The importance of futility in innovation

Convinced that innovative artifacts always seem futile at first, I am a long-time observer of weird patents or odd pet gear.

A curious article in the IEEE Spectrum entitled "Whimsy and Invention: Why ridiculous inventions are a good thing", highlights the importance of weird peculiar objects such as "A laser pointer to divert a cat? A plastic sphere of silence, for tête-à-têtes in noisy bars? A rocket belt, for escaping boring tête-à-têtes? An atomic-powered airplane? A life-expectancy watch? An electric spaghetti-twirling fork? A tiny generator of random noise, to secrete in a friend's office to drive him crazy? An air-bag bodysuit for motorcyclists?".

The IEEE Spectrum column gives some interesting lessons about all these odd artifacts:

"The more closely you scrutinize the process of invention, the less confident you will be of understanding it. We are told, for instance, that invention typically begins in one person's exasperation over a defect in the standard way of doing things. Oh, really? Then there must be a great deal of exasperation concerning the care and feeding of pets. (...) Again and again this pattern recurs: What begins as a lark develops into a major invention. Remember back when big-iron jockeys dismissed the early personal computers as mere toys? They had a point: The first PCs really were toys. Now, though, PCs and their handheld descendants rule the world. Facebook, begun as a way to keep up with members of the opposite sex on the Harvard campus, is now also poised for world domination. (...) We see the reverse pattern as well, when what begins with serious intent devolves into a form of whimsy. Take the antimissile laser: After decades of work and tens of billions of dollars of government funding, the technology has yet to prove itself on the field of battle. Yet substantial aspects of that technology have found application in protecting backyard barbecues from mosquitoes"

SOmething encountered in Lyon few years ago, I have not clue about its use.

Why do I blog this? I sometimes feel a bit lonely when I discuss with clients about the importance of futility in environmental scanning/user research. This kind of arguments (and examples) are very good to show them why it's relevant to take into account weird innovations.

This discussion echoes with the notion of "needs" and the desperate quest lead by big companies to find "new needs". Looking for these so-called new needs is not a matter of asking people what they want or asking them what they would crave for. Instead, observing how products and services that may seem futile at first can be adopted, domesticated, appropriated and tweaked for other purposes is a better strategy.