For many years I have been fascinated by the idea of disruptive innovation and technologies. Whilst disruption certainly happens, there are plenty of historical examples of that, I don’t think you can identify which innovations will be disruptive and how they will disrupt.

When Marconi developed wireless telegraphy it was for point to point communications where you couldn’t lay physical wires. Twenty years later David Sarnoff realised the potential of radio transmission to allow one person to speak to many, and broadcasting was born.

So when I saw that there was a discussion panel on Disruptive Industries at the 2018 International Business Festival in Liverpool I went along to see what it was about.

Although no one was able to point to a usable way of predicting disruptive innovation, there were some very interesting ideas about how to think about disruption that is already happening.

Look at the rest of the business ecosystem

Alan Yee from automotive design and engineering services company Contechs talked about electric and autonomous vehicles. Clearly these represent a disruptive change for the auto sector, but Alan saw major changes happening in all kinds of businesses around auto manufacturing.

Google is buying a big chunk of the initial production of Jaguar Land Rover’s I-Pace for its Waymo autonomous vehicle arm in a £1.2bn deal. If vehicles are self-driving and bought by fleet providers, it suggests that fewer will be sold to end-users. How will that change the market dynamics?

Whim provides integrated transport around the West Midlands by public transport, city bike, taxi or hire car for a single monthly subscription. You already don’t need to own a car, and autonomous vehicles would slot right into that model.

Chargemaster Ultracharge EV point

In this future what are petrol stations going to do? Clearly, they have to get into the EV charging market. BP’s recent purchase of the UK’s largest charging network Chargemaster shows this transformation in progress. The problem is that petrol stations generally lack the real estate for enough charging stations and enough other things to do to cover likely charging times. Alan speculated that the natural places for high densities of charging points are out of town retail centres with their vast car parking areas. Could they become transport interconnection hubs?

With autonomous vehicles do we need headlights, traffic lights and street signs? Probably not in the same way. Alan sees some of the companies already positioning themselves to redeploy their technologies and capabilities into new areas.

The message is where disruption is underway; look upstream and downstream of the point of disruption. How will the rest of the ecosystem be affected?

New technologies may have multiple uses

Ultrahaptics is a company that uses ultrasonic fields to create touch-sensitive controls that ‘float’ in mid-air. Anders Hakfelt described the potentially disruptive uses of ‘virtual touch’. The technology has two properties that bring new opportunities; you don’t have to look at an interface to operate it, and you don’t have to touch any physical object.

Ultrahaptics gesture control system

Anders gave two examples. As automobiles become more complex, many are beginning to use large touchscreens with multiple menus to control various functions. Unfortunately, the driver usually has to glance at the touchscreen to see the control, taking their eyes off the road and increasing the risk of accidents. Tactile controls that can respond to gesture allow sophisticated and intuitive control that is both easier to use and safer.

A second example is in medicine and surgery where you can control devices without physical touch, making it easier to maintain a sterile environment.

Then there are obvious applications in VR and gaming. The computer interface of Minority Report edges closer.

The lesson here is when trying to work out where a new technology can be applied, think hard about its ‘affordances’. What sorts of activities does the technology enable and where might these be applied.

Learning from other sectors

Play is a company that uses learning from games development to create products that help people make good decisions and build positive behaviours. Marcus Thornley noted that in 2017 the Games industry was worth more than $100bn worldwide, and there are now more people over 44 gaming than there are under 20. This is a mainstream activity that people across the age-range are comfortable with.

Marcus explained four key principles from gaming that help them develop applications for major companies:

  • Laser focus on user needs
  • If you can measure you can improve
  • Shifting the focus for processes in organisations from ‘make to do’ to ‘want to do’
  • Finding the moments that delight

They have built these principles into Totem, their employee engagement tool used by over 50 companies to improve engagement and driver performance. I think of it as Nudge implemented as a game. One example Marcus quoted was a utility company that needed to capture information about its assets in the field. A dull task that no one really liked and as a result was not done very well. By turning it into a treasure hunt it became a more engaging task and performance improved. A good example of a switch from ‘make to do’ to ‘want to do’.

The message here is look outside your sector for ideas. How are people serving different markets or using different technologies and business models delighting their customers?

Catching a firehose in a teacup

The problem is how to find out what is going on in every sector and pick the concepts that are relevant? There is so much going on; how to separate the signal from the noise?

Even before the World Wide Web got going people were worried about the growth in the amount of data available and the difficulty of finding the relevant stuff. 25 years ago, my KM colleagues were talking about the problem of ‘catching a firehose in a teacup’, and it has got much worse since then. 90% of the data now in existence has been created in the last 2 years, and that statistic has been more or less true for the last 30 years as data grows exponentially. How can I conceivably monitor this torrent and spot key trends?

Mark Wood of Amplyfi described how they are using the latest in AI to distil relevant information from the flood. Disruptions are by their nature unexpected, and these systems cannot predict them, but they can help to spot and react to them.

Given the way technology moves rapidly from one domain to another, you can’t just look at your own sector; you have to look outside. AI techniques are particularly good at spotting connections with other markets and helping you to challenge pre-conceptions and assumptions.

My take-home messages from this panel?

  • When disruption has started, look upstream and downstream for potential impacts
  • Look at the new things a new technology can enable to understand where it can be used
  • Look at how other markets solve their problems for inspiration – and you may need big-data help to challenge your assumptions.
How to Spot and Make Use of Disruptive Innovation
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