Fractal Coevolution

In doing product design for nearly 30 years, I’ve  witnessed  several waves of innovation. Some were obviously successful like personal computers and the internet. But others were much less so, such as MultiMedia CDROMs, and open document formats.

What people don’t appreciate is that great ideas, before they are great, tend to look remarkably similar to stupid ones. Few are willing to take a chance on a new, seemingly crazy product idea. This is why the technology industry tends to be so incremental. Most companies, truth be told, wait for others to make the mistakes.

Innovation vs. Risk
Truly disruptive products make most companies nervous because they imply new use cases and pricing models. You can’t calculate ROI when so little is understood. I saw this at frog design where customers would come in, desperate for innovation, wanting to emulate companies like Apple.

I learned an important lesson at frog: every company wants innovation, but very few want risk. They assumed that innovation somehow comes with certainly. The hard truth is that you can’t have one without the other. No one can look at the history of Apple and say they took safe bets. It was my job to help companies navigate this particularly bipolar tightrope, helping them come to terms with this relationship between risk and innovation. We often said we weren’t in the design business but the design therapy business.

As such, our job was to get our customers out of their normal, conservative mindset. Incremental thinking and cost reduction are all important aspects of maturing any product but it’s not what’s needed to create breakthrough product concepts.

Transformative Coevolution
You don’t however, just flip a switch and get people to start ‘thinking big’. Part of the problem is understanding the product process. Truly transformative products are not “one hit wonders” but a complex journey: over time an interesting coevolution takes place between a product and its consumers. The product enables new consumer activities which, in turn, further inspires new changes to the product. A truly transformative product works, fractal like, splintering into multiple, unseen use cases, creating new markets. These new opportunities inspire variations on the original products that could not be foreseen.

The iPod has been used to death as a design example, and not without good reason: it represents many lessons in strategic and patient product development. Apple didn’t just stop with the first incarnation of the iPod, it was constantly evolving.  Nearly 4 years after the first generation, it became clear people were using their iPods in very mobile situations, so much so that they were willing to strap nearly half a pound of tech to their arms to go running. Apple responded with the 22 gram iPod Shuffle. It’s very unlikely that Apple envisioned the need for the Shuffle when the first iPod was released. This new need coevolved with the market, creating a feedback loop: a company influencing consumers who in turn influenced the company. Transformative products not only change the consumer but they also change the companies nimble enough to listen.

Thinking about the Internet of Things
Unfortunately, people don’t tend to look at the internet of things (IoT) this way. While they are certainly enthusiastic about its prospects, their energy is a bit simplistic, extrapolating fairly naive scenarios about coffee pots turning on automatically or smart alarm clocks that talk to your calendar. But these intellectual fireworks burn bright and fade quickly. There is a tendency in the tech press to jump on the uselessly sensational and completely miss the transformational potential of the mundane.

When thinking about where we are going, it’s too easy to just extend existing models; solving yesterday’s tasks with tomorrow’s technology. The IoT will make the iPod look like child’s play. It is the ultimate in fractal coevolution in that as it gets used, it will create not only new use cases, but motivate entirely new products.

To make this point, let’s take home lighting as a tiny example of how this could work. I’m going to make a few predictions but the purpose isn’t to confidently invent the future but to dent the complacency of existing models.

Let’s start off with the classic use case: adding a motion sensor to a home that turns on the lights as someone enters. My previous post discusses why even this simple scenario is harder than you’d expect. However, the problem is that it barely scratches the surface of what is possible. Once it’s easy to have dozens of sensors in a home and any light can be controllable, the effects are likely to cascade out, transforming not only what ‘a light’ is, but even how lighting can be used. Here are three examples:

1. Virtual Swarm Lamps
Once control becomes virtual we’ll abandon the idea that a “room light” is only a single wall switch hardwired to a ceiling light fixture. We’ll see instead a room filled with many small lights acting as a virtual swarm lamp. One switch (or sensor event) will turn them all on. Additional smart lights can be easily added to this swarm to fill in dark corners with no additional wiring. This will radically change what we even think of as a lamp. One likely consequence will be a shift from large lights to a range of smaller lights that can be scattered about, placed for example, over a bed or a desk. In addition to the number and size of lights changing, the we’ll likely get levels of lighting so strip lighting along the floor would be a secondary swarm that would only be turned on in the middle of the night if you were to get up.

2. Painting with light
Once the virtual swarm lamp fragments the idea of a single light source into many, this will encourage other devices to join in. TVs, furniture, picture frames and even luminescent paint can respond to lighting commands. Entering a room at night will not only turn on the strip lights on the floor, but the TV could ambiently glow, doubling as a night light. But as picture frame, appliances, and even furniture become light capable, It will be possible to start ‘painting with light’ and use light as decoration instead of just illumination.

3. Lighting as material
But lighting can go even further, it could also become interactive and impart emotion as well as information into a space. The dozens of lights in a virtual swarm lamp could ‘ripple across a room’ when turned on for dramatic effect.  This might even drive the size of lights down to pinpoints of light, scattering a room with hundreds of them. If music is playing, a small subset could animate and pulse to the beat. There could even be simple notifications: animating  when my phone rings in the other room or if someone rings the doorbell.

These are of course, just exploratory guesses; a bit of design therapy to get you to think outside the box. But few people discuss the IoT in this manner. They are so consumed with basic automation, that they don’t see how much this ability to communicate will coevolve products into something very different.

Let’s get past the shallow fireworks that passes for discussion about the IoT. It’s only natural that simple automation of desk lamps and coffee makers is the first task that people assign to the IoT, but it’s solving yesterday’s problems. More importantly, it’s vastly underselling what the IoT is capable of doing. The fractal coevolution of smart, connected devices will change the very products themselves and profoundly change how we will use them.  It is this crazy new world that excites me. It is in understanding this deeper impact that will help us build the real internet of things.