Innovation Insight

What early adapters see beyond the horizon

By Kevyn Burger
Friday, March 25, 2016

The man often regarded as the greatest genius of the last century says, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

Albert Einstein was more of a see-it-all than a know-it-all, and that quality made him one of history’s great innovators ­­— he redefined the universe. 

“It’s hard to imagine what we have not experienced, but we must expand our ideas of the possibilities,” says futurist Cecily Sommers, author of Think Like a Futurist: Know What Changes, What Doesn’t, and What’s Next.

That is the role of today’s innovator — to anticipate what customers and markets will want and need, before they know to ask for it.

Futurist Jack Uldrich, author of Foresight 2020: A Futurist Explores the Trends Transforming Tomorrow, says it’s all about knowing where to probe.

“The innovation pace is ever quickening. Continuous disruption is the new normal. Successful innovators ask new and provocative questions and so they get better answers,” he says.

Sommers and Uldrich, two Minneapolis-based big thinkers, both speak to groups and consult with companies all over the country. It’s their job to detect the fertile ground where innovation will flourish.

How will your product or service fit inside the push-the-envelope trends that these early adapters identify?

Emerging Innovations - Cecily Sommers

Despite the head-spinning nature of rapid innovation, Cecily Sommers grounds her work with customers in that which will remain constant.

“To think like a futurist, you have to know what changes, what doesn’t and what’s next,” she says. “What changes are conditions and tools. Human nature and human needs do not change.”

She warns that profits can, in a way, be the innovator’s enemy.

“The pressure is on to make the number for this year, this quarter. Leaders have to balance the tension between meeting brutal short-term demands with awareness that the environment is shifting and they have to spend time getting ready for a future that doesn’t exist.”

Virtual Reality
It’s a thrilling concept at the edges now, but will increasingly be integrated into our lives. It will give us more ways to visit with one another and will allow people to have the same sensory experience while in remote locations. Innovation will happen in these shared virtual environments and will affect everything from education to health care.

Co-creation with Customers
Retailers will engage with customers earlier and get feedback right away. They can use that live insight and input to shape and pilot new ideas. Pop-up shops or restaurants will be an innovative way to try out a concept or a brand extension. You can find out what works in a geographic location, or test a product you don’t have to mass produce.

Retail Interaction
The physical experience of discovery at a store will become more dynamic and immersive, like at art installations or amusement parks. Activities will be curated around what they sell. Think concierge services and boutiques with augmented reality. Retailers can entice customers by providing them with venues to host social or themed gatherings.

Retailers will offer in-store customized products. Imagine a fragrance lab where customers mix their own unique scent, or 3D printed soles for each customer’s shoes, bioengineered for the individual’s body and stride, with sensors to give feedback. With personalized medicine, we will have centers in our homes to collect individual data and daily statistics, then adjust medications based on that information.

Customer Segmentation
With granular data and demographics we can see how customers are microsegmenting. We will learn much more about their interests and preferences. There are not monolithic groups any more. We can’t talk about “millennial moms;” it doesn’t work that way.

Emerging Innovations - Jack Uldrich

Jack Uldrich promotes emerging technology, but he finds high tech tools to be a distraction when he is doing the toughest part of his job.

Last year, the futurist went in search of a relic from the past.

At an antique shop in Stillwater, he found it — an old hourglass, which he uses to track what he thinks may be the most vital piece of his work on innovation.

“I bought it because I was having trouble disciplining myself to my commitment to think and write for an hour a day,” he says.

Uldrich uses the timepiece of the ancients in his office that has no phone or computer, where he works with paper and pen.

“I will not let myself leave the desk until I spend an hour thinking, writing or reflecting. That’s hard work and it only happens when I’m alone with my thoughts. That’s where the real insights come.”

He encourages those who want to innovate to do the same.

“Have a separate office, go to a cabin up north, walk around the lake without earbuds. When your mind wanders it might make these serendipitous connections that are more important than ever.”

3D Printing
This technology will become faster, better and more affordable, and will have many applications. Houses are being printed in China; today they’re expensive and, frankly, look like crap. Companies might say, that’s not what my customer wants. By the time customers say they do want a 3D printed room or house, if you haven’t been thinking about it, you’re out of business.

Urban Agriculture
New advances in solar energy mean we can now grow produce in unused strip malls instead of shipping it in from Mexico. Growers can raise products close to the grocery stores where they will be sold. It’s fresher and tastier, uses less water, energy and fertilizer, and employs local workers.

Equity Crowdfunding
In the past, if you had an idea for a business, you had to go to the bank. By their very nature, bankers are conservative — they don’t like risky ideas. Now entrepreneurs can go out to investors on crowdfunding platforms and say here is my idea, here is my prospectus, help fund me. When I speak to the banking industry, I tell them that’s their opportunity. They will lose customers if they don’t find a way to work with these startups.

Craft Brewing
This phenomenon is a metaphor for the future. Twenty years ago, there was Budweiser, Miller and Heineken. Now thousands of microbreweries are popping up all over. People want a closer connection to a product they like, and they want local choices. Consumers care if it’s a high-quality product that creates good paying jobs.

Artificial Intelligence
Computers will get smarter about us. Our smart phones are going to know us so well they will tell us things we need to know before we know to ask a question. Your phone will know things about your genetic makeup, it will encourage you to live differently. This is both cool and creepy.