Five ways to become better at innovating

I have more or less a background as a worker in technology and I’m also quite used to credit going elsewhere, so I guess you just have to trust me on this. Robert Greene has written a book about the 48 laws of power, but he hasn’t (yet!) invaded a country or formed a doomsday cult. I’m not Robert Greene, as I haven’t written an international bestseller on innovating, and on the other hand because I have first hand experience in building prototypes of things that don’t yet exist.

I have had some, initially revised ideas in the drawer that were never applied, which you can freely do if you wish to do it such as:

  • Transferring IOT data to the cloud from mines. The workers have applications on their phones that download the small packets from the WLAN network of the mine and when they emerge, the packets are sent and verified.
  • An AR map game where you take tours in the city and when you enter a location area you can read further about the building and cities can submit their own routes to the server. You can also make private routes, such as pub crawl routes for a group of friends.

Of course the sole idea isn’t worth anything. A prototype is worth something and a product that has been tested on some market can be very valuable. I’m not the person who brings a product to a market, but I am someone who can do the worthless idea and make it into the somewhat worthwile prototype. For instance, I did an AR and IOT combination back when AR was only emerging through some apps and games. I’m writing how I’ve been able to pull off things like these.

1. Be a cook, not a sommelier

Sommeliers are supposed to know a lot about wines. Cooks know something about wines, like the basic texture and taste of different wine types. Cooks use wines as an ingredient, so they must be aware of them in some way, but lack the resources to become specialized in this field.

Think of technologies and work experience as ingredients and innovating as cooking. You can build a basic backend with a database and REST API? Fine. Leave it at that. You can build a javascript web frontend, but it lacks refinement and is far from production ready? Fine. Leave it at that. You know how to do basic stuff in the cloud? You know how to make a basic Vuforia or ARKIT app? Know how VR works and how to make VR work? Know Tensorflow or some other machine learning platform? Have you worked at an accounting firm? Have you worked the register at a store? These are all valuable assets in your ingredient palette.

The more familiar you get with technologies and different fields of work, the more you have an idea how each of them play out and how you can combine them. However, that’s not enough to build a successful prototype.

2. Focus on something that can combine all of your other knowledge

Think of it as, contrary to ingredients, as a school of cooking. Italian, french, raw vegan etc. It might be a technology or a cluster of technologies that are around a programming language (such as Javascript) or a type of development (like embedded systems).

I can’t stress enough how great Unity is for innovating with visual prototypes. You can do AR, VR, an app prototype and connect it to an API, so it’s almost as great for software prototyping as a deep knowledge of Javascript is. The thing is, your specialization should be dependent of your own leanings. Unity/Unreal if you’re more into the visual and interactive side of things and Javascript if it’s more software related. Arduino/Raspberry PI etc. and Blender for 3d printing as it’s more in the hardware side of things.

3. Innovating is solving problems, not creating needs

As I’ve said earlier. Work experience is key in identifying problems, which is essential in solving them. You can’t really make up problems. You can only encounter them in a way or the other, of which first hand is the most visceral of course.

All work experience is useful. It’s more effective innovating a logistics application if you have first hand experience as a semi truck driver. It’s not only work experience, though. Especially in entertainment products. If we think of needs as problems, and still don’t create them, we can map out niches.

Take Finnish Bingo as an example. I have two small kids, a day job and all of this. I have been in several situations where I’m too distracted to watch a TV show but too tired to play a computer game and I wanted something that resembles Windows Solitaire in a modern fashion. Extremely easy to play but which has some gambling mechanics to keep it interesting.

I hate trite and colorful mobile games and the constant way they are trying to reach into my pocket. I want to play with monopoly money, and I’m only happy when it rains. That’s when I started to build the smoky (-ish) 90’s nordic bingo environment and it’s smoky residents. I have first hand experience of 90’s bingo halls. However I don’t have experience of making tattoos, which is why my VR tattoo making simulator is still only a prototype.

4. Go to hackathons, work together

Hackathons are important in learning creativity. It’s always hard to start out with a blank slate of paper and it gets easier with more rules. Hackathons and game jams give problems for you to solve and you get used to both solving them yourself and working with different teams.

My first hackathon was Nasa Space Apps Challenge back in 2016. It was a catalyst experience which had a really large role to myself in going to the place where I currently am both personally and professionally.

However, we need more hackathons and jams for people to innovate and collaborate in accessible spaces. Companies and organizations should organize more of them so that we can shift our culture into a more communicative and collaborative direction, which is why…

5. Innovating needs resources – get people to allocate resources towards it

We need more companies aboard. Hackathons are great in new product development, but they are also an excellent recruitment opportunity for people looking for software developers. It’s likely that some of the participants are hobbyists along with their studies and the cream of the crop in their own group.

Hackathons and product development jams can be arranged inside a company as well, and game development companies have held them for years. One example is Coffee Stain Studios, which resulted in the wildly successful joke game Goat Simulator.

Along with hackathons and jams, innovation needs technology. It’s very hard to learn how to use VR without a VR headset. The more expensive resource is though time, which is an investment towards building a more innovative work environment, thus having access to the forefront of product development.