Archive for January, 2010

Preparing for the Unknown

Point: You may not be able to predict the future, but you can prepare for it by tracking early trends and staying open to disruptions.EMCONmagazineWebAtTwenty

Story: What will the web look like in 20 years? Stuart Miniman of the Office of the CTO at EMC Corporation asked me to contribute my thoughts on this, as part of EMC’s ON magazine celebration of the web’s 20th anniversary.

My predictions for 2030? I know that I don’t know, but I do follow some heuristics that are helpful regardless of which future materializes.

“You can’t predict the future,” said Google’s Eric Schmidt back in 1993 when he was president of Sun Technology Enterprises (a subsidiary of Sun Microsystems). “But you can estimate it.  Your estimations are based on understanding the model of technology.”  Schmidt’s mental model of technology involves looking at underlying drivers and expecting innovation from anywhere. “Don’t think your company is the best and will be the first to come with an innovation in your area.  That attitude will lead you to become blindsided.”

With that in mind, here are two trends I’ll be watching closely for emerging innovations:
* Geo-Spatial Data and Semantic Smarts

Consider these facts by Jeff Jonas, IBM Distinguished Engineer and Chief Scientist, Entity Analytic Solutions, IBM Software Group:

Mobile devices in America are generating something like 600 billion geo-spatially tagged transactions per day. Every call, text message, email and data transfer handled by your mobile device creates a transaction with your space-time coordinate, whether you have GPS or not. Every few minutes, it sends a heartbeat, creating a transaction whether you are using the phone or not.

The implications? Companies can use data analytics to learn unprecedented amounts of information on their customers (how far they travel, locations where they hang out, the people they hang out with). It may sound like big brother, but some consumers are already turning this into a big game and social lifestyle with the help of companies like Foursquare, Loopt, Brightkite, etc. There’ll be opportunities for companies to use this data combined with web-based data to serve their customers better.

With every device and service gathering more and more data and becoming more connected, systems will begin to “understand” the meaning of the data to give people what they want.  I don’t know if real AI will ever happen, but with all the available data, social tools, and clever people building clever companies, it seems that devices are going to act like they know the meaning behind the data and and take or suggestion actions to help you. For example, if your cellphone knows your calendar’s next appointment, your location, and gets the Tweets about the traffic jam on the highway, it can alert you to leave a little earlier or alert whomever you’re meeting that you’ll be late.

* Social/Distributed Decision-Making

Knowledge-intensive tasks such new product and service development will be aided by enterprise-wide collaboration systems with built-in voting, reputation systems, and predictive markets.  These concepts were envisioned by MIT Prof. Thomas W. Malone before the Web as we know it even existed. His publications, such as Computers, Networks and the Corporation, describe the organizational changes that networked computers would bring.

Tom Malone now heads the Center for Collective Intelligence at MIT. The center’s basic research question is:  How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?

I think one of the most powerful uses of the web in the future is for crowdsourcing and open innovation to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.  Take, for example, that Innocentive just announced a GlobalGiveback Innovation Challenge Set to help solve some of the world’s water problems through open innovation. Other crowdsourcing platforms like are enabling entrepreneurs to suggest product, service and business ideas to win funding.  The web will enable collaboration on a global scale that will let us marshal our creative energies to tackle global issues.

What do you think?

And, yes, whatever the future brings, there’ll be an app for that.


  • Look for things that are becoming ubiquitous but aren’t being used as much as they could be.
  • Avoid self-centered attitudes about the future. Just because you don’t want to be tracked doesn’t mean others don’t want to be tracked or that someone won’t create a fun and rewarding reason to change your mind about tracking.
  • Look for chocolate+peanut-butter combinations like geo-spatial data + semantics.
  • Test out some crowdsourcing platforms ( is public and ongoing) to get a feel for how they work. Consider how you could apply them.


EMC’s ON magazine: The Web at Twenty

Jeff Jonas: Your Movements Speak for Themselves

Eric Schmidt at the University of Colorado-Boulder, February 9, 1993

9 Comments »How-to, open innovation, Social Media

How to Accelerate Innovation

Point:  Accelerate innovation by finding an analogous solution from a different industry.

Henry Ford’s assembly line is often touted as a breakthrough innovation. What’s less known is that Ford got the idea by seeing the “disassembly line” process of butchering hogs at the Philip Armour meatpacking company in Chicago. Similar techniques were also already being used by Campbell’s to automate canned food production.

Adopting ideas from other industries and applying them to your own industry is a powerful and proven source of innovation. But what if you don’t know which industry to examine, or where to look for that potentially breakthrough idea? Solutions may arrive serendipitously as you visit companies and read widely, but how do you accelerate the process and make it systematic?

One exciting solution I came across was described by Jim Todhunter, CTO of Invention Machine at the Open Innovation Summit last month. Invention Machine’s Goldfire software uses semantic technology to access a vast collection of scientific principles, patents, articles and Deep Web technical websites (meaning you can’t find them via standard search engines like Google). Simply put, Goldfire automates searching for analogous solutions in different industries.  I talked with Todhunter to learn more about how Goldfire, an innovation platform, can help a company innovate systematically.

Todhunter described how a manufacturer of plumbing fixtures used adjacencies to remove lead from their plumbing fixtures.  Companies have long known the dangers of lead and have substituted copper pipes for lead ones and stopped using lead-based solders for plumbing. But most of us don’t realize that fixtures like brass faucets also contain lead in the brass alloys. The reason faucets contain lead is because lead makes the brass machinable. A couple percent of lead mixed into the copper and zinc of the brass makes it easier to mill attractive surfaces, drill clean holes, and create smooth pipe threads on the brass.  In short, the lead helps a faucet manufacturer create attractive, high-quality faucets. But over time, some of the lead in the brass leaches out into the water that flows through the faucet, which poses some health risks.

The faucet maker realized they needed help to solve the problem and turned to Invention Machine’s Goldfire software to find feasible external innovations. “Goldfire helped them in two ways,” Todhunter said, “in terms of what are called adjacencies and proof points.”

Adjacencies involve finding potentially analogous innovations found in other industries. For example, faucet makers aren’t the only companies worried about producing quality products from hard-to-machine materials.  “On the adjacency side, when the company started to examine the problem with Goldfire, they were able to discover that there were technologies and methods used in other industries that could obviate the need for lead in brass,” Todhunter said. In particular, the manufacturer discovered that woodworkers have clever techniques for milling wood.  These techniques could be adapted to machining lead-free brass.

The second help to accelerate the innovative solution is called proof points — tangible examples that prove a solution is commercially feasible.  In terms of proof points (i.e., “are there ways to do this?”), the manufacturer was able to discover a very clear proof point through Goldfire: someone had already discovered a way to make millable lead-free brass.  “The client didn’t even have to go invent this material — they were able to find a supplier,” Todhunter said.  “As a result, the faucet maker accelerated their time to market for delivery on this kind of concept tremendously because this discovery created a partnering opportunity.”


  • Clearly define the problem at hand (e.g., lead-free brass AND attractive, high-quality machined features)
  • Survey adjacent industries or applications for ideas that overcome the problem (e.g., tricks for milling a hard-to-mill material)
  • Survey external innovations and suppliers for proof points (e.g., a commercially available, lead-free brass alloy that is machinable)
  • Combine externally-found adjacencies and proof points (i.e., use the best adjacent methods on the best proof point solutions)

For Additional Information:

Computer power yields radical ideas, by Stuart F. Brown, Fortune

Innovation to the Core: A Blueprint for Transforming the Way Your Company Innovates by Peter Skarzynski and Rowan Gibson

7 Comments »How-to, Innovation, Software tool

Open Innovation at Tesco

Point: Open innovation makes developing niche products and services affordable, the world’s largest online grocery retailer, is opening its API to third-party developers. Developers get access to Tesco’s powerful grocery engine to design apps for specialized purposes. For example, a developer could design an app for customers who have an allergy to peanuts. The app would display only those Tesco grocery items that are free of any peanuts. Likewise, another app could focus on calorie counting: customers could order just the right amount of food to stay within the calorie, carb, and fat limits of their chosen diet.

The Open Innovation strategy is a win/win: Tesco doesn’t have time to develop and support all these apps internally, so it benefits from the skills of external developers. The developers might have special relationships with particular customer segments (e.g., a tie to allergist or being the author of a best-selling diet books).  External developers get compensated (currently 5 pounds) for each new customer who signs on to, and they receive a micropayment for each purchase made that used the app.

The biggest hurdle Tesco executives had to overcome before opening up to external developers was “allowing someone to be between us and the customer,” said Nick Lansley, head of “This is an issue. But what convinced us is that we don’t have the time or resources to write for all these different websites, but others do.”  Tesco requires that developers must support the app and they can’t use “Tesco” in the title, only “powered by the Tesco API.”  To further convince developers that the initiative is real, Tesco stated that they will maintain the API for at least two years.


1. Define a reusable interface that lets software developers bundle or use your systems to meet new needs
2. Create a mutually-beneficial compensation plan to both attract developers and to encourage developers to attract customers
3. Pledge to support the API

For Further Information:

4 Comments »Case study, Innovation, open innovation