When the topic of innovation comes up, there is often mention of blue-sky thinking and strategy. It is an apt visual trigger for the concept of innovation. When you look up and out, beyond the walls and blockades surrounding how you operate, you can imagine new possibilities. And in that big blue sky, you might also see passing by one of the great innovations of our time: a jet.
Really, when you think about some of humanity’s greatest achievements of technological endeavour, it is the development of motor vehicles, jet aircraft, and rockets and shuttles for space exploration that jump to mind.
But these inventions did not just change how we travel or look at the world, they transformed entire industries through necessary innovation. To support the development of cars, planes and rockets, you have a whole range of other industries, from mechanics, safety and energy provision, to entertainment, training and data research services, that all have to contribute to the process. Each of these sectors works to advance efficiencies, and - most importantly - to improve the experience for users.
This week, I read a very earnest article from a nanotechnology scientist, saying that Australia needs to focus its innovation investment on big social questions about climate change, feeding the planet and dealing with water shortages. In spite of the fact that he was clearly shilling for his own research company, I’m sure he’s right: we do need to invest in big issue innovation projects. But I disagree with him on one really important point. He says that innovation around speed of service delivery, or improved user experiences, is something that doesn’t really matter.
The thing is, it does matter. Better, more efficient services can incrementally improve the effectiveness of all users of a system.
It frees us up to be more productive and more innovative in our jobs, and in all the steps along the way to solving those bigger, more complex and intractable problems that beset society. True blue-sky thinking allows for small scale innovation that can be tested, iterated, commercialised and released, over and over. It is agile development that results in better experiences for all.
Airline travel is one place where you can see that kind of innovation in action. Innovation over the past 30 years in the sector has been profound. The newest jet engines use less fuel, have lower emissions, and are up to 75% quieter than older engines. Traveller comfort has been improved with better data on weather patterns and how to mitigate turbulence, and the whole experience of travel has been transformed with innovation around luggage, transfers, entertainment and catering. And most of that progress arose from ideas adapted from other inventions and services, and from a focus on the effects and impacts of change - on people, the environment and economies.
This is why blue-sky innovation strategies should always allow for small scale and customer-centric prototypes to be developed. Large scale innovation will often only happen when a whole ream of small scale innovations come together to transform an industry.
Of course, every sector can continue to progress, and big industries like airline travel still have the opportunity to improve end-to-end customer experiences, as well as to help think differently about resource use. Small scale innovation, focused on customer experiences, will continue to have a positive effect on airline travel experiences, and I am confident that it will even act as a trigger for the large scale research and testing that will generate operational and energy efficiencies.
I believe it is also important to leverage the intellectual capital of an organisation to truly transform an industry. Ideas that currently sit in the heads of workers in siloed business units, or even beyond the firm, in the creative brains of design thinkers, should be tapped in prototyping initiatives. Again, it is the act of bringing together ideas from the brains of industry and innovation experts that can trigger major change. Connecting the dots between ideas and technological development opportunities is key to business and industry transformation.
This kind of innovation will, in turn, help to combat those big issues that the nanotechnology scientist was referring to when he was calling for investment in major problems facing the planet. Design thinking around user experience, rapid prototyping and agile development will help solve the world’s biggest problems.
By focusing an innovation strategy on customer experiences and small scale change, you can make a very big impact on how an entire industry operates. The lessons from the travel industry demonstrate that a genuinely blue-sky innovation plan needs to embrace different kinds of product development, and it needs to acknowledge that even seemingly trivial advancements in customer experiences can add up to monumental change for the better.