can be
more meaningful to people. It's our gift. But that's just a start. This is an unwrapped gift that we need to mix
with the gift of someone else. And who is this someone else? Someone who has two characteristics. a person who has another gift,
different than the gift we have, who believes in something different, but who believes in us as a person. And this clash between
different gifts and mutual support makes us slowly, slowly, slowly
turn in a new direction. So, innovation in a world awash with ideas
is not a matter of tools or processes. It's a matter of people. It's a matter of mating the right
sparring partners. It's like in boxing. What is a sparring partner? A sparring partner is someone
who joins you in you journey, who believes in you, but then, he also fights with you,
he challenges you, not because he wants to kill you, but because he wants
to make you gift stronger. So, this is the point. In a world awash with ideas,
don't search for ideas; search for people. Thank you. (Applause)


  1. Takahisa SASAJIMA said:

    I'm deeply grateful for his talks. Thanks.

    June 26, 2019
  2. Giancarlo Donizzelli said:

    Meaningful speech

    June 26, 2019
  3. MrPrepetit said:

    best design book

    June 26, 2019
  4. VirTex. Vision. said:

    We live in a world where ideas are not rare, there is a lot of opportunity. At VirTex we nurture our OEM partners ideas enabling them to bring them to life. That's a very exciting role to play.

    June 26, 2019
  5. Theatomix Gaming said:

    I like to think of this like innovating innovation 😉

    June 26, 2019

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