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Innovation & Design

Today's Fringe Ideas, Tomorrow's Wisdom

Wander the halls of any of today's ever-multiplying corporate-innovation conferences, and you'll find experts playing to packed houses, evangelizing the power of user-driven design, the importance of ethnographic research, and the value of an internal "innovation culture." Corporate managers are eagerly soaking up this "right-brain religion," hoping that an injection of creativity and customer input will help them stand out in markets crowded with interchangable piffle.

And eventually, corporate managers will master these skills, at which point every consumer product will be permanently dipped in white acrylic, come with an ergonomic fly wheel, and embody a whimsical anthropomorphic cuteness.

Then what? To find the next deep wellsprings of innovation, you have to learn to listen to "weak signals"—fringe ideas today that will be common wisdom tomorrow. Here are a few promising sources:

Ecovation: The ongoing revolutions in material science, biotech, and systems ecology have had a surprising side benefit: They have begun to unravel how engineering happens in the natural world. In the process, business is reaping a library of elegant new solutions to industrial problems. Think of the Great Barrier Reef: Iit was created at near-room temperature, using locally available materials, employing self-assembly, water-based chemistry, and the power of tides and the sun.

So-called "biomimetic" products that copy such natural processes are already starting to make it to market, featuring improved performance and lower cost. Lotusan Paint, for example, a "self-cleaning" industrial paint, copies the self-cleaning mechanisms of the lotus leaf, causing dirt and water to bead and roll off. Ecologists are yielding so many useful insights that 10 years' hence, every large corporation may have one on staff.

Playing for Change: You may never hire a Chief World of Warcraft Officer, but that doesn't mean you won't discover your next business model virtually. Videogames have begun to outgrow their entertainment context and find new uses as innovation discovery engines. That's because the agent-based models that drive games under the hood are becoming sophisticated enough to model real-world social, marketplace, and competitive scenarios.

British Telecom, for example, is using a game called (unimaginatively) Better Business to help employees learn to manage complex social and environmental issues. Companies are even learning to play games with each other, such as Chanakya, a competitive management simulation played between leading companies in India. (The winner, for the past three years, has been Tata Steel.) As these tools grow in sophistication, expect to see a correlation between innovation metrics and the number of gamers in management.

Making the Invisible Visible: As companies such as Procter & Gamble (PG) and Target (TGT) increasingly look outside their walls for their next breakthrough, they must rely on specialized maps of their innovation networks. The fields of social network analysis and network cartography are rapidly maturing and allowing companies to visualize their customer base, their supply chain, and their field of influence.

Practitioners like Valdis Krebs of use specialized software to help business leaders determine where the strong and weak points of a business network are, where the points of greatest influence are, and how they're all related. As more business moves to digital environments where these relationships can be quickly harvested, these maps will become real-time and interactive. As always, the companies that see most clearly will have the best innovation opportunities.

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