The future of innovation will be people-centred. By that I mean that innovators within organisations of every type will make unprecedented efforts to get closer to their customers, to understand better the motivations and needs of the people who will use their products and services. Against the background of a global credit crunch, the future of innovation will demand a completely new relationship between producers and consumers that is less transactional and more interactive and creative.
In the recent past we’ve had technology-centred innovation which has given the world a lot of clever and often irrelevant things that people struggle to use. We’ve had marketing-centred innovation which has segmented consumers according to formulae and stereotypes, with predictably limited results. And we’ve had design-centred innovation which has vaulted over the messy realities of user behaviour with an elevated appeal of style and form.
People-centred innovation will harness aspects of all three previous waves. It will look to science and technology to solve functional problems related to need; it will set human desires in the context of market shifts; design will continue to play a critical role as interpreter and developer within the innovation process. But something fundamental will be different.
The starting point will not be either a technological breakthrough, a striking piece of market research or an aesthetic brand heritage. The starting point will be a holistic co-creation exercise with key user groups. People-centred innovation will make consumers genuine co-designers in the process and not test subjects to be studied, analysed and marketed to.
To achieve this, designers will be required to redirect their skills from the back end of innovation (development, specification, production, branding and so on) to the front end of innovation, where discovery, user understanding and need definition will become important partnership activities with consumers. Designers will, in effect, become the main facilitators of the co-creation process, using their creative abilities in new ways.
What gives designers the right to assume a more prominent role in my version of the future of innovation? Three reasons in particular come to mind. Designers are increasingly adept at rapid ethnography, at studying consumer behaviour from an anthropological standpoint and translating that immediately into new design concepts.
Designers are also good at experimentation, at modelling the future through the ability to make multiple prototypes. James Dyson is a classic innovation experimenter who succeeded with his dual cyclonic vacuum cleaner after more than five thousand prototypes.
The third reason why designers will be key to people-centred innovation is in their ability, in the words of IDEO general manager Tom Kelley, to ‘cross-pollinate’. This cross-pollination enables the lessons of one market sector, culture or industry to be readily applied to another – for hospital emergency departments to learn from what happens in Formula One pits, for example, or for aerospace technology to be adapted to ergonomic office chairs.
For design to assume new responsibilities at the front end of innovation, a new type of designer will need to emerge – the T-shaped designer, in which deep discipline knowledge in design (the vertical of the T) will be complemented by the ability to reach out to other fields of expertise, most notable science and business (the horizontal of the T). That is why the ground for a more people-centred version of innovation is being laid now in education, as student designers, engineers, technologists and MBAs emerge from their departmental silos to work together in cross-disciplinary teams.
It is a future laced with pitfalls as well as potential. But, given the black economic forecasts, a people-centred future of innovation is the only one worth fighting for to bring back the customers, retain their interest and restore confidence.
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