Has Innovation had its day?
We might be living in an age of technological marvels, but some experts are arguing that scientific research is slowing down and truly game-changing breakthroughs are a thing of the past. Innovation optimists, on the other hand, say that reports of its death have been greatly exaggerated.
Innovations and trends that make things easier for the customer are certainly what concern the teams at Deutsche Post DHL.
In an age of flying robots and smartphone apps that check your pulse, it's hard to imagine that some people argue innovation is grinding to a halt. Yet a debate rages about the well-being of the world's innovation labs. A recent article in The Economist even asked the question: "Is innovation dead?"
There are those who think it may be. For example, Robert Gordon, an economist at Northwestern University, believes innovation is, if not dead, at least running out of steam. He contends that the world has already benefitted from the fundamental and game-changing innovations of electrical power, automobiles, and telephony.
Andre Geim is another. The Nobel Prize winner says a lack of investment means basic scientific research is slowing. Whereas the second half of the twentieth century was packed with technological advances, lasers, the moon race, computers, microchips, cellphones, and the Internet, to name just a few, the last two decades have seen no major "disruptive" technologies. This leaves scientists to tinker with technologies that are only a derivative of what already exists.
Booming marketplace of ideas
Bill Meahl, Chief Commercial Officer, DHL, has no such concerns. Innovation, he says, is not just alive - it's kicking, too. New trends emerge almost every day and at times it can be a struggle to keep up. It's also important to realize that not all innovation needs to be as major as the invention of the World Wide Web. "Sometimes it can be something simple, yet have a tremendous global impact," he argues. "The humble shipping container, invented 75 years ago, had an immediate impact on transportation of goods everywhere and is still in use at the forefront of logistics." Indeed, innovation optimists see the idea pool getting larger and more diverse, with trends such as social networking and a shift of economic activity toward developing countries leading to a boom in the marketplace of ideas. Steven Johnson, author of Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation, puts it this way: "An idea is a network. Chance favors the connected mind."
Innovation yay-sayers also point to the way that bottom-up technologies are giving established product lines a run for their money, such as the free navigation apps for smartphones that are putting pressure on traditional navigation product makers.
Yet perhaps the main proof that game-changing innovation abounds comes disguised as simple ideas or indeed new applications of existing ideas. Think of the solar cookers used in rural areas where no electricity is available, or a new technology being developed for cleaning wastewater with soybean oil.
Keep it simple
Richard Branson, the British entrepreneur, whose latest venture is Virgin Galactic, the world's first commercial space line, seems to share a fondness for simple ideas. He has warned against complexity and said, "There are many simple solutions to problems out there, just waiting to be solved by the next big thing in business... don't try to reinvent the wheel." Companies are major players in keeping innovation alive, and R&D spending by companies has continued to rise, up nearly 10% in 2011. Touche Tohmatsu, Global CEO Deloitte, put it this way in an article for the World Economic Forum: "Real opportunity exists for organizations to step up and create the conditions and commitment needed to encourage and foster innovation... There's a tremendous upside if we get this right: we can better retain talent, remain more competitive in the future, and more positively affect society."
To make the most of bright ideas, companies must instill in their organization a "culture" of innovation, says Soumitra Dutta, Dean of the Samuel Curtis Johnson Graduate School of Management at Cornell University and author of Innovating at the Top: How Global CEOs Drive Innovation for Growth and Profit. Dutta argues that leaders in a company - whether small or large - must allow employees at all levels to question an approach or strategy and challenge the status quo. They should be encouraged to experiment and learn to associate seemingly unrelated points. "If you look at the behavior traits of innovators, you will see that these are people who observe their environments frequently. They don't hesitate to ask questions and they are people who seek advice or mentorship. Leaders must hard-code innovation into the DNA of an organization," says Dutta.
Major new trends
If that happens, innovation is inevitable. Some of it will be small - but some of it will be seismic. "There are big trends and major innovations coming," says Meahl, "some of which have the power to fundamentally change how we consume and transport in the near future."
"Take 3D printing for example. This is a tremendously exciting technology that has the potential to change supply chains as we know them. Imagine how the world could change if customers were able to print their spare parts by themselves; or if consumers were able to customize their products via computer and print their individual goods at home."
Innovations and trends that make things easier for the customer are certainly what concern the teams at Deutsche Post DHL. For example, Dr. Clemens Beckmann, EVP Innovation BRIEF, and his team are systematically analyzing adjacent markets and their trends, according to customer demands, in order to derive potential business models. If these business models prove attractive based on the assets of Deutsche Post, the team then prepares potential products and services. For example, after a study of the adjacent mobility market, the decision was taken to create ADAC Postbus - a Germany-wide bus network - as a first step into the mobility segment.
And at DHL's Innovation Center, Steffen Frankenberg, VP Product Development, helps test new business ideas and develop them into market-ready products and services, such as a new supply chain risk-management dashboard currently in pilot stage for a major customer. The tool will help the company to visualize and monitor risk to the supply chain in order to avoid disruptions and make its supply chain more resilient.