Roger Trapp: Innovation ain't what it used to be

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The Independent Online

At a time when most companies, particularly in the electronic products sector, appear to think that progress is all about adding more and more features to already complicated gadgets, it is easy to lose track of what innovation really is. In the high-speed, digital world in which we live, we tend to think of it as just coming up with "new stuff" for the sake of it.

At a time when most companies, particularly in the electronic products sector, appear to think that progress is all about adding more and more features to already complicated gadgets, it is easy to lose track of what innovation really is. In the high-speed, digital world in which we live, we tend to think of it as just coming up with "new stuff" for the sake of it.

Of course, there is always the danger that what seems pointless today quickly becomes the necessity of tomorrow. So we should beware of sneeringly asking why anybody really needs a telephone that can take a picture. But, particularly when the technology underpinning these products is often so unreliable that using many of the features about which the sales staff are so enthusiastic can become a hit-and-miss affair, it might be worthwhile for anybody who regards themselves as innovative to take stock for at least a moment or two.

Part of the problem is that innovation is so widely regarded as "a good thing" that we all want to be thought to be part of it - not least because the alternative, not being innovative, smacks so much of being old-fashioned and uncool. If everybody has to be seen to be innovative, there is an obvious risk that businesses will just keep on producing "new, improved" versions of existing goods or new products of dubious real value. Take the car industry: how often is a new model really new and not just a revamp involving little more than some minor restyling?

The dilemma of trying to be socially responsible while competing in a field where "new" sells is addressed in the latest catalogue by Patagonia, the privately owned US outdoor clothing company that prides itself on its commitment to the environment. "Innovation used to be simpler," it says, before explaining that what has become more complex is not the process of finding new ways to solve old problems, but rather the fact that "we now have a lot more to think about and worry about when we introduce a new product or improve an old one."

Among its concerns are whether the innovation is healthy for the environment, whether it will reduce energy use in manufacturing and whether it will create a garment that is more or less recyclable. But perhaps most fundamental is the final question the company asks itself: "Is the product really justified?" As it says, "that's sometimes the hardest question to answer." Not surprisingly, many organisations don't even bother to consider it.

This is especially odd and misguided when there are whole sectors crying out for innovation. The apparent fixation among marketers with youth and sports means that two groups of the population - people in their fifties and beyond and some disabled people - are almost ignored.

Fortunately, the Design Business Association (DBA), an organisation that aims to bring the business and design communities closer together by promoting design that improves people's lives, has spotted this gap in the market and organised an Inclusive Design Challenge, which reached its culmination with an award ceremony last week.

The winner proves that innovation does not have to involve all sorts of technology - just a better approach to something everyday, such as the humble sticking plaster, will do. Moreover, it once again shows that even a big company with a reputation for innovation does not necessarily have all the answers. Although Johnson & Johnson has apparently sold more than a hundred billion plasters since the Twenties, it has not been able to come up with a better way of applying them. But, with the help of a group of disabled people who came together at the Helen Hamlyn Research Centre at the Royal College of Art, which has administered the challenge with the DBA for the past five years, Pearson Matthews, a specialist in designing healthcare products, came up with Clevername, a sticking plaster designed to be applied easily one-handed. The result should be a boon for people with disabilities as well as - as is often the case - a real benefit for the able-bodied.

The plaster works because Stuart May and his team at Pearson Matthews - with the aid of their disabled collaborators - went back to first principles and rethought the whole approach to unwrapping sticking plasters. "All we have done is to add significant functional benefit by changing the way people interact with plasters in the first place," says May.

Think of the real differences that could be made to many lives if this approach could be applied to other everyday products - and of the real differences in their fortunes companies might experience if they took it.

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