"What is innovation?"
This is a question we hear every day at faberNovel, and the answers are even more diverse than the people asking it.
I'm not going to try to answer it. I have a feeling it is just the kind of thing that eludes direct description.
But I think there are a number of similarities to an institution with a long history, one that we have all experienced in one way or another, from the inside or the outside. So many similarities, in fact, that I believe that innovation is itself a religion.
The accoutrements are definitely there. Innovation has its holy books whose verses are quoted in reverence (The Lean Startup, Customer Development, Crossing the Chasm), it has its temples where followers go to seek enlightenment (the proverbial "garage", New Ventures Departments, YC), it has ceremonies completed by every pilgrim (Startup Weekend, hackathons, the VC interview), and it has the traditions that bind the community together (startup acquisitions, the first hire, the local watering hole).
The Religion of Innovation also has its followers and clergy. There are prophets who have seen the light and show us the way forward (Dave McClure, Jack Dorsey, Steve Jobs), priests and priestesses who shepherd the flocks (serial entrepreneurs and Angels), and of course the vast faithful looking for the Truth, from 17 year-old hackers to middle managers to CEOs of companies threatened by the digital revolution.
There are sects that share some beliefs and argue vehemently over others (fail fast vs. sticktoitiveness, Agile vs. waterfall, collaboration vs. stealth mode). Particular points of dogma are interpreted differently over time (the value of multi-tasking, bootstrapping vs. outside financing, closed vs. open platforms).
But more than these outward similarities, the main reason that innovation is a religion is its theology.
It is an intense belief in something immaterial and undefinable, mysterious and complex. It is equal parts ideas and action, or as the Bible straightforwardly puts it, "He will repay according to each one's deeds" (Romans 2:6).
As difficult as innovation can be to encapsulate, there remain a select (chosen?) few who seem to just get it. And their ability to innovate seems to unlock amazing powers, it seems to give them insights that mere mortals do not enjoy.
And these miracle workers keep everyone else coming back. The secret to innovation promises a key to Paradise, freedom from the toils of this razor-thin margin world, and escape from the Hell of Disruption to a life in the Heaven of Profitability. That your place in this Heaven is anything but eternal is an uncomfortable truth.
Innovation requires that you have immense faith - that taking calculated risks will be worth it, and that hard work and listening to the customer can result in a new way of doing things. It requires you to be open to change and to know thyself deeply. And it is definitely a narrow road that few choose to take, because few are willing to undergo the trials and tribulations this path offers.
Ultimately innovation, like any religion, is about leaving behind the bad and perfecting the good. It's not enough to have some good ideas in your head. After all, "Faith without works is dead" (James 2:26). You have to take what you've learned and the value you know how to provide and share it with others.
We are lucky that the karma cycle and heavenly rewards are much more immediate in the world of innovation. Not only do they take the form of goodwill from customers, recession-proof growth, and healthy profits, but the supreme privilege of seeing your ideas come to life.
Last weekend I had a fantastic
experience: I went to a real physical store, filled with real people, real
physical goods, with a solid intent to consume.
When I was a teen, going to buy a record at a store was a treat. I could spend the full afternoon contemplating products I couldn't afford, chat with vendors about the latest album releases, get advice on tech stuff I would never buy, and come home fulfilled and happy, and call my friends to report.
30 years later, I did not really have a
choice: my daughter wanted something, was in Paris through Saturday
mid-afternoon, and asked me nicely. She had lost or broken her digital camera,
and it is apparently normal that fathers replace lost high tech toys without
conditions. So I took my car, headed for the nearest mall, located the local
cultural/hi-tech stuff reseller (a highly known brand in France) and for the
first time in almost a year stepped into a good old large physical retail
outlet. But I was happy, and even had thoughts of treating myself with a couple
CD's and DVD's while I was there, if not a bigger toy.
I even own a "premium and exclusive" loyalty card from this specific reseller from 10 years ago, with a special "VIP cashier" pass. What could go wrong?
Little did I know I had entered what retrospectively I think must have been the first circle of hell.
As soon as I entered, I checked for the CD section, hoping to discover some cool new band I didn't know, some reedited nugget from the past, or be tempted by a cool cover, ready to have a "what's cool these days" chat with the vendor.
Big disappointment. First, 80% of the shelf space was dedicated to either mainstream novelties with a stock of at least 2000 new "hype artist that you're hearing 20 times a day" albums, in different configurations (novelties, promos, new this week, vendor selection, bundle with old albums), or racks and racks of uncategorized, unsorted CD's in "buy 2 get 2 free" promotional bins.
While the remaining 20 percent of shelves were displaying CDs categorized in (almost) alphabetical order, it quickly became clear that I wouldn't actually want to browse, as the offering was awkward and poor to say the least. In the Independent rock section (roughly 2 meters wide), A to C section, there were about 20 artists with the honor of having a dedicated and named subsection (with most of the these having a single CD in the section, if any), and aside from that, 50 randomly piled CD's from A.
I'm pretty sure there are more than 20 artists playing Independent rock, and quite certain some of them issued more than one album in their lifetime.
Said otherwise, the value prop of the store (a "cultural" store) was to either buy THE mainstream album of the moment, of get lucky browsing though a few mislabeled shelves carrying about 0.2% of the existing catalog.
As I am stubborn I found a vendor (the lone one for the entire CD section), cornered him (they tend to try and escape) and asked him if they had albums from "Killing Joke". He replied to me that he didn't know but thought I should look at K's shelves in indie rock, or metal, or perhaps Pop/rock, otherwise maybe in International variety. Then he said "Oops, sorry, I need to go" and I watched him disappear as quickly as he first appeared. I left.
I spare you the part about the DVD section, obviously managed by the same logic, except there were officially no vendors (apart from a sign saying: "if you need help, ask at the CD section").
I'll keep using Amazon or Gobuz, no big deal, I get it, times are tough, very little margin for CD's, hard to keep the long tail in stores, focus on main category leaders and promos. My only point would be that if you cannot keep a promise as a retailer, and have to degrade your inventory and experience that much, why keep trying to simulate? Just say: "we only carry 20 references, please go to our online store if you are looking for something else”. That would have saved me some time.
Although frustrated, I continued my trip and went for the big one: the digital camera section.
And there it was worse, way worse: around 100 models, displayed on shelves but attached to cables that made it impossible to manipulate them. Not much better than watching a picture of the camera on a site. I tried to pull one, thinking there was a clever system like an elastic cable‚ and then spend 2 minutes explaining security that ok, I got it, it was not permitted to touch or try to manipulate a camera without a vendor.
Labels were really helpful, too: Panasonic XCFR-67g / 7r , 399€, 16Mpx, Auto, Man., 4 stars (from whom?) vs. Sony RDF5 - Blck/NoR., 395€, 16Mpx, Auto, Man, 4 stars. The convenient thing was that they were sorted by price range (cheapest to most expensive) and stars (as there was a strong correlation between price and stars). There was also a bin with little leaflets called "Choosing your digital camera", which seemed to be a printed collection of the shelves labels, with a picture of the cameras, and some useful advice like "If you are going to take a lot of pictures, think of buying extra memory sticks".
Amusingly, most of the cameras referenced in the little book were from the previous year, and not matching the ones on sale. I needed advice.
There was indeed a vendor. He was easy to find this time: he was at the end of the 50 people queue. This vendor had a specific job: advising (“yes, this one is better it's more expensive”), selling (“ok, you'll take this one then?”), then recording the transaction on a 1985 PC AT using a software designed apparently in 1976 (“Ah, we do not have it in stock here, are you sure you do not want the other one?”), which would deliver a voucher that allowed you to pay at the cashier, then once you've paid allow you to go to another place in the store, where you could queue again to collect your goods in no more than 30 minutes.
It was ten past ten when I entered the store, it was now 11:50. I love my daughter very much but I left my voucher (I hadn't paid yet) when the "special VIP cashier" that was crowded with non VIP loyalty holders told me she couldn't let me pass as otherwise all the other customers would have a riot and that "you know, we cannot afford to let VIP cards go first, there are already not enough cashiers".
Back to my car, an hour and 50 minutes after entering the store, I had bought zip and was a bit upset. I went home, and told my daughter to pick a camera on Amazon. She read a few blogs and reviews on cameras, we ‘one click bought’ (for 10€ less than in the store) and asked for the camera to be delivered on Monday at her apartment in St Etienne. Took 20mn tops. She received it Monday at noon.
I don't get it, really.
When will retailers (especially large ones) understand that the era of "offline vs. online" is over? When will they realize that to counter an Amazon app that allows users to scan products in their store, buy them and have them delivered the next day, instead of blocking wifi and covering over store tags with white tags (yes they did), all they have to do is do it themselves?
I go to the same store in 3 years. With my smartphone and the app the store sent me by mail rather than an annoying proposal from third party for a rebate on a spa or a cheap ticket for wherever if I buy it now.
The store is cool. There is only one item of every product, except some best sellers that they can have by the tens if needed. Thus freeing space, and making browsing thru thousands of references easy and fast.
Vendors are available, because all they have to do is advise customers, and guide them. They are experts in some area, and you can follow them on Twitter or Facebook, just scan their nametag and confirm. They have a tablet, where they can consult catalogs, browse the web for information, check inventory and transact with a Square-like thingy.
When I decide I'll buy that CD (or DVD, or Book, or camera) I can simply scan the code myself, choose my preferred delivery method (take it now, have it delivered, download it now, or a combination of both).
I can check my loyalty points, give stars to my vendor, signal a missing item, or Skype my wife to make sure it is the book she wanted. Maybe I can even offer her the book that will download on her reader? Maybe I can ask the camera to be picked in St Etienne by my daughter if she has the password I sent her?
If I want it now, then I can go when the product is ready (which is indicated on my app) to the locker room, go to locker 35, enter my password and get my stuff with no lining up.
Wasn't that simple, fast and pleasant?
How hard is it? The technologies for that short scenario are all available, mature, and cheap. I'm pretty sure the vendors wouldn't mind going back to helping customers rather than having to run because explaining to consumers that you cannot help them as you also have to do 10 other tasks including refurbishing shelves isn't a fantastic job.
Maybe that's a better way to compete with Amazon than trying to separate the digital and real world? Maybe they could use the best of technologies and mix it in the best of what stores were?
The only flaw in my scenario is that I do not get to see my daughter's smile when she gets her camera. But maybe I can know when she's getting it, get an alert and Skype her?
I don't know, I'm just a digital guy, who doesn't have 50 years experience in retail, just another annoying consumer, preferring Amazon fulfillment to my once preferred retail brand.
But I'd sure love to spend quality time with my daughter, physically, shopping for a camera. I promise I'll do it as soon as retail will stop being hell on earth and become entertaining, inspiring and useful again.
Last night at PARISOMA, a coworking and events space in San Francisco run by faberNovel, we held our monthly mixer on the topic of The Future of Gaming.
And the future is, apparently, deeply rooted in the real world.
The highlights of the event, which was attended by about 140 people and 13 companies demoing their products, were new games in which virtual characters and scenarios played out on the backdrop of the real world. A combination of faster processors, better sensors, sharper cameras, and new software has blurred the lines between the real and the virtual, taking us closer to the holy grail of augmented reality.
Let's take a closer look at these highlights.
Dekko, which recently received $1.9 million in funding from a long lineup of investors, is seeking to fix the problems that have plagued AR so far. They demonstrated their game Dekko Monkey, in which the player points an iPad at a tabletop and watches a superimposed monkey dance around.
The magic moment of the night came as my monkey avatar, encountering a box of tissues on the table, stopped and jumped up on it. This kind of interaction with physical objects until now has been reserved for polished demo videos, not real-world play.
Another startup at the intersection of the real and virtual worlds is Explorence, which publishes a few games like DemonDash, TorchDash, and BullDash. In DemonDash, players run a virtual getaway route through real neighborhoods, as the sounds of approaching demons and ghosts are played through earphones.
In TorchDash, players can record their running sessions and challenge their friends anywhere in the world. As the challengee runs the same distance, the app tells them if their competitor is pulling ahead (see demo and interview here).
But the game I spent the most time playing was with Sifteo, a new product that aims to combine the fun of building blocks and boardgames with video games.
Small, square blocks with built-in touch screens, accelerometers, and other sensors can be used to play a variety of games. The blocks are aware of their position relative to each other, so, for example, putting two blocks with similar sides together causes the corresponding colors to disappear, awarding you points. Other games involve creating a virtual path for game characters to follow.
The platform already has a solid lineup of a dozen or so games, with an SDK for game publishers to jump in. Sifteo cubes go on sale next month for $130 and are available now for pre-order.
So what are the implications of real-world video games? I think one of the biggest is that our vision of the future is not completely accurate. We envision a world of people fully immersed in virtual reality, their faces (or eyeballs) glued to screens, isolated from the people and world around them. This vision is an extrapolation of the way gaming is today, where you have to stare at a screen to play.
But history has shown that most such simplistic extrapolations are wrong.
Imagine instead a world where reality itself is gamified. We use the natural pleasures and tangibility of our physical environment - social interactions with other people, the sounds and smells of a park, the exhilaration of running or jumping or swimming - amped up with the novelty and interactivity of technology.
Trees and park benches become magical oracles to guide us in our mission. Our friends become characters in epic stories of adventure and exploration, even if they are halfway around the world. Evil villains and monsters are superimposed on our real environment, becoming far more believable and wonderfully terrifying.
What we are really talking about here is using technology to bring back that singular sense of wonder and imagination we had as children, when a few blocks and green army men could keep us entertained for hours. Engaging all the senses and other people in epic games is an opportunity to overcome the sense of cool rationality we've all adopted as adults.
And once we combine the child's powers of imagination with the adult's power of logic, who knows what will be possible?
Since arriving in San Francisco, 4 months ago, I have met plenty of fellows of Code for America and I have never stopped hearing about them, their great projects and how they want to foster citizen engagement in cities (and this initiative goes way beyond the American border). But all this will be the purpose of future blog posts - I do not want to spoil it here.
What I want to talk about today is one of the latest projects I have seen and liked, Adopt a Hydrant. In winter, Boston fire fighters were delayed in responding to fires by the fact that with snowstorms, hydrants were buried and inaccessible. The project was born out of a snowpocalypse experienced in Boston, and allowed citizens to help fire fighters by checking and clearing snow from thousands of hydrants across the city of Boston. Citizens can use the website to "claim" a hydrant and take care of it. It alowed individuals, small businesses and community organizations to get involved in their city's everyday life, and volunteer to create a better city.
Watch this video to better understand the concept:
The project was lead by Erik Michaels-Ober who wrote most of the code and worked with other fellows including Karla Macedo (our current colleague) and Max Ogden to create this project and open-sourced it, as Code for America does with all its project.
This brings us to the best part: after they released the app, other cities reused the same format to create projects for other purposes, in different cities. Among them, one was in Honolulu (adopt a siren) to maintain tsunami sirens and another in Chicago (adopt a sidewalk) for people to shovel the snow of the sidewalks.
This project is just one of many projects and initiatives Code for America has helped create over 2 years in more than 10 cities (and 13 more from next year) in the USA. This phenomena is growing and will soon be set up on other continents starting with Africa and Europe. If you find all this civic enterprise and initiative inspiring, keep reading - you will soon see more about it on this blog!