The expectation of innovation

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I sat on the train with three friends from school dressed in a very peculiar manner.

We had our dark blue blazers on the top half, yet on the bottom half were wearing shorts and dirt grazed socks, covering our shin pads. We’d just finished playing house football and had rushed off without changing properly so we could catch the fastest train home to start the weekend.

We spoke amongst ourselves in the usual, Friday night-hype type manner. One of us however had his attention fixed on something else and it had been for some time. He was staring with intrigue across the aisle at somebody… at something.

“What is that?” the boy asked; a pending reaction he could no longer contain.

We stopped bantering, bypassed the boy and looked directly over at the subject of interest. After a long pause, a man dressed in the usual business attire (the suit, the tie and the briefcase), turned his head and peered at us over the ridge of his spectacles. We had clearly disturbed him. Our eyes seesawed, up and down, up and down, between his gaze and the thing he held in his hands.

“It’s a Communicator” the man said with pride. A slight grin formed on his face.

“What’s a Communicator?” I said.

“Is it a phone?” another boy asked.

“It looks like a Game Gear, but with more buttons,” another said.

“This lads, is the future” the man replied. He tilted the device towards us. We lent forward, releasing a slight gasp. “See all these buttons at the top? That changes the mode. I can make calls when I hit this button, I can browse my phonebook and call my wife. I hit this button and I can plan my meetings for the week, this button sends messages and the other lets me go on the internet.”

“The internet? No way,” one of the boys said. “That’s what we have at school on the computers.”

“Look at the size of the screen,” I said.

Several commuters had now turned their attention to the device. The carriage had become a showroom.

“Ah this is just the beginning. One day you’ll be able to watch films on these things?”

We all laughed.

“That’s impossible,” one of the boys said.

“Impossible? By no means. They’re working on it now,” the man replied. “You’ll be able take photos, play games, watch TV and live sports. You’ll be able to do everything on your phones one day. Give it ten years”

We spoke about that encounter for weeks after.


That year was 1998 and the man with the Nokia Communicator was an engineer from a technology consultancy. Nineteen years on and I feel embarrassed at my reaction. A few days ago I went to an audio-visual exhibition where they showcased a 39 screen video wall.

“You can send content to any of these screens, from any source in the world. Or you can make the whole thing one big television,” the presenter said.

As spectacular as it looked, I must admit, I wasn’t as impressed as I felt I should have been. Not because the product wasn’t impressive, or the people that created it aren’t extremely intelligent and talented. It’s because the expectation of what technology can achieve has now changed. Eight years ago we all drooled at the prospect of owning a 50 inch HDTV, and the prospect of having a large touchscreen phone. We strived for more size, more connections, bigger networks, more storage capacity, faster processors… and all in a small, mobile space. And although we have achieved this, it’s all still improving. If for example, in two years a smart phone is released with 4 terabytes of storage and 16 gigabytes of memory, it may be impressive, but it would also be somewhat expected.

In twenty years we’ll all be driving electric cars by law, and our online purchases will be delivered to our precise location by drones. These are, so to speak, “expected innovations”. The question I often ask myself is “what will be the next unexpected innovation, the one that nobody saw coming or even thought of?” It will probably solve a requirement that’s been staring us in the face all along.

We’ve methodised and industrialised the practice of Innovation, so large organisations can do it at scale. However could we be missing the possibility that the requirement we are looking for may not yet be realised? Could real innovation will be that “something” we didn’t even know we wanted or needed? How do we plan for that disruption when we have no idea what it could be?

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