Low Tech Innovation

At start of my innovation courses, students often think that if their organisation isn’t inventing iPads, then they clearly aren’t (and can’t be) innovative. I end up spending a lot of time trying to help them see the many opportunities available for innovation, even within industries that appear to be pretty tightly constrained. In many cases, innovating in these industries ends up being far more important than coming up with flashy new gadgets. If you’re one of the first people to get one of the new iPads, and it fails miserably, will your life be materially worse than it is right now? Probably not.

Andrew Hargadon recounts an interesting story of failed low-tech innovation: construction companies in Florida introduced a new form of drywall, which has subsequently been found to be defective. The problem may affect as many as 100,000 homes, and the cost of replacing the drywall in all of them may run as high as $10 billion. Who pays is a bit of question too.

The point that Hargadon makes is that innovation in a very low-tech field like construction materials can actually have much higher stakes attached to it than innovation in gadgets. That is one of the reasons that these industries are very un-innovative – the cost of getting things wrong is pretty high.

Jeffrey Phillips, author of one of the best innovation blogs around, points out another reason that conservative industries don’t innovate – they often are heavily regulated. According to Phillips:

Too often, the regulations become a “ceiling” for new products and services. Rather than dream up new products and services that customers need, then try to revise the regulations to fit those products, firms use the regulations as a hard and fast rule, never to be breached or violated. They are in a box of their own making and own choosing, and careful never to question the box. Again, disrupters are going to seek ways to make that box obsolete, and the interesting thing about most regulated firms is that they employ lobbyists, whose job it is to influence or change regulations. A truly innovative firm would identify products and services that met customer needs, then lobby for the changes necessary to implement those products, and force the rest of the industry to follow.

Highly regulated industries are also often low-tech as well. The disenctives to innovation in these industries are substantial: the cost of getting things wrong is often enormously high; the stakes are much higher; regulations may make it difficult to bring in new ideas. So why try to innovate at all in these industries?

Phillips’ post starts to get at the reason – the risks are high, but the potential payoffs are also huge. Here’s an example:

There’s an excellent book on the history of shipping containers – it’s called The Box: How the Shipping Container Made the World Smaller and the World Economy Bigger by Marc Levinson. The impact of containers has been gigantic. When they were introduced, they reduced shipping costs by over 60%. They quickly reduced the amount of labour needed to load and unload ships by over 95%! The first shipping containers were made in the 1920s, but Malcom McLean and his company McLean Industries did what Phillips suggests – he identified the customer need, and then fought regulations until containers went into widespread use in the mid 1950s.

A shipping container is about as low as low-tech gets. The container is one of the primary drivers of the huge increase in international trade from the end of World War II to now – it’s impact has been greater than that of all the high tech gear that gets shipped around, greater than that of the WTO, greater than that of all of the international trade treaties that have been signed.

What does this tell us? A couple of things:

  • It’s another great example of the difference between invention and innovation. The box itself was invented 30 years before “containerised shipping” actually got the idea to spread. It’s not enough to have the ideas, or even to show that they work – you have to get your ideas to spread.
  • Following directly from that, the big innovation isn’t in the low-tech shipping container, the innovation is in the business model built around the low-tech shipping container. The new business model includes the integration between the container, ships, trucks and eventually rail – a completely different value network. Revenue generation is different too – the cost-cutting through labour saving was unbelievable. All aspects of the shipping business model changed as containers became widespread.
  • As in the drywall example, changing the most basic part of the system had a substantial knock-on effect. When McLean started with containers, there was little innovation in the industry. It was highly regulated, and very comfortable – so people weren’t trying many new things. Almost all of the innovative focus was on the high-tech end – making faster ships, increasing the capacity of trucks, and so on. However, all of these innovations only introduced marginal time savings – the bottleneck was still on the docks. The simple container is the innovation that got around that problem.

So here’s a question for you: what low-tech innovation opportunities are available to you? Particularly if you are in an industry with constraints, low-tech is probably the way to go. The challenge for the day is this – find the most basic part of your business model, and start thinking about innovations around that. This will often get you rethinking your entire business model. That’s what makes the stakes high, but it’s also what makes the potential payoffs high as well.

(Photo from flickr/photohome_uk under a Creative Commons license)

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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7 thoughts on “Low Tech Innovation

  1. Great post and I wholeheartedly agree.

    Sometimes the most boring, mundane and unexciting innovations can provide the greatest return.

    In reading this I found myself nodding and thinking “Yes, those shipping container guys clued in to what added value”

    Value can be created for customers by innovating in all sorts of ways – not just a faster/flatter/fancier device.

    It could be the the operational processes and internal/external relationships used to produce it, the channels through which it’s sold, the positioning and branding, or even the underlying business model.

    Whatever satisfies a customer experience better than the status quo is a good thing.

  2. Thanks for the comment (and RT) Paul! I just kind of got sick of nothing but tablet stuff today, which lined up well with what I’m currently reading!

  3. The Box is a terrific book – but it also highlights how painful innovation can be – the resistance, even the violence, that occurred in adoption of the container are not for the faint of heart…thankfully, few innovators have to go through that but it takes courage – at all and various levels…

  4. That’s an excellent point Deborah. The container was a particularly disruptive innavation in that regard, but I agree that we really do need to be aware of how are innovations are most likely to meet resistance.

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