Here’s an odd challenge to get you thinking. What might the link be between Barcelona, fostering innovation with technological solutions and organisations looking to give the people what they want?

This two-part series will explore the topic of a session I recently gave at a Design Thinking and Business Innovation Summit.  The series opens by considering how organisations are using various technology solutions to tackle everything from continuous improvement through to grand challenges. Part two, will take a much more tactical drill down into the growing market of innovation management solutions and who to watch out for, as well as the wider innovation ecosystem and harnessing the crowd to best effect.

From grand challenges to continuous improvement

If your guess to the question was Catalonia’s exiled Independence party’s plans to create a digital government equivalent to Estonia.  Then you

would be very well informed, but in this case, you’d be wrong.  I was in Barcelona just prior to all the recent referendum* to give a session on fostering innovation with technological solutions. As digital technologies reshape the modern world, businesses established in less fluid times are having to make increasingly complex and critical decisions against the ticking clock of change. It is certainly fair to say that most political parties were created prior to the ‘digital first’ times we are all experiencing.

One of the grandest challenges out there for organisations is engagement with stakeholders, be it businesses with customers, governments with citizens or political parties with voters, and technological solutions are having an increasingly influential role in the process.  Spoiler alert – this series will not look at social media and internal and external messaging tools that led to whole phenomena of fake news. That is for a later thought piece but given my Barcelona experience, coupled with the almost daily news about this or an equivalent changing of the political landscape I’ll consider this use case. It’s equally applicable for businesses, for considering technological solutions when fostering innovation, whether intended or otherwise. Much of the challenge when an innovative technology comes to market and the mainstream whilst the designers, creators, and thinkers may have one view on how it will play out, when the rubber hits the road it’ll usually be different.

Technology is best when it is invisible

When thinking about engagement and empowering the crowd, I tend to agree with an ex-colleague of mine, an expert of technology and regulatory change with over 25 years’ experience working with central infrastructures, industry schemes, commercial banks and technology providers on major national, regional and global change programmes on payments.  “Technology is best when it is invisible”. People just want the technology to work seamlessly in as frictionless manner as possible, otherwise they’ll be turned off by it. The levels of engagement and desired outcomes be that political change or organisational innovation will not happen.  The follow up to this thought piece will dive into the growing market of innovation management solutions and who to watch out for. It is certainly possible to use one of the growing dedicated Innovation Management software solutions in an Open Innovation or Crowdsourcing approach to drive engagement. It very much comes down to determining and refining the question or challenging you are setting.  A notable example for this in policy engagement comes from one of our sponsors Wazoku, who used their Idea Spotlight application with the UK government Department of Justice. Fellow Future Shaper, Jonty Slater provides some useful insight with his thought piece The Misuse of Open Innovation within Organisations.

In determining your technological solution of choice to foster innovation, the basic principles are consistent with design thinking and hence the much talked about symbiotic nature and blurring of the domains. Start with the end in mind and try and determine what your organisations innovation objectives and strategy are.  Are you looking for incremental, differentiated or radical innovations? Do you have a desirable innovation mix that you are going after? Without a very specific goal and target, “putting a man on the moon” being the classic radical option organisationally you’ll naturally tend to have more incremental innovation activities.  That is certainly not saying this type of innovation is in anyway of less importance it is just a case of managing expectations. Another way of putting this in keeping with the Design Thinking principles is, it is important to decide and understand the user problem you are trying to solve. There are number of great articles on the platform from fellow Future Shapers that unpack this in more detail.

Is it a technology challenge?

Many of the technological solutions for fostering innovation whilst phenomenally disruptive and transformative are only replacing manual or non-technological processes or activities which were potentially invisible.  The physical political demonstration marches involving hundreds of thousands coming out in the streets are a very non-tech solution at driving engagement and change. Whilst it would be possible to garner far wider virtual support at substantially lower costs the physical and visual impact is far more powerful outcome. Determining the right mix of technology and non-technology solutions is an often overlooked challenge for organisations as in the innovation space the tendency exists to jump to the tech.

From my experience with clients and best practice, Erik Brynjolfsson, an economist known for his writings and research on “the new machine age” in his early 1990s research found companies saw little benefit from investing in computers unless they reorganised.  Stimulating organisation innovation is in the helms of 70% non-technology, when you consider the wider aspects of strategy, leadership, management and culture. This is not to say that technology doesn’t have an intricate and invaluable role in each of these areas, but the solution or best intervention doesn’t necessarily have to be technological.

Fellow Future Shaper Rosemarie Diegan unpacked an aspect of this challenge in her thought piece When is technology bad for innovation?  There are a wider set of radical technologies that can support the fostering of innovation.  In my recent Californication and the radical technologies series of thought pieces we started to look them and their impact. The challenge is that Smartphones, Digital fabrication otherwise known 3D Printing, Artificial Intelligence and Virtual Reality are technologies options that are increasingly omnipresent in organisations innovation engagements and are considered synonymous with innovation. I will look at each of these in turn in upcoming thought pieces.  However, the best results don’t necessarily have to come from using the most cutting-edge technologies of the time.  It is certainly fair to say that recent supposed political disruptions in the US used advanced Business-Intelligence (BI) and big data modelling, targeting and profiling but equally more traditional technologies such as the web based collaboration tools can be just as powerful in fostering innovation.

The Italian ‘Non’ Job

Keeping the ongoing thread between innovation and radical political movements, if we sail east from Barcelona on one of their popular cruise ship routes we’ll soon be docking in Italy and the home of MoVimento 5 Stella (the Five Star Movement). I touched on the rise of this party in my thought piece Democracy innovation and return of social led engagement,  but technically Five Star is not actually a political party, it’s a ‘non-association’, governed by a ‘non-statute. Five Star is a ‘non’ unlike anything else, a radical, internet-powered anti-establishment movement that has swept across Italy.

The Capital ‘V’ in MoVimento stands for Vaffanculo, or fuck off.

When Beppe Grillo co-foundered the Five Star Movement in 2009 via a post on his popular blog, he promised to use the internet and technological solutions to foster innovation, introducing direct democracy, radical transparency and an end to corruption.

The direct democracy visionary thinks the internet will sweep away representative democracy, political parties and ideologies. It will be replaced with frictionless, corruption-free politics.  The vision is that political parties and their leaders were useful once, when people had no way to voice their concerns and no way to coordinate political action.  Media companies once used to be necessary to find, gather and present information to the public. But these hierarchical organisations accumulated power in the hands of the few.  Technology and the internet has changed all that. People can now coordinate themselves without parties, and find information and news without the filter of editors. Five Star candidates are selected online by members, and local ‘Meetup’ groups, coordinated via a website, get together to choose their own policies.  With the internet, you don’t need party leaders and an internet-enabled crowdsourced revolution is possible.

A measure of the success of the use of what are essentially rudimentary technology tools is that in the 2013 Italian General Election the Five Star Movement became the most popular political party with 25.5% of the vote and won 109 of the 630 Parliamentary seats available.

Fostering innovation with technological solutions comes down to really understanding the challenge you are trying to solve.  Recognising, whilst an important part, technology will only be part of the answer as at present (this will change with the continued implementation of Artificial Intelligence and Robotics) the non-technological aspects make up the majority of the items to consider.

In part two of this miniseries I will build on this thought piece to investigate the growing market of innovation management solutions and who to watch out for, as well as the wider innovation ecosystem and harnessing the crowd to best effect.  This will also draw in the work of fellow Future Shaper contributors as the use of technology in fostering innovation is almost unescapable and an increasingly powerful enabler that makes the difference between the winners and losers.

*The Future Shapers is politically neutral as our founding principle that Next Generation Organisations deserve Next Generation guidance is applicable to all. It makes no judgement on the legality or otherwise of the referendum.