What did a new idea have to go through before becoming a real thing and have a role in people lives? From scattered readings in recent and historical innovation examples, I picked up a pattern. To have an impact on the world, new ideas had to overcome three stages: they were first invented, then allowed, and finally adopted. Here are some examples of when they didn’t make it.
Stage 1 - Invented
An idea is invented when it moves from mind space to the real world. That means to consider the technical aspects necessary to realise the idea. A prototype is usually a solid sign that an idea was invented.
With that definition then, not invented ideas are the ones that remain only on paper. Reading Leonardo’s biography, it’s impressive to see how many interests he had. But I was even more surprised to learn how little Leonardo actually made. One good argument is that at his time, the beginning of 1500, there just wasn’t much incentive in technical entrepreneurship. What you could do with ideas was to pitch it to lords, and the things they cared about was war and prestige, and not making money with technological innovations. Also, Leonardo was a perfectionist. He famously took years to make a painting and in all his life he painted only a few of them. No way we can expect him to have built an MVP of a flying machine.
More close to our times, past the Industrial Revolution, technical innovation in factories could actually make people rich. So what could kill ideas in this scenario, is that they could not be realisable. For instance, in the second half of the 1800s, Charles Babbage came up with the idea of the analytic machine, a precursor of a programmable computer, but never managed to build any of it. What would have been a fifteen-ton contraption, with over 25,000 mechanical parts, was just not ready to be created using the technology of the time.
For an overall picture of which ideas can be invented and which not, I like the notion of adjacent possible. The precondition for new ideas to be invented is that they can be made from the current technological and social conditions. No big leaps are allowed, at best an expansion of what it can be done already. But I don’t see this as a limit. As I wrote before referring to Bruno Munari, technology can be a powerful inspiration. And by getting hands-on with it as early as possible, you can make sure that a new idea can be actually produced.
Stage 2 - Allowed
When an idea successfully made into the realm of the possible, the first new obstacle is to be allowed. And that means that the organisation within which that invention was created enables or at least don’t stop the invention to get produced. (The exception are startups, but even then investors act as the gatekeepers with the power to enable or not a new business idea).
Before the industrial revolution, technical innovations were sometimes restricted by rulers. Especially when their application would affect employment. For instance in 1589 in England, Queen Elizabeth I refused a patent for a knitting machine, with the reason that would leave people without work. And a few years later, also in England, King Charles I banned the casting of buckets, to protect the craftsman that were making buckets in the traditional way.
But in that pre-industrial, and less economy-driven world, culture played a part too. My favourite example in the history of innovation is from Japan. After the Portugueses imported primitive weapons into the country in late 1500, Japan started improving and manufacturing their own design, and soon become a world leader in gun production. But traditionally, samurai wars involved ritualistic sword fights, and that was all ruined if guns were also used. So the samurai ruling class first restricted and finally banned their production in the whole country, and 200 years later in Japan there was almost no working guns left.
In recent years, this stage mostly takes place within companies. The most likely reason why Xerox failed to successfully bring to market the personal computer they invented, was that management didn’t believe enough in a product that would damage their main photocopying business. And at Kodak, they patented and built the first digital camera in 1975, and although did make money from the patent, the company never marketed the product until too late. Letting other company eventually kill their film monopoly, that they tried so hard to protect. Probably those lessons were learned. And on the other end of the spectrum, you have Amazon, which despite making the most money selling physical books, developed and in 2007 launched the Kindle e-Book reader.
Something can be said here on being too strict on user-centredness. Final customer as the only focus in the design work would maybe result in the best invention possible. But if that invention fails to be produced because it’s not allowed by its organisation, even the best user-centred invention is useless if people are not going to see it.
Stage 3 - Adopted
After an idea is invented and released into the world, the last challenge it faces is to be accepted and adopted by its final users. I don’t have historical examples of such failures, but there are some interesting recent ones to mention. The first one is of the Segway. First example of urban micro-mobility, it never took off among the public and in 2020 its production was stopped, while its heritage lives on in the rental scooter now available in many cities. Another example is of Google Glass. Impressive invention, a full backing by Google and a huge opposition from the public. For a brief period in 2013, it looked like the future of wearable augmenting technology was already among us, except that too many people could not stand to share bars and public places with enthusiastic early adopters “glass-holes”, going around with an all-recording Google camera on their face. The last example is One Laptop Per Child. MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte $100 solar-powered laptop. It was meant to bring computers to every child in the world. Estimated to sell between 5 to 15 million products, “only” 600K were sold since its launch. A too ambitious program with probably not enough consideration of the context where the computer was meant to be used.
Those adoption failures were due to many different causes, so it would be impossible to try explain them all with some simple reasons. In general, I believe that building iteratively, and integrating as much as possible feedback from the final adopters during development, is the best chance to make sure people will not reject a new idea when out there. But is that what went wrong with the Segway and Google Glass? I wouldn’t know.
Jared Diamond - Guns, Germs and Steel
Carl Benedikt Frey - The Technology Trap
Steve Johnson - Where Good Ideas Come From