Innovation as a Balancing Act

30 January 2018, posted by Alf Rehn

On Undersolving and Oversolving Problems (Early Draft)
(This is merely the start of a longer piece on solutions and innovation I am planning, but thought it would be good to outline it here. It is very rough, at this point.).

Even though we talk about innovation as one concept, this is of course a huge simplification, not to mention a potentially dangerous generalization. We use the same word for the tiniest incremental change, and for huge, revolutionary leaps, which is one of the key reasons people have started to doubt the concept and consider it more a buzzword than a useful analytical concept. Whilst the discussion regarding innovation has tried to address this by introducing concepts such as “incremental innovation”, “radical innovation” and “disruptive innovation”, the challenge still remains that these are not clearly delineated, and it is incredibly difficult to know exactly when an innovation shifts from incremental to radical. To this comes the problem that as good as all attempts to create typologies of it all are rooted in the problematic assumption that innovation is always a good, positive, praiseworthy thing. This, as anyone who has paid any attention to the often ludicrous things created in the name of innovation (talking trashcans, anyone?), is a problematic assumption.

I have thus started thinking about a different kind of typology for innovation, one that would use considerations that are usually missing from the innovation debate. This is in no way a complete typology, not even a path towards one, but it might still serve to sort some innovation phenomena. The key category here is actually not even innovation, but a constituent part thereof, namely “solution”. This, the inquiry into solutions, might seem like an odd place to start as it is normally always already assumed that an innovation is a solution. What is often forgotten, however, is that not all solutions are born equal. More specifically, solutions are rarely perfectly balanced, and this carries over to what we think is an innovation, and how we judge these.

Consider, for instance, the problem of getting produce to the market in a situation with long distances and limited resources (a very real problem for many African farmers). Let us assume that you are farming cassava, and the market is 40 km from your farm. Carrying the cassava is very heavy work, and walking takes a long time — both are problems the need solving, possibly with an innovation. The car is of course one innovation that’s a solution to this, but it should be noted that in our example it is in all likelihood overkill. It would be wonderful, of course, if it was affordable, but more than likely it is not in this case. A Hyperloop between this one farm and the market would be an even more extreme case of this, something that is an innovation, but ridiculous and impossible overkill for this problem. On the other end of the spectrum might be a wheelbarrow designed specifically for long distances. It does help with the problem, but doesn’t really help all that much — the work is still heavy and the trek is still long. Arguably, there is a perfect solution here, a perfectly balanced innovation, namely the bicycle. Cheap enough to be feasible and helpful enough to be a distinct improvement, it makes both the prohibitively expensive solution and the insufficient solution look bad — at least from the perspective of the farmer.

Following this, I would call the car and the Hyperloop (in this specific context, mind you) cases of oversolving. Whilst they are a solution, they goes very far with this, and might thus end up being sub-optimal. The wheelbarrow, again, I would call a case of undersolving. It does present us with an improvement, but not really a full one. With these concepts we can talk in a fuller way about innovative solutions, and at least partly escape the problem of all solutions being viewed as equal. This, however, isn’t a sufficient categorization. This, as both undersolving and oversolving can in some cases be a good thing (arguably the bicycle represents undersolving as well — whilst you can load an impressive amount of cassava onto a bike, it has distinct limitations), and in other cases a bad thing. We might thus talk of innovations falling into four distinct categories, and although these could be mapped onto a two-by-two matrix, I will save you from this (for the time being). Our categories, then, are negative undersolving, positive undersolving, negative oversolving, and positive oversolving. I will in the following discuss each one in turn.

Negative undersolving

These solutions do address the problem, but in a way that either doesn’t address the root cause or present us with enough of an improvement to truly effect change. Many users may find themselves forced to use these regardless, and thus forced to accept them as innovation, but they can also block out more effective innovations. This category would also encompass “band-aid” solutions, negotiated or hacked together solutions that even the people using them accept are only temporary fixes. In addition, it would cover cases where a new technology is used to solve a problem, but in a way that focuses more on the possibility to use a complex technology than achieving a distinctly better solution.

An example of this last kind of negative undersolving might be the FoldiMate, a piece of machinery slated for public release late 2019. This is a machine, as big as an oversized washing machine, which folds clothes. Now, were the machine to be able to do this by sorting and folding from a crumpled heap of clothes, this would be impressive. However, it can only fold things that are put into it in a specific way, effectively half-folded. So, for all intents and purposes, it is a big, expensive machine, that finalizes your folding of your clothes — an undersolved problem that wasn’t that big to begin with. If we look at “band-aid” solutions, an example of this might be carbon emission permits, and the trade in these. Rather than spurring companies and countries to cut their carbon emissions, they encourage paying for the right to pollute, with the logic that this in time will incentivize companies to cut their emissions. Whilst created with the best intentions, this innovation (arguably) ignored the core problem, and instituted new ones in the process.

Positive undersolving

Undersolving does not necessarily need to be negative, however. We can think of several cases where presenting a “good enough” or a limited solution can be a positive thing. In the startup world, one refers to this as a minimum viable product (MVP), a solution that might not have all the bells and whistles (or even functions) of a finalized product, but which can serve as a trial or stopgap solution until a more developed version has been developed. To this group we could also count “nudging” solutions, that might not in and of themselves be full solutions, but still functional in their own way.

As an example of this latter form of solution, we might consider “carb-free” diets. Now, healthy and sustainable weight-loss and wellness should preferably come from a full understanding of nutrition, eating lots of vegetables, and exercise to boot. This can seem daunting, however. Diets that in effect say “no sugar, no pasta, no bread” are a far cry from this, but this doesn’t automatically mean they are pointless. For many, simply cutting down on processed carbohydrates has led to weight-loss, which in turn may make following the diet easier, and over time entice a person to take up exercise and consider ones diet more thoroughly. The simplicity of the diet might have been a case of undersolving, but one with a positive outcome. We might see something similar in MVPs and something like minimalist tools. I, for one, have a tool on my keychain that looks like a slim key, but folds out to a knife, three kinds of screwdrivers, and a bottle opener. Whilst none of these tools are as good as a dedicated, proper tool, the fact that they are always with me means that I’ve solved more things with this “lesser” tool than with the box of tools that gathers dust in one of my cupboards.

Negative oversolving

As previously stated, I use the term oversolving to refer to cases where one either present a too overwrought or expensive/resource-intensive solution, or cases where the solution focuses more on additional functionalities (or other add-ons like excessive design) than the original problem. This would include adding “smart” or digital aspects to solutions that do not necessarily need them, but also the creation of technologically complex but thus also fragile solutions for context where the upkeep of such might not be feasible.

An example of the latter can be found in many developing countries, where well-meaning NGOs might for instance have installed a fancy, engine-driven pump for a well, ignoring the fact that the community might lack both the tools, the know-how, and the spare parts to repair it when it invariably fails. Examples of the former are even easier to find. My favorite examples, that I’ve often used when keynoting, have been household items such as jars and trash bins that have been equipped with digital sensors and internet capabilities. You can today buy e.g. a trash bin that reacts to voice commands in various languages, and which can also send you a notification to your smartphone when it needs emptying. The obvious question here is: “Is having to open a trash bin really so big of a problem that voice-activation plus a motorized lid is a sensible solution, and does anyone really need to check their smartphone to realize they should take out their trash?” Whilst one might create some (far-fetched) scenarios in which this might be helpful, I would still count intelligent trash bins as an oversolution, and not a positive one. The same could be said for “smart socks”, an existing product that can literally send you a notification when their color has started fading. Because actually having to look at the socks to ascertain this was seemingly a problem that needed solving.

Positive oversolving

In the interest of fairness, it needs to be stated that oversolving can in some cases be positive as well. I consider a solution to be positively oversolved when the solution presents us with alternatives and functionalities that add value and which we didn’t even consider before. Technology often progresses by giving us solutions to problems we didn’t originally consider as problems simply because we were unaware of alternatives.

A classical example of this would be digital photography. Previously, we enjoyed photography, although having to process analog film was both slow, complicated, and expensive. Digital photography first solved the problems of sending in analog film to be processed, but also happened to bring with it additional solutions — such as being able to take far more photos, only process the ones you liked, being able to do post-processing yourself, and using photos in novel ways. Another example, which in part is wedded with the first one, would be the iPhone. Originally viewed as an expensive and over-designed phone, and thus a case of negative oversolution, it turned out to be a platform that enabled us to use our phones in ways we simply could not have imagined a few years earlier.

It should be noted that these categories are, to a degree, a matter of interpretation. What to some might be a case of negative undersolving, might to someone else be a case of negative (or even positive!) oversolving. Something that might look like negative oversolving may mature into a case of positive oversolving, and so on. The point, here, is not to establish a rigid, moralizing framework, but rather to create a way to talk about innovations from the perspective of solutions and how well geared these are to the problems they address. By talking about over- and undersolving, not to mention positives and negatives in the context of innovation, we might gain a deeper understanding of the problems inherent in designing solutions, and move away from the romantic idea of the perfect innovation.

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