Some of today's largest and most powerful technology companies have a problem. They've fallen into what I call the “innovation gap.”
What is the innovation gap?
Scientists working in research and development at large firms are at the forefront of some of the best ideas for wearable technology, smart technology, and the Internet of Things. Before those ideas can be brought to life, however, they're running up against corporate finance teams asking what the return on investment will be. The scientist often doesn't know and the idea thus stays on the drawing board. As time goes on, this innovation gap is widening.
Take, for example, smart technology. One of our engineers' biggest takeaways from element14's smart technology design challenge was that a lot of appliances haven't changed much since they were first invented. A time traveler from the 1950s would still be able to navigate through a kitchen today with relative ease and operate an oven, coffee maker, and microwave. Why is that? In the business world, we have become so risk-averse that companies have started opting for small, incremental improvements to their products, and larger firms have turned to acquiring smaller companies in the hopes that those buyouts will “guarantee” innovation. The truth is these strategies are not enough to close the innovation gap. So what is the best solution? How can today's technology companies maintain a competitive edge without fear of debilitating loss or risk?
Overcoming the innovation gap
To overcome the innovation gap, companies need to engage the DIY community. Partner with makers, hacker spaces, and other smaller firms to find the next generation in appliances or wearable devices, and guarantee royalties at the end of the process. For example, element14’s Smarter Life Challenge sponsored 15 competitors to build forward-thinking technologies over a four-month period, with the winning smart designs receiving vouchers to our retail sites and a trip to Embedded World in Germany. One of the winners is looking to turn his design into a product.
Design challenges and communities facilitate innovation by working with suppliers, manufacturers, and larger firms to translate their ideas and objectives into real solutions and products. The technology to develop and test such solutions has become cheaper than ever. A single engineer or maker can prototype industrial applications with just a Raspberry Pi or Arduino board. This means the gap between what larger companies are using to prototype devices, and the technology available to DIYers to prototype devices, is narrowing.
We are already seeing other industries tap into the maker movement. For example, Levi’s launched the Levi's Makers tag at their boutique shops in the US to promote individual designers and their products. General Electric, Home Depot, and Best Buy have all followed suit with their own makers' product lines. Quirky and Skillshare foster online communities that influence product designs and launches.
Democratizing the industrial revolution
All of these elements combined — technology, design initiatives, new corporate strategy — are coming into place and democratizing the modern Industrial Revolution. Individuals are participating in the prototyping and production of solutions for large companies across industries. Departments like IT and R&D have traditionally been very closed, secretive and internal but are now opening up. Larger manufacturers have even come into frame for product design and development, providing essential marketing, sales, and distribution services to bring maker-based innovations to the main stage.
The innovation gap and the importance of the DIY community is not a secret, but rather a trend. It is going to hit every major industry at full force whether we are ready or not. Larger companies be warned: Many organizations believe that to survive they must “innovate or die.” They worry solely about innovation and lose sight of the best approach to achieving it. Connecting with the developer community is a low-cost and unique way to achieve innovation — but finding a way to access those makers is your responsibility.