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What is the next generation of disruptive technology and is it close enough to keep you awake at night. I was lucky enough recently to visit the Autodesk museum in San Francisco where, even luckier CTO Jeff Kowalski talked me through some of the exhibits.

Autodesk is an interesting company because its technology underpins a lot of the imagineering that goes into innovation. They produce the classic CAD/CAM software but also pioneer advances in computer graphics with people like James Cameron. And right now they are busy on tools to help manufacturers build new structures based on bioengineering and 4D printing. Yes 4D (Autodesk is collaborating with MIT on the project).

The 4D printing project is impressive but set it alongside work Autodesk is doing with Airbus to create new physical structures based on the work of bacteria….

First the 4D stuff.

As Jeff explained it to me, 4D printing is about embedded transformation. What that means – I am relying on his examples - is that, say, you could produce a car tyre that had the capability to change shape. In the summer on a dry road in Italy you might want tyres that are near slick. But if it starts to rain or if you are headed into winter you would need deeper treads or even spikes. What if that change could be programmed into the basic matter and design of the rubber?

We’re already well down the road of programmable matter. Samsung’s OLED screens are essentially just that – organic light emitters that are controlled by software. It’s not a wild idea.

When I saw the Airbus bacteria forming a new structure though, that did seem wild. The project is the brainchild of David Benjamin who researches the potential to use bacteria and computational design to create new structures.

There’s a more near-term account of breakthrough technologies over at MIT Technology Review, innovations like temporary social media and deep learning (they don’t sound so exciting!).

Whichever way you look at it breakthrough and disruption are, nowadays, always close to hand.

We tend to focus on innovation as both creative and managerial issues and the piece we miss out is the heuristics. We need to learn a) more about what is going on in the world to make sure we don’t go down blind alleys or get blind-sided by competitors or the lone genius or the brilliant academic; and b) we need ways to learn more about our mistakes or experiences and to integrate them into practice. In my view all innovation programmes need a strong heuristic component.

In a HYPE White Paper recently I suggested that the open innovation office should have that role – and used Proctor and Gamble’s Open Innovation efforts to illustrate it. Looking forward rather than backwards, the need now is for much faster innovation and therefore much faster learning. Here’s a diagram that adapts the thinking in the 2012 paper:



It puts a fast iteration hub at the centre of the corporate innovation effort.

On the right it groups all kinds of information sources. In a real-life hub there will be more than these four.

On the bottom row you see activities that are more loosely related to innovation technique and partner building, areas where people also need more information. That’s another area I find companies lack heuristic capability – they don’t have the time to keep on the top of innovation techniques, or to incorporate customers formally into a system, or to cultivate the ecosystems that get products to market.

Like anything in a blog post this is suggestive rather than definitive – comments welcome. But the real caveats are not in the diagram. They lie instead in the corporate decision process. Would companies invest in real iterative power for their innovation process? And would they then be willing to adapt their decision processes to ensure that the knowledge created is always acted upon?

These are two big “ifs”. My feeling, though, is that if innovators present the case well enough they will make progress with this. The big question should be asked of all of us – do we have good enough examples and experiences that we can use to build the case?

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Haydn Shaughnessy

Haydn Shaughnessy

I'm an expert on systemic innovation and transformation, a topic I have been studying since the early 1980s. I advise companies and organizations on the latest thinking and practice in innovation as w