Innovation is about making things invisible

If you want to understand the essence of innovation, you should know about Soviet inventor Genrich Altshuller. He created 'TRIZ', one of the most influential methods of categorizing innovation up to date. TRIZ is a Russian acronym which stands for: 'Teoriya Resheniya Izobretatelskikh Zadatch' (Try saying that 5 times in a row if you’re not Russian). 

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Patterns and principles of innovation

Altshuller was a clerk assigned to the ‘Innovation Center’ of the Russian Navy in 1946. His job was to screen possible patents, document them, and then prepare the paperwork to prepare applications for the patent office. He screened thousands of patents, and it lead him to realize that there were patterns to be found in their seeming chaos: patterns of innovation.

He realized that an innovative solution was needed whenever there is an unresolved 'contradiction', in the sense that improving one parameter impacts negatively on another. He later called these ‘technical contradictions’. An example would be that if you needed to reduce the weight of an object, this would require a thinner material that could then no longer be stress-resistant. Here the 'weight' and the 'thickness' of the material are 'technical contradictions'.

He also found patterns that could serve as archetypical solutions to resolve these 'technical contradictions'. He organized these technical contradictions into a matrix, and mapped them onto 40 'principles of invention' that could solve these contradictions. Despite the ‘minor’ setback of a 25 years sentence in the Vorkuta Gulag forced-labor camp (because of a gentle piece of advice he tried to give to Stalin), Altshuller kept on perfecting his method and left the revolutionary ‘Theory of Inventive Problem Solving’ (TRIZ) behind: its ultimate goal was to optimize the contradictions in such a manner that innovation would simply become 'invisible'. And I think he was spot on with that.

The power of the imperceptible

In e-commerce, we all remember the days when buying something online was cumbersome, intense and difficult. And then Amazon revolutionized the world by introducing 'one-click' buying. Today it has moved on to Alexa: no more clicks necessary, just your voice, when you want to order something. Innovation fades away the concept of clicks. From 'three clicks', to one 'click' to 'no clicks'. In other words, invisible.

In the world of call centers, we were able to optimize the time with the customer and reduce the need for humans. Today, we have chat-bots and might finally arrive at excluding the human element. No more call center agents. No humans. Invisible.

In the taxi business, Uber revolutionized the customer experience by taking away the most cumbersome part of the taxi process, the payment at the end of a ride. You just step out of the car, and the payment is fulfilled automatically. Today, it goes one step further and its driverless fleet is taking the human driver out of the equation. Payments become invisible. Human drivers become invisible.

My nexxworks Partner and friend Steven Van Belleghem, too, talks about how the most revolutionary tech waves of today - the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence, data analysis and bots - have one thing in common: they are all invisible to the customer. How the most leading-edge service and solution evolutions are so convenient and efficient that we no longer think about them. They’re just ‘there’.

For me that’s the best and worst part. Because the most dangerous thing about invisible technologies is that we don't 'feel' them any longer. In the world of the ‘Day After Tomorrow’, in the world where things will “wake up” - become intelligent and observant - we will see a surge in invisible technologies at work. Their impact will be huge, and it’s up to us to make sure that it will be a positive one.

Read more about Genrich Altshuller, TRIZ and other innovation methods in my latest book The Day After Tomorrow.