By Andrew Zolli
Stroll through any corporate innovation conference and one thing becomes abundantly clear: It's a good time to be an innovation guru. Such experts are 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 eagerly soak up this "right-brain religion." At some point every consumer product on Earth will be dipped in white acrylic, feel totally ergonomic and embody a whimsical anthropomorphic cuteness.
Then what? Where does the innovation conversation go, say, 10 years from now? To find the next deep wellsprings of innovation, we have to keep an eye on "weak signals," today's fringe ideas that will become tomorrow's common wisdom. Here are a few of them:
A revolution in systems ecology, material science, and biology is unravelling how engineering happens in the natural world. Think of the Great Barrier Reef. It was created at near-room temperature, using locally available materials, self-assembly, water-based chemistry, and the power of tides and the sun. "Bio-mimetic" products that copy or are inspired by natural processes are already starting to make it to market. Lotusan Paint, a self-cleaning industrial paint, copies the mechanisms of the lotus leaf, causing dirt and water to bead and roll off. A one-meter-square slice of Synthetic Gecko -- recently invented by BAE Systems and inspired by the material on a gecko's feet -- can suspend thousands of pounds.
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. Video games are outgrowing their entertainment context and finding new uses as innovation discovery engines. British Telecommunications is using a game called Better Business to help employees learn to manage complex environmental issues. Chanakya is a competitive management simulation played between leading companies in India. (Tata Steel keeps winning). Expect more gamer-managers soon.
MAKING THE INVISIBLE VISIBLE
Procter & Gamble (PG ) and Target (TGT ) increasingly look outside for their next breakthrough, so they rely on specialized maps of their innovation networks. The fields of social-network analysis and network cartography are rapidly maturing, allowing companies to visualize who is in their customer base, their supply chain, and their field of influence. Soon, social-network maps will exist in real time and be interactive. Look at an early example at labs.digg.com, the R&D development arm of the social-bookmarking site digg.com. You'll find two visualizations that show what thousands of people are bookmarking, in real time, as they do so.
EMBRACING THE ARTS
Today's creative artists can bring powerful new modes of thinking to established innovation practices. They also have a healthy disrespect for established boundaries and an ability to find opportunities that traditional approaches miss.
Mythic innovation hubs like Xerox (XRX ) Palo Alto Research Center decades ago paired visual artists and core researchers. These teams reaped insights into the future of computing that shape how we use those technologies today. Now, Web sites such as we-make-money-not-art.com are cataloging the best artists as they rethink the possibilities of robotics, global positioning systems, and new media. Tomorrow's innovation leaders will be those who can learn to recruit and integrate artistic talent most broadly.
THE COGNITIVE CONNECTION
While bioscience and nanotech grab the headlines, cognitive science is unlocking the deeper neural bases of our creativity, risk tolerances and views of innovation.
Researchers at the University of Warwick's Institute for Applied Cognitive Science recently developed new brain-based models for understanding how we process risk and use memories to evaluate risks. At USC's Institute for the Study of the Brain and Creativity, neuroscientists are diving into the neurobiological underpinnings of governance, education, economics and aesthetic creativity. By 2015, expect to see more innovation "field" consulting by applied cognitive scientists, who will use cognitive insights to tweak innovation teams and processes based on members' cognitive styles.
Andrew Zolli is the founder of Z + Partners, a foresight, design, and innovation think tank. He can be reached at zpluspartners.com