Where does innovation end?

Last week, I was in India after 18 long months and when I stepped into Mumbai airport, I was amazed. It was stunning. I haven’t seen an equivalent airport in the western world and I was even more amazed when I landed in Indore, a Tier 2 city in the rather underdeveloped Madhya Pradesh. The airport again was stunning. The infrastructure development is steadily on the rise but what was missing in the infrastructure is the integration of ‘human factors’ — The processes, the service design and the user experience need so much improvement.

With the rapid industrial development, the face of India is changing dramatically. Massive shopping malls and well built roads are common scene wherever your travel. Too many cars, too many motor bikes and too much pollution is making the conditions extremely difficult. A common sight is women covering their faces with a cloth wrapped around the face to protect themselves from the extreme pollution in the cities. Automobile and motor bike manufacturers produce so many innovative new products but there is not a single product to take care of the after effects of their innovations.

While I was happy to see the infrastructure developments, I am also concerned at the fact that the growing GDP and the rising incomes cannot buy clean air. I returned back to Switzerland and was waiting at the Geneve airport for my train. The first smell that greets you in the platform of the train stations in Switzerland is the cigarette smell. I witnessed a bed of cigarette litters lining the tracks in the station.

Cigarette manufacturers make so many great innovations ranging from packaging innovations to new products but there is not a single product that takes care of these litters. It led me to ask this question — Where does innovation end? Does it end at the creation of a new product or does it need to take into account the entire lifecycle of the product?

I got my answer this saturday from the famous street side Marron Vendors in Geneva who open shops during the fall season. We bought two packets of Marrons.What was beautiful was the package design. It was a brown bag with two openings — one for holding the marrons and one for holding the wastes.

The vendor has developed a simple packaging design converting a brown bag to hold both the product and its waste. It was such a responsible design and it enables the consumer to consume the product as well as take ownership for the wastes coming out of the consumption of the product. These wastes are organic and it will not affect the environment in any way but the vendors have developed a design that takes care of the wastes and keeps the city clean.

My new realization is ‘innovation’ doesn’t end at the product level or the service level or even at the business model level. It needs to ensure that it takes care of the product and the aftereffects that arise from the consumption of the products. The metrics of measuring the impact of innovation needs to consider not just the impact around addressing a pain point for the consumer but also how well the impact is sustained through the entire lifecycle of the product. Otherwise, the impact created by the solution to address a pain point for one target customer group — in the case of low cost cars, providing safe and secure driving for middle class indian families — will lead to the creation of new pain points like lack of parking space, too much traffic in the roads, getting rid of greenery and most importantly, lack of clean air to breathe for the common man.

Strategy is a choice around resource allocation and these choices have to be made in a way that all the stakeholders in the society benefit from these innovations and not just a few segments of the society. Innovations need to create impact but the impact needs to be holistic around the entire lifecycle of the product.

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