Innovation Thoughts for 2014

by Scott Bowden

Looking ahead to innovation pathways in 2014, I harken back to a technology that is over 100 years old – radio.  I am thinking about radio because of an experience that I had recently on an airport subway train, though this experience was by no means limited to that one incident.  I looked across the carload of around 20 people and noticed that every single person was staring down at a smartphone device.  “Heads down” should become the new mantra of the 21st century citizen, as we often find ourselves buried in our devices, staring at their tiny screens.

I do not mean to disparage the power of these devices, as I recognize that today’s smartphones contain the power of the desktop computers of only a few years ago and can connect a person to a nearly infinite amount of information from around the planet.  However, as I looked around this train car of hunched-over passengers, I wondered what a modern Rip Van Winkle, transported from the 1980s to today, might think about such a scene.  Would Rip wonder what authoritarian regime had the power to force its citizens to focus intensively on their devices?  Were the devices a means of controlling the minds and behavior of these individuals?  What would Rip think if he learned that every person on that train was engaging in that neck-straining activity willingly, with no coercion?

I contrast the experience on the train to an afternoon I spent recently working on a project outside my home.  A particularly rainy summer has resulted in a buildup of mildew and dirt on the windowsills and doors on parts of my home.  Since pressure-washing around windows and doors can cause moisture-buildup in cracks and crevices, I decided to do this work by hand with soap and water and a scrub brush.  In this scenario, holding a smartphone device in my hand while I worked was not an option to keep me connected with the world, so I grabbed a waterproof battery-powered transistor radio. The radio sat outside with me all afternoon and provided thought-provoking political discussion throughout the time I was working, as well as news updates every 30 minutes so I could keep up with news from around the world.  I could have grabbed a Bluetooth portable speaker and connected it to my smartphone then streamed a radio station from the web, but there was something tantalizingly simply about grabbing the transistor radio, pressing one button, and connecting with the world.

So as we head into 2014, my innovation thoughts center on how we can take these amazing, ubiquitous smartphone devices and interact with them in a way that does not consume our focus and allows us to accomplish other things.  This makes me think that perhaps Google Glass is more important to our future than even its advocates now contend, or perhaps there is some invention on the horizon that will provide a similar combination of information and interactivity without locking the user into intense focus on a small device.

Alternatively, the future may entail the increased prevalence of what the Economist refers to as the “Mindfulness Movement,” which entails disconnecting from the constant pinging of the virtual world and focusing on meditation.  Likewise, the movement also recommends lessening the emphasis one places on the acquisition of material goods as an indicator of success.  Mindfulness focuses on the development of the self, avoiding overloading of the senses, and works against the invasion of electronic devices into people’s leisure time.

While I do not espouse a complete shutdown of electronic devices, I do think there is value in clearly-defined boundaries where the devices are not omnipresent.  Conversely, there is value in having the information from a device more seamlessly embedded into everyday life so that a person can accomplish other tasks while receiving this information, thus the importance of Google Glass. In my mind, the future lies in better understanding how we strike this balance between pervasiveness and mindfulness, and that is what I will be pondering in 2014.

Source: The Economist, “Schumpeter – The mindfulness business,” (November 16, 2013).

image credit: edudemic.com

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Scott BowdenScott Bowden is a Project Executive, Innovation Program Leader at IBM Global Services.

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