The primary challenge of the Industrial Age was to simply mechanize everything that had once been handcrafted. Electricity was developed, structured and integrated to speed things up or make them more powerful. Over the course of time, the product archetype changed very slowly—a blender was still a blender, whether it was hand-powered or electric. However, when we began to develop electronic and then digital technologies, and then add them to our electrified objects, the business model shifted toward greater product innovation. Users had greater opportunity to choose between multiple products offering the same function, each product expressing a different aesthetic or demographic. This multiplicity of choice then pressured companies to deliver a competitive advantage.
The skill required to move the mechanical artifact into the electrical age was a learnable one, and so was the skill required to move electronic platforms into digital. This was pure product innovation, with direct cost reduction benefits on the side of the maker, and a modicum of functional or price benefits for the user. The progression from one technology phase to the next required technical skill, creativity and capability, but little imagination.
In the early 1920s, the question was simple: “What else can we use the electric motor for?” The answers: electric blenders, electric hair dryers, electric irons, electric waffle makers, and so on. This was the model of the innovation company, an entity built on advancing technology as it was being tactically applied to archetypes from the mechanical age. Keeping up with innovations in technology was all that was necessary.
Today a common question asked in research-and-development departments around the world is equally simple: “What else can we use this technology (let’s say ‘smart tag’s) for?” However, the parameters of the dilemma are quite different—there are very few archetypes that express the potential capabilities of “smart tags.” It isn’t just a matter of speeding up an existing function. The answer requires a new model of innovation and a new type of corporation—one that is capable and ready to establish new archetypes.
This new capability requires strategic creativity – the ability to use imagination to develop new and original ideas for a strategic purpose – but most of all, it requires the prerequisite for creativity: imagination, both as a capability to be learned and as an attitude to be nourished.
(excerpt from The Imagination Challenge – Strategic Foresight and Innovation for the Global Economy - @2006 Alexander Manu, PeachPit Press).