Strategist, Speaker, Designer, Instigator

The heart of the system

I spend a fair amount of time at events and in meetings where people talk about innovation – theirs and others – and try to uncover new ideas for business and technology. One of the questions that’s asked rather a lot is, “Where do the best ideas come from?”

There’s a preconceived notion, it seems, that these things come as bolts from the blue, the fully-formed offspring of one mad genius or another. While that certainly has been the case sometimes, it’s not where most of the breakthrough innovations have come from. Those come from perfectly ordinary people, going about their perfectly ordinary lives. James Dyson set out to develop a new vacuum out of frustration with his own; Hailo was inspired by a scenario we all know well – standing on a corner in London, late and in need of a taxi, while the black cabs are two streets over looking for a fare. I know it’s no longer fashionable to reference Apple in these matters, but even iTunes, which was a total departure at the time, has very simple roots: people had lots of music, across lots of formats, and no simple way to access it all from one place. Voilà iTunes – your personal, comprehensive music catalogue, and later the iPod, the only portable music player you needed.

The best businesses create a happy marriage between the needs of customers and an industry challenge. Spotify, for example, gives listeners access to an enormous volume of content, with discovery and sharing tools to distribute it across their networks – and gives musicians another way to get their music to new fans, and get paid for the music they create. This isn’t a new idea – circles of friends have been passing music to one another for as long as music has existed – but it’s a new way to do it in the digital space, and a way wherein everyone benefits.

Human problems need human solutions. And people will pay for what makes them happy: a great cup of coffee, a pair of shoes, dinner with someone awesome. And things that make life just a little bit easier are hugely valuable to us – making that new bit of music a little bit easier to find, reassurance while on the road that all is well at home, an intimate way to be connected with a loved one.

So how can you find the next opportunity space for your business, the next great product or service for your customers? Watch people. Pay attention. Next time you’re in the airport, or at the café, or in the grocery, spend a little more time looking around (and a little less time looking at your mobile), and I guarantee you’ll see opportunities to make life a little bit better.

Of course, there’s more to successful product development than that – there’s research and positioning, design and development, partnerships, marketing, iteration and evolution, customer support. But the ideas that start with people – with a real, observed, tangible human need – are the ones with the best chance at success. People are the heart of every system, and I try to honour that in every piece of work that I do.