Human beings never stop innovating and it is industry that both drives and benefits from innovation.
In some cases, industrial evolution takes on such dimensions that it is referred to as a revolution. It is of course not easy to distinguish between the two, when you experience the phenomenon yourself. Some think that we are living the start of a 4th industrial revolution. Some others deem that the current technological advances fall within the 3rd industrial revolution built on electronics and computer science.
Unlike the first three revolutions, the fourth one does not use a new type of energy. It is characterised by a fusion of technologies that is blurring the lines between the physical, digital, and biological spheres. Its main vectors are cyberphysical systems, these enabling technologies that combine the physical and digital worlds in order to create a network of intelligent objects that are in constant interaction.
Internet, communicating sensors, cloud computing, Big Data and intelligent objects connect to create these systems that can potentially become autonomous, remotely controlled, capable of self-diagnostics, adapting and improving. When applied in an industrial context, all this is materialized by “smart factories”, where all the various tools and workstations integrated in the production and supply chain communicate permanently. These factories are capable of producing more easily, with more transparency and personalization. They can do it in cooperation with other factories or partners, with optimized resources, including energy.
The evolution of digitalization and its related technological progress is a new revolutionary step, especially as far as its conditions are concerned. It happens at an unprecedented pace and it is rather exponential than linear. Specialists are taken aback by the developments and so are governments and legal regulations. Major effects can be felt, even before we start preparing for the changes. The discrepancy is even greater, because the effects are spread out across the globe. Nowadays, a single software or application may, within a few months, question tens of thousands of jobs all over the world (travel agents, taxi drivers…).
Just like other revolutions, this one also has other major effects on society. For instance, it affects the way countries are governed (cyber-democracy…), even the election of a government (think of the influence of social networks on the events of the Arab Spring or the election of Donald Trump); access to information (online media, blogs, “fake news”…) and knowledge (massive open online courses …); the relationships between countries (cyberspying, cyber wars…), the protection of privacy and health (cybernetics, genetic manipulation, synthetic biology…) and many more.
At best, this new revolution will have a positive effect on the environment, improve our living standards, better distribute knowledge, resources and wealth. The worst case scenario is nothing less than accelerating the end of mankind! The exponential development of artificial intelligence and networking objects could result in “machines” deciding about progress, relegating humans to the rank of accessory, to be retained or not. A possible outcome that would send a shiver down the spine of not only science fiction enthusiasts, but has also been alarming well-known personalities like Stephen Hawkins or Elon Musk.
Is their a typical innovator profile?
Scientists have described innovators as people fascinated by a problem that is impossible to solve. Walt Disney wanted to make people happy… Such a project will never be completed! It seems that you need to be motivated by an unattainable objective. Some want to solve impossible problems, such as peace on earth or hunger. Some others are motivated by personal failure, a particular psychological state, such as having experienced reject or lack of understanding and want to prove that they are valuable by accomplishments that will be recognized by the others. Steve Jobs and Larry Ellisson have both been adopted and maybe this was what contributed to taking them so far.
How about talent and genius?
Talent is not enough, there is nothing supernatural in innovating. When looking at the past, we always get the impression that things just couldn’t have possibly happened in a different way. Still, if you look at the career of someone like Steve Jobs, you can tell that his success was the result of hard work, extraordinary persistence, the capacity to select talented people as well as some good luck and timing. Hundreds of other people were making their own way simultaneously and they never became famous, because they didn’t succeed, not all the conditions were met. There is no clearly outlined destiny as such. There are daily new challenges, we invent our future together every day.
You say that innovation has nothing to do with the capacity of predicting the future. In the corporate world, isn’t anticipating future markets the key to success?
No, it isn’t and this is an essential point. Nobody can tell how things will actually happen. Intel’s founders could not know, when they started their processor business that 40 years later there would be iPhones! However, they could sense and contribute to profound, lasting changes and create products with enormous potential, which could be developed, adapted and integrated into a countless number of systems. But they could not know. Today’s technologies were almost unthinkable at the time, as well as the proportions that these technologies would take.
So, how can a company increase the chances of creating a revolutionary product without know- ing the future?
By implementing a constant, efficient process that will allow to develop products within short deadlines, based on the actual needs of the market. This is all very down-to-earth ! The aim is to generate ideas, collect them, sort them and make them happen as efficiently as possible. Apple or Google launch only 20% of the products they develop. Their archives are full of buried products! This is the culture of innovation. It is not about explaining that this or that product may change your life, but learning to accept and manage the risks, trying something new, observing, moving forward. Within a company, especially when business is going well, the unknown is perceived as a threat. What I am trying to make my audience understand is that the unknown must be regarded as something exciting.
You often describe the culture of innovation within a company as an “ecosystem”, yet another reference to nature. Can you explain this concept?
It is about building up and orienting all the inhouse conditions for innovation to thrive. Talking to all the staff about what is going on in the world. Which are the up-and-coming technologies? How to change our way of working so that an idea can be launched faster on the market? How to identify within the company the competencies that will help to select the most pertinent ideas, to present them to the customers in the most complete way? Innovating means managing both sides of the funnel to move from 10,000 ideas to a product. It involves organizing one side of the funnel to get always more proposals, talents, means and the other side so that the product may have an impact. In order to make this system work, it is also necessary to develop closer relationships with our partners, customers, the media, intellectuals, influencers. To create a multifaceted, dynamic structure to shift from a market notion to a whole ecosystem.
You say that in order to innovate, we need to “protect the future from the past” and not the contrary. Still, can we protect anything from the past, without giving up on innovation?
This is the paradox. Companies often forget about their own DNA, this genetic code which made them become what they are today. Therefore, they should rediscover it, and awaken the culture of innovation. The founder of a company like LEMO innovated 70 years ago, spending days and nights in his kitchen building connectors! Today 1600 people should feel responsible for inventing the future, managing the risk factor, but not letting it become predominant. The further we go ahead, the more important it is in a way to return to the foundations. All human organizations can only exist as long as they have a role in society. The danger starts when we become self-referential which is now the case in certain parts of the world. When the main priority of a company becomes not leaving the comfort zone, it is the beginning of the end. This end may last quite a while, but this is how it starts. Only if you question yourself consistently can the success story continue.