Fernando Fischmann

Four innovation buzzwords you need to know

16 October, 2014 / Articles

Sometimes it seems like the only thing that matches the relentless pace of innovation in the technology sector is the relentless change in the language used to describe this innovation. While some of the new words that appear – such as “phablet” or “The Snappening” – are clearly either marketing lingo or just plain attempts to troll the Internet – there are other buzzwords that hint at deeper changes taking place within the cultural zeitgeist — changes in the way we think about what technology can do for us as a society.

With that in mind, here are four recent buzzwords that are changing the way we think about innovation:

1. Medical armor

The changing narrative around the Ebola virus — from an exotic virus found only in poor nations of West Africa to one that can potentially infect and even kill friends and neighbors here in the United States — has changed the conventional thinking about how best to deal with these types of medical outbreaks. We’ve shifted from a defensive posture (the quarantine mentality), to one that demands immediate action. It involves military troops being sent abroad and a more aggressive approach by all front-line relief workers.

And there’s perhaps no better word to capture that change in zeitgeist than the term “medical armor.” It refers not only to the hazmat-style clothing worn by medical workers, but also to just about any protective gear endorsed by the military that can keep bodily fluids — such as blood or vomit — from getting where they shouldn’t. “Medical armor” implies that we’re “fighting” disease the same way that we “fight” other insurgents, and that could change the way we think about medical innovation. We may borrow ideas and concepts from the military sphere – such as “expeditionary medical support system” – to push innovators to come up with new ways to stop the spread of other medical outbreaks.

2. Data fundamentalism

Big data is becoming, if anything, even bigger, and with it, comes a changing notion of what all those terabytes, petabytes and zettabytes of data can do for us. It’s not only that we can use big data to aid us in our everyday decision-making, it’s that it can now magically solve all of our problems. We have data clouds and data lakes, and it’s just a matter of finding the right data to solve any hard problem faced by society. People who subscribe to this mind-set are data fundamentalists. As Kate Crawford wrote for Harvard Business Review, they are believers that “massive data sets and predictive analytics always reflect objective truth.”

In talking about his new book The Glass Cage with New York Magazine, best-selling author Nicholas Carr suggested that data fundamentalism is becoming a real problem. As Carr points out about society’s growing preoccupation with data, “It’s one way to look at questions. But it doesn’t obviate the need for human perspective.” That’s what data fundamentalists don’t get, he says, “It’s very easy to assume that somehow, if you just get the right data and process it in the right way, we can see through problems and resolve them. But it doesn’t work because it distorts your view of the problems.”

3. Haptic technology

The recent introduction of the Apple Watch was notable for several reasons, not the least of which was Apple’s decision to focus on the emotional connection that the Apple Watch makes possible with the user. Apple called it the company’s “most personal device ever” – a product that you wear next to you everyday. To make this point, Apple showcased how we would one day be able to send personalized heartbeats to our loved ones to show them how we feel, send personalized emoji back and forth to each other, and receive gentle feedback from the Apple Watch in the form of very slight tactile sensations.

What’s making all this possible is a new focus on design that integrates haptic technology, or the use of tactile feedback as a form of interaction between humans and digital devices. Apple is essentially designing into the Apple Watch another way for users to communicate with their digital device that involves physical sensations. There’s the Force Touch, which differentiates between different levels of touch — a press or a tap — used with the device. And there’s the Taptic Engine, “a linear actuator inside Apple Watch that produces haptic feedback.” The company that gave us “skeuomorphism” as a design aesthetic now may give us haptic technology as a new way of thinking about product innovation.

4. Permissionless innovation

According to technologists in Silicon Valley and other technology hubs around the country, innovation is usually the cure for just about any societal problem. If there were a clever catchphrase to describe this mind-set, it would be “Technology to the rescue!” The only problem is, government policymakers and bureaucratic regulators don’t always share that approach. Their first instinct is usually to view any new technology – drones, driverless cars, de-extinction – as something potentially posing a real risk to society. Technology, they say, needs to be regulated and controlled in order to prevent things from spiraling out of control.

So along came a new term – “permissionless innovation” – to describe the policy approach favored by the digital elite. The word means exactly what it sounds like it should mean: Innovators shouldn’t have to ask permission before they bring a new technology into the world. Instead, the burden of proof should be on regulators – they should be forced to show that there is a real and immediate threat to society posed by the technology. In the absence of such proof, the innovation should be allowed to flourish. Adam Thierer, a senior research fellow with the Technology Policy Program at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, argues in Permissionless Innovation that a failure to embrace this view of innovation will result in “fewer services, lower quality goods, higher prices, diminished economic growth, and a decline in the overall standard of living.”

While none of these buzzwords may have the immediate Internet sex appeal of a word like “selfie” – they hint at longer-lasting implications for the way we regulate technology, the types of technology companies we create, and the way we design new digital products. They are the new language of innovation.




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