Saturday, 21 October 2017

Innovation – what is it, really?

I’ve had a couple of interesting conversations this week about Innovation. The Australian government’s National Innovation and Science Agenda (NISA) is now nearly two years old and its effects are being felt across the defence industry, which is my principal work area. The idea of innovation is gaining traction but a lot of people still don’t understand it and many are still a bit intimidated by it as a result.

So what is innovation? David Chuter, CEO of the Innovative Manufacturing CRC, and I, agreed quickly on this.

Let me start by saying what it’s not. Innovation is not Continuous Improvement. And it’s not Invention. The former is a succession of incremental steps, building gradually on everything that’s gone before. The cumulative effect may be significant, but each little change is just that – a little change. The latter is merely a good idea, unless somebody does something with it – puts it to use. Then it may become an innovation.

So what is Innovation? Innovation, as I’ve written before, is about addressing needs and introducing change. You’re either solving somebody’s problem, or you’re enabling them to do something they couldn’t do before. Importantly, you’re not helping them to do the same old thing, just a little bit better - you’re giving them the opportunity to change completely what they do and how they do it.

Case in point: improving the cornering speeds of racing cars. Over the years designers have played with springs, tyres, rubber compounds, brakes, dampers, anti-roll bars and ever-lower centres of gravity, with varying degrees of success. But the history of the sport is marked by a succession of major innovations, each of which transformed the design of racing cars.

First came mid-engined cars, pioneered by Cooper in the late-1950s to replace the old front-engined classics (that’s how Jack Brabham won his first two world championships). The 1959 Cooper T51 was lighter and had better weight distribution, which didn’t alter as fuel was expended during a race. Soon everybody copied it. Then, in the late-1960s, came, first, aerofoils and then full-width wings, pioneered by Jim Hall of Chaparral – inverted aerofoil sections that pressed cars down on to the track to increase grip, and therefore cornering speeds, while reducing braking distances. These were adopted by Formula 1 teams, were eventually banned when they outgrew the strength of the cars, and then re-allowed but under strict control.

Then came ground effect, in two iterations. First in the 1960s Jim Hall pioneered the use of what were, in effect, vacuum cleaners to suck the air out from under a car and increase downforce and therefore grip. These were promptly banned, but Colin Chapman of Lotus re-introduced ground effect years later as a design feature of the underside of a racing car, increasing grip once again. This triggered a revolution as constructors sought to emulate his success. And once again, ground effect was banned once the downsides and dangers became obvious.

And it continues. Today, racing teams invest huge amounts in both computational fluid dynamics and wind tunnel testing to refine the aerodynamics of their cars. That’s one of the reasons the sport is so expensive (and, by the way, if you’re looking for a job as an aerodynamicist out of university, look to a racing team as well as the aerospace industry). Trouble is, everybody has access, potentially, to the same technology within the same rigid framework of construction regulations, and modern regulations are quite prescriptive, so it would appear the potential for game-changing innovation is fairly low. We’ll see.

The point is, that each wave of innovation wrought a significant change in the design of contemporary racing cars. The pioneer who introduced it usually achieved an immediate advantage, which was eroded when rivals started to adopt the same ideas and catch up with the leader.

Something else worth considering is this: Most of the raw knowledge of car design and aerodynamics that went into these pioneering racing cars already existed. But it took lateral thinkers like Jim Hall, Colin Chapman and Cooper’s Owen Maddock to apply this knowledge and expertise in a new way, experiment with it and then create a significant competitive advantage.

That’s one of the things about innovation: an innovation is something that’s new in its context, not necessarily something that’s entirely new and unheard-of. An example: airline pilots use iPads to display navigation charts, check lists and other information, rather than carry bulky and heavy reams of paper around with them. The use of an iPad in this way is an innovation because it changes significantly how pilots do things, but it wasn’t necessary to re-invent the iPad to do so.

What was necessary in each of these examples was an understanding of what an end user or customer really wanted, and then the knowledge and imagination to provide that in a new and advantageous way. There was no black art involved. 

And that’s how innovation works – it's essentially practical: innovation changes things for people who are doing things. That's not a bad working definition.

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