Innovation starts when you stop looking at your smartphone.
This is how keynote speaker Scott Wayne of the Frontier Project began the National Association of State Chief Information Officers’ midyear conference in Arlington, Virginia, on Monday.
Addressing an audience of more than 600 state government IT professionals and industry representatives from 43 states, the speaker set the tone for the conference by encouraging attendees to solve their most difficult problems by breaking from their usual routines. He told the conference audience, which had grown 34 percent since the previous year, that they were uniquely positioned to apply his innovation philosophy and change the world.
“You are in a position where the culmination of information technology and your application to the government departments and the public that you serve to transform the way that human beings interact and exist,” Wayne said. “You are probably in a more powerful position that most other people in the United States.”
In his hourlong talk, Wayne took some dozen-odd stabs at showing the usual ways people frame problems — and how most attempts at innovation fail because they don’t align with the marketplace.
The creators of the Segway, for example, failed to predict that people think they look ridiculous when riding one, Wayne said. And thus the technology — which was billed as a way to revolutionize how people get around in cities — generally has been relegated to a novel way to take a tour while on vacation or a method for shopping-mall cops to get around.
“The team didn’t align the product with the marketplace,” he said. “It’s remarkable and it’s creative, but it’s not innovation because I don’t know what to do with it.”
Conversely, he said, if the smartphone had originally been pitched as a device for people to stare at while they wander the sidewalk, it would have seemed like a poor idea. But there is often a disconnect between how people use things and the concepts that bring them alive.
“They led us to that behavior,” Wayne said of device companies Apple and Samsung.
The reason innovation is challenging, he said, is because people have trouble escaping the usual ways that information and concepts are framed by society. As a consultant, Wayne said he helps people in business by taking away their smartphones and then leaving the room for 30 minutes. Some big epiphanies can happen in that empty half-hour, he said.
“We’re living these very digital lives, but they’re inspirational deserts,” Wayne said.
To remediate this, he encouraged his audience to try new things they wouldn’t usually pursue, like watching different TV shows, driving to work via a different route, and the next time they’re standing in line at Starbucks, to leave their phone in their pocket. People can notice new things and engage their minds creatively when they’re not constantly distracting themselves.
Midway through his talk, Wayne led 40 seconds of silence in which audience members were to do nothing but sit with their own thoughts. People are so afraid of doing this, he said, that they will opt instead to risk their lives texting while driving.
Wayne’s definition of innovation is something that is “new, executable, and aligned with the market.” Film company Kodak is crashing and Fuji is thriving because one stayed stuck in the past, while the other reframed its definition of what film is and found new opportunities in the market. Innovation, he said, comes from a realistic look at what’s happening in the world and then an assessment of how it can be changed.
Smartphone companies market their products to an imaginary consumer who talks, texts and browses the web, but a look at the actual behavior of a prototypical teenage smartphone user shows that reality is something different.
“Fifteen-year-old girls don’t call people,” Wayne said. “They think it’s rude. A product engineer looking realistically at the market today would conclude the next generation phone is a pager.”
The availability of Google has hamstrung creativity, he said, because innovation comes not from searching immediately for an answer, but allowing problems to sit and then integrating those problems with experiences and observations. Saying “I don’t know” breeds insight, he said.
Innovation is important, he said, and one reason is because automation technology is poised to eject the middle class from its station — the world is changing fast and it needs answers.
“State CIOs are at the front line of this,” he said.