The Changing Landscape of Innovation

As I prepared to leave for my trip to The Bahamas last week, I saw an article from Gizmodo go by linking to a blog post from Walmart — of all companies — showcasing a new concept vehicle that would make a number of significant improvements to current semi designs. I read through the article, and then sat down to write a short post about it; however, I quickly realized that I had much more to say on this topic than could be contained within the single paragraph of a link post, so I jotted down a quick draft and then left the work of creating a finished article until I got back from a day on and off airplanes flying across the U.S.

More interesting than this futuristic design is the company it came from, and how that typifies trends in innovation of years nearly — but not quite since — past. Interesting, but not surprising: Walmart creating this new truck is a throwback to the “olden” days when huge corporations would prompt innovation solely based on their own goals and — by extension — needs, where the goal of decreasing costs led to the need of a more efficient transportation mechanism, and thus to the inception of a radical new semi truck design. When considered in light of this realization, Walmart as an unlikely source of innovation at first glance becomes not only a sensible source, but a likely one as well. Some years from now, assuming this project proves viable and advantageous as more than a PR gimmick, the concepts on display here first will flow to other areas of the market and eventually reach consumers, and thus become widespread. This is corporate-based innovation in a nutshell, and should be contrasted with the much more recent phenomenon of user-centric innovation whereby products come into being based upon what consumers desire.

Corporate products, and especially software solutions, are notoriously terrible for users: without the option of employing an alternative, employees have no choice but to use programs put forth by their company’s IT department regardless of how hostile an experience it may be. Thus, with no incentive to achieve excellence in any area but one or two core competencies, few spend the extra time and energy that creating pleasurable user experiences necessitates. Because this corporate technology ultimately trickled down to the consumer market, it led to an obvious deficiency in options fit for every day use where the only barrier to switching from one subpar product to another better one was a price tag. Fortunately, Steve Jobs entered the computing industry and in the late ‘90s and early 2000s capitalized on this deficiency, and thus the antithesis to the corporate-based model was born: user-centric innovation. Although I lean towards making the case that it took Apple until the iPhone to do this well and at scale, I don’t know enough about early Apple products to say that with any significant degree of certainty. Regardless of which product marked the fulfillment of their goal to create delightful products based on their users’ needs though, at some point in their timeline Apple became the company that created products for consumers first rather than accepting widespread adoption as a secondary goal to the primary one of solving a single job in the cheapest way possible. Those days of company-centric innovation are fast fading and although not quite gone yet, as evidenced by Walmart’s move, won’t be around for much longer; the market has spoken, and they want consumer-first design. Anything else is to be eventually discarded.