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IDEO CoLab: R&D* for the Current Age

*Research & Design

They didn’t know it, but the early humans who created the first stone axes and hammers started the incredibly fast-paced technological cycle we’re living in today. Their primitive tools were used to create other, better tools, which were used to make even better tools. This cycle progressed relatively slowly for thousands of years — leaving humans time to acclimate to the effect technology had on our daily lives.

Today, technology changes so fast we can barely see what’s 6–12 months ahead. Already, autonomous cars are driving on the road, money automatically moves between accounts as needed, homes autonomously control their climate while we’re away. Entire systems we’ve grown up with are changing around us, and it’s natural to feel inspired, confused, or even terrified. As consumers, we can often feel pressured just to keep up.

For businesses, the pressure is even greater — not just to keep up, but to stay ahead. Imagine being a stone axe maker when the first bronze tools showed up. Today is way worse. The current innovation cycle means businesses must either invest in disruptive technologies or succumb to them. The hard part is knowing where to invest. Most organizations can only see adjacencies to their own business, and don’t have an idea of what will disrupt them from the fringe. Those bronze axe guys never saw the iron age coming.

At IDEO CoLab, we’re bringing together disruptors from industry and academia to understand and shape how emerging technologies will affect the future. Our design-driven approach helps industries see opportunities in their blind spots and make smarter investments for their innovation pipeline. We built the CoLab on three foundational elements: Collaboration, Prototyping, and Systems Change.

Collaboration: Your Blind Spots Revealed

As the nature of work becomes more fluid, open, and connected, we’ve found that collaboration is a catalyst for new types of innovation. The open-source movement proved with software (and hardware!) that a collaborative approach to innovation can help companies move faster with a broader view of what’s ahead. Research also shows that more diverse teams generate a broader range of concepts, and that collaborating externally can help organizations identify market opportunities that weren’t otherwise visible.

The trouble is, it’s hard to make actual collaborative work happen between organizations. There often seems to be no safe place for it, no common ground or process, and no one to guide this new form of working. Worse yet, the details of intellectual property ownership and contracts can be particularly difficult and expensive to work out.

Our goal at the CoLab is to create the optimal conditions for collaboration. By creating a “third place” for collaboration, we’ve been able to bring together organizations, startups, and individuals that wouldn’t have otherwise worked together. But the real magic is the way we approach the work we do.

The CoLab Team, Nasdaq, and wireless networking company Filament worked together to build a prototype solar panel that can track its own energy generation and automatically issue renewable energy certificates to its owners using Nasdaq’s blockchain platform, Linq.

Prototyping: Build to Learn

Our primary activity at the CoLab is building tangible prototypes to help us explore emerging technologies. We don’t just build to think, we build to learn, and these prototypes are meant to get us to the right questions. We translate these questions into opportunities for a number of industries, and dive deeper to build venture prototypes that our members can take into pilot and build into new offerings.

This year we’ve built more than 50 prototypes. In 2017, we’ll build more than 100. The CoLab is able to build so much so quickly because the design process — the shared purpose of building prototypes together — is the secret ingredient that makes this kind of collaboration possible across organizations. Even if teams are inexperienced in the design process, the CoLab’s core team — with backgrounds in design, engineering, business, and entrepreneurship — is there to provide process and hands-on mentorship throughout each design sprint. This creates a powerful training experience for academic and corporate team members.

“There is no better way to sharpen your design, business, entrepreneur, presentation, software and hardware prototyping, or teamwork skillsets.”
- Joel Kwartler, CoLab Fellow 2015–2016

During our exploration of blockchains, a venture called Fraction created a market for shared equity ownership in residential real estate. More broadly, it asked important questions about micro markets that could pop-up quickly anywhere. The prototype itself has been put on the back burner, but the questions live on to fuel other explorations. Photo credit: Bettina Crawford

Systems Change: All of Us Can Solve What Any of Us Can’t

The scope of today’s technologies is a little different from that of our stone age ancestors. They’re no longer single-user tools by individual craftsmen. Artificial intelligence, blockchains, internet of things: these are technologies born because our world is networked, and that’s how they create value. They’re almost useless in silos — their benefit is in creating, exchanging, and coordinating value across networks of people, organizations, and machines. And to understand their value, we have to work like a network too.

For 2017, we’re looking across four emerging technologies:

Artificial Intelligence
The Internet of Things
Augmented & Virtual Reality

Technologies such as these will transform the underlying systems of human society. Whether they improve it or not is up to us. As Human Centered Designers in the CoLab, we see it as our obligation to help new technologies find their place in the world, and to put them on a path toward positive impact.

To do this next year, we’re looking at five key human domains that these technologies might affect:


At our bi-annual summit, the CoLab showcased prototypes that demonstrate intersections and opportunities that exist between technologies and human systems. Photo credit: Bettina Crawford

One of our recent member events, themed Crosstalk, showed how working like a network can turn emerging tech into system-level change. With attendees from over 35 different companies, we discussed possibilities nearly impossible for any single organization to figure out. Among a dozen other prototypes, we shared how we’re using Augmented Reality to promote transparency in the food industry, using machine learning to help balance the electrical grid, and creating a shared digital identity platform built on blockchain.

For the CoLab, this is just the Stone Age. As the CoLab grows and evolves, we’ll use our tools of collaboration and prototyping to make even better tools for innovation. Working like a network, these tools will help us have impact at a scale none of us could reach individually.

Next year, we might even invent fire.

Interested in the CoLab? Drop us a line at

Also, for those interested in joining our January fellowship program, we are hosting a 1-day makeathon in Boston and San Francisco. Sign up!




A collaborative network focused on accelerating the research and development of emerging technologies.

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Gian Pangaro

Gian Pangaro

Creative Director, IDEO CoLab

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