Insightful Innovation

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The innovation phenomenon

The generic model of the innovation process begins with an insight that gives rise to an idea or a new discovery as the result of research. Some innovations, particularly technological ones are the product of a big investment in research, while others are more the result of individual human ingenuity. The former are likely to be associated with scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, the latter with the application of new technologies in order to devise better products.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, ideas for innovation arise in all sorts of places. Sometimes the insight that provides the basis of the idea that leads to the innovation comes from associated – quite literally something triggers an idea. Sometimes the idea is an adaption of an existing product. Sometimes it is by analogy that a way of solving the problem is discovered. And sometimes it just happens more or less by chance.

James Dyson and the dual cyclone vacuum cleaner


The innovation in the dual-cyclone vacuum cleaner came from applying industrial dust extract technology to domestic vacuum cleaners. James Dyson had the idea when he installed an industrial dust extraction system incorporating a large, 30 foot high cyclone dust extractor to remove excess powder from the atmosphere in a powder coating plant. As James Dyson himself describes it: “It occurred to me at that moment that there really was no reason why it should not work in miniature – using a cyclone about the size of say a Perrier bottle”.

George de Mestral and Velcro


George de Mestral was a Swiss engineer. Returning from a walk in the forest one day he noticed cockleburs sticking to his dog’s coat. Intrigued, he put a cocklebur under a microscope and noticed that the surface consisted of thousands of tiny hooks that readily stuck to tiny loops in his clothing. Having noticed that zip fasteners often had a habit of sticking he wondered if the principle of tiny hooks and loops could be used to develop a new type of fastener for clothing. It took him eight years and resulted in “Velcro” which is now used throughout the world.


Ron Hickmanand the “WorkMate”


Ron Hickman was a designer for the sports car manufacturer Lotus. He was also a keen do-it-yourself enthusiast. When his DIY activities led him to damaging items of furniture, it gave him an idea of building a light, portable workbench that could be folded away when not in use. Before this workbenches had been heavy, wooden and not greatly portable. Hickman used his experience of designing suspension systems for cars to devise a workbench that was light and strong and yet could be folded away when not in use.

In all of these cases the idea that formed the basis of the innovation was not the product of detailed scientific enquiry but of human ingenuity. Individuals going about their daily business observed a phenomenon in such a way that it gave them a new insight that in turn led them to conceive of a new and much more effective product.

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