In Defense of Dumb Innovations

The seemingly unlikely pairing of Levis and Google this week announced the availability of the world’s first jacket with an embedded technology — called Jacquard, it allows for a touchable yarn to be woven into fabric using standard looms, while a Bluetooth connection relays your gestures on the sleeve to your phone.

Somewhat predictably, the negative response from commentators, both amateur and professional, has been swift and scathing. There seems to be an ever-increasing number of people who revel in criticizing the efforts of others, believing that pointing out flaws somehow makes them seem clever. Is it a significant new technology or another pointless Silicon Valley indulgence tackling first world problems created in a bubble while there are real world problems left untackled, coming hot on the heels of the Juicero debacle?

I’m not suggesting that Jacquard is in fact the technology to change the world but dismissing it out of hand already is surely premature. History tells us that to criticize a brand new technology in its first iteration is naive if not outright stupid. If nothing else, this for me is another example of how we urgently need to re-look at how we evaluate innovation.

The Hard Wave

As I wrote in my recent book “Life As A Passenger” , we are entering an era I call the Hard Wave. The easy technologies are pretty much done. The low-hanging fruit has been picked and the easy gains have been reaped. The next wave of technologies will be much more difficult — both in terms of identifying and developing them, and the impacts they will have on our world. We need to reset our expectations around the timelines to develop new technologies, the pivots along the way, the setbacks and the dead ends. We also need to start debating the impacts of technology in a pragmatic manner — knee-jerk negativity as a default position does nobody any favours, while blind technophiles would do well to consider toning down their hyperbolic claims and set aside their focus on progress at any price. Let’s not mistake mere change for progress. If we don’t adopt a more enlightened framework for innovation, we risk stifling promising developments.

Technology so far has largely been quite obviously consumer friendly, innocuously growing into our lives in a gradual way. But the scope of change now ahead requires awareness and management — we need both new public policy decisions and new personal decisions as the range and capabilities of technologies fundamentally shift, changing the equilibrium of society. Technology is approaching (or may already have reached) a point where laissez-faire and “hope it works out” is no longer enough. We now have, or are about to have, capabilities that challenge fundamental assumptions across society not just in distinct industrial silos. Make no mistake, it’s going to be hard for many people. But mixed in with these major advances are frivolous pursuits that risk turning people against technology in general to the premature detriment of positive capabilities trying to emerge.

Driverless cars are one example of this accelerating torrent of disruptions that will shape our future. These are the advances that present challenges we are scarcely equipped to deal with. The era of easy adoption is over, and we now have to prepare for an era of adaption — ready to adapt to new realities and ready to reconsider previously immutable assumptions. And while these approaching changes are driven by technology, it’s not really about technology — but more about how society chooses to harness technology; who makes those decisions, for whose benefit and at whose cost.

Finding Their Fit

Of course inventions do not always find success related to their originally intended purpose. Viagra was intended to treat heart and blood pressure issues, just as Slinky and Play-Doh were never intended as toys. Inventors are often not the ones who successfully bring a technology to market — they are frequently too focused on fitting the technology to their original vision regardless of its actual suitability. Sometimes they just don’t see the potential for their own creations: the pioneer of wireless technology, Martin Cooper, predicted that wireless communications would not replace wired. Or the infamous IBM quote about their being a worldwide market for about 5 computers. The high end video cards developed by the likes of NVidia for gaming turn out to be ideally suited to Machine Learning tasks and are now hugely in demand and being rolled out in their thousands in data centres.

There were those who believed touch screens couldn’t possibly take the place of keys. And based on early resistive touch screens, they were probably right. But once capacitive touch screens went mainstream with the iPhone, there was no looking back for buttons. Although Google Glass was widely ridiculed as a consumer device, it has found a valuable home for industrial uses and continues to evolve outside the consumer gaze. And while there were those who were right that smartwatches were not “the next big thing” to rival phones, the wearable market has found its stride in the fitness world. The Microsoft Spot smartwatch launched in 2004 — nearly a decade ahead of the Apple Watch that is now the number one watch in the world — and failed soon afterwards. People thought that the Amazon Dash button was an April fools’ joke, but now there are over 300 of them available and Amazon have said that they yield over 5,000 orders per day. But the real value may not be in the buttons themselves — the automated replenishment supply chain and logistics behind them is the real story.

Failing Hurts

Even the most successful companies have a litany of failed products. But the more progressive companies only really see them as a failure if they didn’t learn something from the process. It’s easy to say that if you have the comfort of near-bottomless resources, but it still hurts to find out your great idea either wasn’t ready or wanted. Google has wasted spent millions of dollars without direct commercial return on products like Currents, Wave, Reader, Buzz, Who’s Down, Hands Free, Lively and Schemer. Microsoft doesn’t like to talk about the cost of projects such as Windows RT, Zune and Kin.

The line to success is rarely straight. Inventors and entrepreneurs see failure as a bridge to eventual triumph and as an opportunity to learn. While some innovations may lack a practical benefit, be overpriced, not fully baked or a combination of the above, few if any are completely without merit, even if it’s delayed or dependent on related developments, a different vision or yet to be realised economies. Just as it’s hard to waste money (due to the multiplier effect), it’s hard to spend money badly on R&D — you may miss out on your specific short term goals, but the odds of discovering something of value are high, even if not to you. There’ll be by-products, niches. Sometimes just knowing what won’t work is valuable.

Money & Time

In the Hard Wave, innovation is expensive. Spending on R&D is the new arms race among the world’s largest companies. Alphabet, Amazon and Microsoft each spent $12bn on R&D in 2016. Each has created special divisions focused on “secret” projects: Google has both ATAP (for projects with a 2 year timeline) and X (for moonshot projects that may take many years to tackle big problems), Amazon’s Lab126 employs over 3,000 people and Microsoft has seven Research sites around the world. Although the payback for a successful breakthrough may be huge, investment in innovation is not always about commercial success — it may be used to attract top quality researchers to a firm or simply to make a brand statement.

Even in what’s seen as a fast-moving space such as technology, it can sometimes take decades before a major technological breakthrough starts to show results in terms of impacts and revenues. Commentator Om Malik cites Amazon’s launch of Amazon Web Services (its cloud computing operation) in 2006: Back then, he says, “there weren’t very many of us who had an idea that it would one day become the key component of an economic engine that would jump-start entrepreneurial activity across the planet.” Even Facebook’s “meteoric” rise has taken over 10 years.

Constructive Criticism

“Your intuition about things you don’t know much about isn’t very good. I don’t think we’re doing a good job as a society deciding what things are really important to do.”

Larry Page, Co-founder Google

Proponents of some of the more way-out designs can hide behind Einstein’s adage that “For an idea that does not first seem insane, there is no hope.” Though there is some element of truth to it, it can be abused to rationalise truly dumb innovations. While failure may be worn as a badge of honour in silicon valley, I’m not advocating investing in obviously silly ideas just for the sake of it. The definition of obviously silly is not beyond reasonable doubt, but you’d hope that the investors holding the purse strings have some objective beyond fueling egos.

So much media commentary about — and public perceptions of — technology tends to miss the point. What matters so much of the time is not the gadget but the underlying technology that makes it possible. It’s a shame that more people don’t put their curiosity and imagination to work, maybe inventing something useful, instead of coming up with barbed remarks. More sinister than petty barbs is the frequency with which seemingly more considered looking criticism may well be born of a subtly-lobbying vested interest threatened by the technological direction, if not yet the actual product.

To be clear, I’m not advocating that people don’t point out flaws or gaps where they exist, nor that we aren’t entitled to hold companies to account when they ask us to invest in their offerings. But any good engineer will thrive on feedback that improves the product. Innovators should be expecting a challenging conversation when they try to find a place in the world for their creations — but they should be granted a dialog, not an instant put-down. It is easy for commentators, be they professional or amateur, to deride. In the face of some of the ludicrous claims, a degree of backlash against is often justified. But revelling in failure from a position of safety does not make you look smart, nor does judging a new technology too harshly in its first iteration.

Today’s seemingly default position for many of smug negativity would be better replaced with a skeptical, challenging outlook. The search for simplistic, sensationalist sound bytes too often yields a cynical short-term and superficial position bereft of analysis. Remember your gut reaction is often wrong — the product may not be aimed at you, may not be ready or may not be viable right now. Try to take a moment to see beyond the (sometimes ludicrous) claims and consider what could be possible with future iterations and developments. See the idea not the execution. That will make your commentary look far smarter than either unqualified acceptance of the PR patter or near slander.

Renowned Silicon Valley commentator Ben Evans has written extensively about the perception of Innovation. As he puts it, much commentary can resemble a sort of Schrodinger’s Startup — simultaneously trivial nonsense that’ll never work and an evil threat to civilization: “For as long as people have been creating technology, people have been saying it’ll never amount to anything. As we create more and more…the urge to dismiss seems only to get stronger, and so does the urge to defend”.

Back to Jacquard

So back to Jacquard for a moment. Instead of immediately decrying it, maybe it’s worth considering broader applications. Is it a dead end for consumer fashion? (probably) or a stepping stone to enabling other devices? (probably). A fair instant reaction is to question the need for it. Do we need to equip our clothes with technology given how most people carry at least one device? While there may well be use cases where interacting with our phone that’s in a pocket via just a tap on our sleeve may be useful, let’s just consider briefly if there are other potential applications. After all, the ability to weave technology into fabric sounds like something that could/should be useful. Perhaps though, it’s not just clothes we should be thinking about. What if there could be a touch-panel in furniture? You could never lose the remote again if it was actually built into the sofa. Or what if we actually created a remote using soft materials instead of plastic or aluminium? All, some or none of these may turn out to be the answer. Jacquard may go the way of its sibling, Glass. No mass market success but useful to certain sectors.

Although I will likely buy a Levi Jacquard to get a sense of what the technology does and doesn’t offer, I don’t expect it will be a “success”; — if you define success as volume commercial sales. As a technology, it’s far too early, too limited and too expensive — and arguably unnecessary. But that’s not to say the technology itself isn’t worthwhile and deserving of some credit before we know if it will find and fulfill a useful role. And what’s next from Google’s ATAP team that brought us Project Jacquard? Project Soli — a miniature radar-based sensor. I wonder will it get a more considered reception?