In August, the BBC published a profile on the entrepreneur Petter Neby and his phone company, Punkt. The innovative product this entrepreneur created is a phone that can send texts, set alarms and check a calendar. The innovative part? It does nothing else. It doesn’t search the web. It doesn’t contain more music than a record store. It’s a phone that functions as a phone.
“Wait up,” you might say, “that’s not innovation. That’s just returning to a design that was already outdated ten years ago.”
Exactly. While we usually use the word “innovation” to suggest something futuristic, it really just means something new. The difference is that in some cases, such as Punkt’s phones, old can be new. Futuristic is always futuristic.
It’s not that an old product is somehow magically made new, nor is vintage apparel the height of innovation. Rather, innovations change how we think about a product, a practice, a whatever. Futuristic phones are rarely innovative because they only present what we think the future of phones should be. Similarly, vintage clothes are rarely innovative because by this point their appeal is that they’re vintage.
So, besides the fact that it’s a phone that functions as a phone, what is so particularly innovative about Punkt? That is actually the innovative bit. The market has been so flooded with smartphones that if one were to buy a flip phone, they would be considered rather eccentric. Everything has an app that usually requires the latest model. We take pictures of near everything. The smartphone is just an integral part of our lives.
Except, of course, it isn’t. That is the point made by building a new phone that works more or less like an old one. It creates a new relationship between us and our phones and it causes us to operate in a completely different manner.
However, this newsletter isn’t a plug for a new product. It’s just that the phone is an excellent example of the kind of innovation the world could benefit from more. To remember that taking the best from the past and merging with the possibilities and needs of the future should always be top of mind rather than only having eyes for the new. Add to that questions on how you simplify something? How do you make it sustainable? How do you introduce a new way of thinking to society? That is the innovation we are interested in. We need to be working with people to find new logics they can follow and use to improve their products, practices, or whatevers.
There is a need for these innovations, for these new ways of approaching problems and life. The issue Petter Neby was initially addressing was that he and his stepdaughter were addicted to their phones, because, as we said, they have attached themselves to everything in our lives. This addiction stopped them from interacting with each other, so he was prompted to find a way to have a phone without it becoming so entrenched in his day-to-day life.
Similar issues face us in every field because each field is stuck with a set way of thinking. Sometimes, many times in fact, the prevailing logic works. But for the times that is doesn’t work, as with the need for businesses to be more transparent about their production line, finding a radical or innovative solution is daunting because our practices are moulded to carry out a set way of doing things in the most efficient manner possible under that way of doing things. It’s not simple being simple. A smartphone makes things simpler because we have organised ourselves around it. An older phone makes things simpler because we can change the way we organise ourselves. Simplicity and efficiency are the end goals, but we reach them by taking radically different paths.
Switching paths though is incredibly difficult. Just imagine having to accustom ourselves to not using our phone for everything. Obviously, any innovation runs into these difficulties, which is why thinking and working more like how you do in a laboratory. With a splash of creativity in the mix. We want to see innovation take off, so we look for people who are trying to find new and simple ways to navigate through these times. We should all push hard for companies and organisations to provide the space that innovative ideas and practices need in order to grow. It’s more obvious than ever that we need a space to work through the difficult process of becoming simple, even if the result is just a phone that works like a phone.