Phil’s Corner: Human-Centered Innovation in a Tech-Fueled World
In this blog, I have been exploring five dynamics that I believe are shaping our world and creating new “rules of the road” for businesses and other organizations:
How “higher purpose” has become table stakes for a successful enterprise
The marriage of global and local in all that is good
The central role the environment, health and wellness play in everyday life and in our future
The role of technology in driving accelerated opportunity and human evolution
The emergence of a new breed of humans (aka consumers)
In this entry, I share my perspective on innovation in a tech-fueled world, the implications for businesses, and the importance of preserving a sense of humanity and authenticity in the midst of the drive for technological improvement.
Each day, we are bombarded with more evidence of the powerful role technology is playing in our lives. Numerous studies from the field of neuroplasticity (i.e. the brain’s ability to reorganize by creating new neural pathways to adapt) suggest that technology – digital technology in particular, as accessed via computers and mobile devices – is literally re-wiring our brains. While there are important benefits to this rewiring – from allowing us to access immense amounts of data, boost pattern recognition in solving problems, and generally boosting certain aspects of brain functions – there are also obvious drawbacks. Negative impacts such as addictive behavior, weaker memory function, a sense of isolation, and even increased suicide risk among certain people, have all been noted.
Technology isn’t just a tool people use. Those studies on neuroplasticity demonstrate that it shapes and influences the way we perceive and experience the world, and the way we build relationships. For those of us in the business of understanding and anticipating people’s needs, technology is a crucial aspect we can’t afford to overlook.
IMPLICATIONS OF TECHNOLOGY ON BUSINESS TODAY
In the business world, we see increasing levels of economic activity fueled by exponential improvements in digital technology. A recent study by Accenture and Oxford Economics suggests that digital technologies could add well over $1 trillion to total economic output by 2020, a significant portion of the growth in global GDP. Likewise, a recent McKinsey report claims that digital flows of economic activity – practically nonexistent just 15 years ago—now exert a larger impact on GDP growth than the centuries-old trade in goods. When we consider the broader impact of technology on large-scale manufacturing and burgeoning fields such as renewable energy, its transformative effect on our economy and business innovation is clear.
As an innovation and growth strategy practitioner, my colleagues and I have been at the center of the transformation of our industry as we have increasingly integrated digital technology into the core of our work. The most dramatic impact has been in market research methods such as virtual ethnography, on-line focus groups, web mining to gather industry intelligence, and early use of MRI technology to better understand consumer reactions to products, services, and messaging (read more on neuromarketing here). These technology-rich tools have made it possible to gain more real-world insight into consumer and market behavior – and to do it with less time and budget investment.
Given the extent to which these powerful technology-driven dynamics changing businesses and the world in general, it is tempting to dismiss the prospects of companies and industries that are not strongly tech-enabled. If you are a tech entrepreneur, there are a plethora of incubators, accelerators, seed and venture capital funds, and business coaches and advisers willing and able to help you move through the early stages of growth.
PRESERVING HUMANITY DESPITE THE RISE OF TECHNOLOGY
It’s important to remember that our emerging economy is not solely driven by these tech-related businesses. In fact, there is a counter-movement toward industries that rely less on technology and bring us closer to a simpler way of living. Witness the burgeoning “craft” consumer products industry (which includes the healthy, gourmet, organic, sustainable, local and locally-inspired, artisan quality area of products), which has become a major growth engine for the broader consumer products world and has been led by entrepreneurs inspired to innovate for the higher purpose of making the world a better place. While many of these companies leverage digital technology in their basic business operations, they are, in spirit, all about bringing humanity and authenticity into everyday products we consume.
Personally, I see these “craft” consumer products as one solution to the inevitable disruption and dislocation caused by tech-fueled innovation. While we may enjoy the technological transition to clean, renewable energy, and the other environmental, economic, and convenience benefits of digitally-driven innovations such as Uber, AirBnB, online retailing, and electronic banking – these innovations also create winners and losers. There are company failures, communities left behind, and jobs permanently lost. We need more human-centered (and might I say “heart-centered”) businesses to fill the void and, in their own right, help us transition to a cleaner, healthier world.
REMAINING AUTHENTIC WHILE TECHNOLOGY FUELS YOUR FUTURE
Even as these businesses embody low-tech values and address concerns of depersonalization, they are often among the most innovative adopters of technology to empower and expand their offerings or communicate and connect with broader audiences in a personal way. While the playing field is far from leveled, technological developments are opening new, alternative paths for growth. Social media has tugged away the curtain of the great and powerful Oz, changing the game for branding, marketing, and customer service. Technology is driving demand for transparency, accountability, and compelling storytelling across platforms. It changes the way people connect and the relationships they develop not only with other people, but with places and ideas. Tech enables new business models, cutting out middle men or distribution outputs previously unthinkable not only moving online but blending online with brick-and-mortar.
Many of these human-centered businesses still lack the support and infrastructure to nurture them through the growth stages toward a viable, sustainable scale that support the entrepreneur and his/her team and supporting community of suppliers. This is why, at Great Lakes GrowthWorks, we work with not just large companies on innovation and growth strategies but have also made a major commitment to helping companies in that “craft” space. We provide them with growth planning, coaching, relevant industry expertise, insight and access relative to growth financing, and, ultimately, access to some of our larger clients who could be a future source of revenue and possibly event investment.
This work starts with our core company purpose: to inspire future growth, and marries that with our community purpose, which is focused on helping move us toward a healthier, more sustainable, happier, and more heart-centered world. We believe in the role of technology and its potential to improve lives, and see it as essential to solving some of our largest problems – most notably, the need to quickly transition to clean, renewable energy and avert the worst impacts of climate change. But, we cannot forget the importance of maintaining – even restoring – our common sense of humanity, and using it as a catalyst for innovation as well, even in tech-centered industries where losing our humanity can deprive us of the very life-improving benefits technology is supposed to be creating.