The Future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. – William Gibson
That’s the idea that framed yesterday’s post – Where’s My Flying Car? I argued that as innovators, our job is to invent the future – and that in doing so, instead of trying to come up with something that has never existed before, like a flying car, we’re better off trying to figure out how things that already exist can be redesigned so that they mean something completely new.
It’s about innovating meaning rather than innovating stuff.
Some of the responses to that post triggered some thoughts about how to do this – so here are three steps to take for inventing the future:
- Make sure that what we’re doing creates genuine value: Yesterday I talked about how part of the problem was in defining potential solutions to our problems only in terms of ways of thinking that already exist. Umair Haque made a similar point in his post last week:
What stands in the way of the future, most often, is the past. It’s yesterday’s sluggish institutions. Yet, instead of reimagining and rebooting those institutions, we keep reviving and resurrecting them — zombielike — hoping that by bringing them back from the dead, we can keep the status quo humming along for just a little while longer, that we can eke out the last meager, shriveled morsels of returns from seeds laid down during the industrial age.
So here’s my question: Does what you’re doing have a point — one that matters to people, society, nature, and the future?
This is the first step in inventing the future.
- Create value by meeting needs, not wants: Jeffrey Phillips made a very good response to yesterday’s post. He argues that we don’t have flying cars because while a number of people may want them, no one really needs them. Phillips says that the best way to create value is to focus on needs:
Wants are interesting and may lead an innovator to potential value, but are often not deeply rooted or key to a person’s life. Additionally, wants often don’t scale, that is, they aren’t shared by a significant number of other people. Needs, on the other hand, are more immediate, more closely felt and more likely to be shared. Innovators must do a better job distinguishing between wants and needs.
So that’s step two.
- Redesign things that already exist to create new meaning: Kevin McFarthing gave a great example of doing this in a comment:
Very interesting post, Tim. A good example of disruptive technology and displacement of existing is the growth of mobile phones in places like India and Africa. People talking to each other is an “old job”. Mobile phone technology leapfrogs landline and cable to allow millions more to talk to each other. The language of the job and the technology exist, economics facilitate, and the innovative change in the market happens.
That’s step three – innovate meaning. In this case, mobile phones in the west mean “I can talk anywhere”, but in developing countries, they mean “I can finally talk.”
I’ll take Kevin’s example one step further. Mobile phones have been revolutionary in Africa in several ways – for example, they have been used to create banking for many people that don’t have a bank account:
Disintermediation is also made possible by mobile money. Services to transfer cash by text message have been around for some years. One of the most successful, M-PESA, began in 2007 in Kenya, where it now has more than 13m users. It is now used for salaries, bills, donations: few things cannot be paid for via a handset. Similar services can be found in more than 40 countries. Though not yet on the same scale, this seems to be only a question of time: in most countries in sub-Saharan Africa, more people have a mobile phone than a bank account
This has it all. The mobile services are making people’s lives materially better. They do this by meeting a genuine need. And the value is created using technology that has been considered a failure in North America and Europe, but which is given a new meaning in the context of developing countries.
This isn’t just an innovation lesson that applies in developing countries though. You can use these same three steps anywhere. In fact, you should use these same three steps any place where you want to use innovation to invent a more meaningful future.