Thursday, 27 June 2013

Innovation – Hidden in Plain Sight

Last week I spent a couple of days in half hourly conversations with all sorts of different businesses who are interested in what we are doing and in particular the ways in which they could innovate more effectively using the tools that we are currently making available.

This was exceedingly interesting, many contacts were made and offers proposed. However, in some of these conversations I found myself pointing out how innovation is really all around us, how people are almost oblivious to it and why it’s useful to begin recognising it.

Some examples? Around 2007 more people in the total world population started living in cities than in rural areas. That is a huge shift and the consequences are pretty difficult to overestimate.

To give you an example of just how profound these can be, if you look at the US there are a couple of staggering statistics; 90% of  US GDP and 86% of all US jobs are generated on just 3% of the landmass of the continental US. And that 3% is in cities.*

Now those cities often don’t get to keep the wealth they have generated and hence can have poor infrastructure.  But that doesn’t alter the fact that cities are hugely important innovation and wealth generators.  Indeed the very process of urbanisation is itself a demonstration of innovation. And we’re only just beginning: in the next 25 years it is estimated that 300 million Chinese will move from the countryside to cities like Shanghai. This represents the largest migration in human history.

This is why I sometimes say that innovation is hidden in plain sight and people go about their business without realising that it’s happening all around them.

Here are a couple more less dramatic but equally pervasive examples, this time from the world of fashion. How about high heels? The heel as we know it is something of a recent invention – and it started as something for men.

Louis XIV was a short man and he wanted to be taller so he wore heels. Thus the court and all the men began to wear heels. This, by the way, is why we talk about people being well-heeled: it means they have cultural standing and financial means. Eventually heels become the province of women and they are reinvented again and again.

And then there is the little black dress.  Historically this is a very recent creation and yet it is absolutely ubiquitous. Pretty much every woman has a little black dress. Thank you, Coco Chanel.

If you really want to know where the little black dress came from you need to know where she came from. She grew up in a Catholic orphanage in the 1890s surrounded by nuns in black habits.

Right up until the early 1920s the only people who wore black used to be servants, nuns or those in mourning. So the idea of a dress that is the complete opposite of the Victorian bustle with its voluminous crinolines, a dress that is simple and black is not just innovative, it’s revolutionary.

Fast forward to the 1920s and the little black dress is born. It really takes off when Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of F. Scott Fitzgerald, wears one. The flappers are gone but the little black dress lives on. Now it’s a part of every woman’s wardrobe.

We are surrounded by innovation. Look around!

*‘A Country of Cities’, Vishaan Chakrabarti, Metropolis Books, 2013

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