This piece was written after I had chaired the recent Irish Times/InterTrade Ireland Innovation Awards. It was published on March 2nd 2015.
“Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” This quote is often attributed to Albert Einstein although there is some doubt that he actually distilled the observation so succintly. Rather – less simply – when discussing the methods of theoretical physics in 1933, he asserted: “It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience.”
I have often chuckled on how the quote attributed to him can be applied to his actual complex and expansive assertion.
I was recently reminded of the aphorism whilst chairing the judging panel for the Irish Times Intertrade Ireland Innovation Awards 2015. There were eighteen finalists, across six categories. As well as the six category winners, the panel identified the best example of North-South collaboration and, vitally, the overall winner. These results will be announced at the Awards Dinner to be held in the City Hall in Belfast on the 17th April next.
It would be unfair of me to prematurely disclose the winners and I certainly do not wish to mis-set expectations. Nevertheless I would like to share my impressions from the judging day. In summary, I was intrigued!
Dr. Seuss, the American writer and cartoonist, observed that “sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” Several of the entrants addressed challenging conundrums, and their solutions appeared deceptively simple. On the one hand, an innovation needs to be as simple as possible so as to remove unnecessary complexity in design, manufacturing, selling and deployment to customers. But then on the other hand, an innovation should not be so simple that in practice it just does not work.
For an innovation to be successful, it must not only solve a problem but be pragmatic. It must be reliable, and safe to use. It must be economic to build, to sell, to distribute and to appeal to customers, if it is to be profitable for the innovator.
Several entrants studied existing methods and practices in different industries – amongst them construction, agrifood, security, medical, music, and energy – and challenged whether there could be a simpler approach. Could there be a more elegant solution which, although simple, nevertheless actually worked? Frankly, I was stunned by how simple and brilliant several of the entries were. The teams involved re-examined current practices and came up with much better ways, beautifully elegant and ingenious.
One of the consistent themes of the day was to what extent a particular innovation would be natural for its customers to try out, learn to use and then love ? Much of the challenge of potential inertia in customers can be solved if the innovation fits well with the existing tools, established ways of doing things, and customer expectations. Innovations which are in fact simpler and easier than existing products and practices have a “wow” factor which then can create a community of customers who evangelise about the breakthrough.
Of course, an innovation which is simple may be easy for competitors to duplicate. Frequently our discussions during the day turned to patents and the protection of intellectual property. Many of the finalists had already taken steps in this direction. However some had addressed the challenge of defending their innovation against competition in a further way. Although their innovation appeared wonderfully simple, nevertheless it was actually quite technically difficult to deliver. There were hidden engineering, algorithms and techniques which were not at all obvious, and so created a significant barrier to others attempting to replicate the idea.
The commercial opportunities for many of the entrants are considerable. Many of them have major and worldwide market potentials. During the judging, it was thus remarkable to see not just one world class innovation, but in fact several. Given the relatively small size of the island of Ireland, it was impressive.
With adequate financial backing and experienced leadership quite a few of the entries potentially could become global solutions. This perhaps then leads to the real challenge for economic policy. There is an incredible treasure of confident creativity and commercial insight in the island of Ireland which is clearly yielding wonderful, elegant, practical, and commercially attractive innovations. Relative to the size of our population, there are a wealth of great ideas, and many of them with very considerable potential. But, relative to the Irish propensity to innovate, we have a limited inventory of experienced international talent which can deliver global revenue for great products. Financing, including from overseas, is available for strong teams with world class ideas, but we have only a small pool of such teams with world class experience. If we are to build a world class innovation based engine to drive the economy, then we need all parts to come together and mesh: innovation, engineering, finance, international branding, distribution and sales, and experience.
But do we have an equal depth of commercial experience and leadership, financing and enthusiasm to get up and back great innovations, and so build a new wave of global Irish brands ?