Innovation and Superheroes: The Importance of Origin Stories

Like so many people, I love superheroes.

I especially appreciate the origin stories about how these characters came into being and evolved over time. We all know mild-mannered reporter, Clark Kent, originated from the Planet Krypton and evolved into different variations of Superman. Bruce Wayne was born to wealthy parents who were killed by a small-time criminal when he was young. Through relentless physical and mental training—and a scary outfit—he evolved into Batman, eventually joined by Robin to rid Gotham City of evil forces.

In many ways, the origin stories of superheroes parallel the narratives of history’s greatest innovations, including today’s amazing digital solutions. All link back somehow to an origin story many years, decades or even centuries ago.

And like with superheroes, sometimes the innovation itself disrupts an entire industry overnight, and sometimes industry gradually develops a magical new way to overcome an age-old problem, whether it’s with a new technology (sensors), combination of technologies (smart phones), or novel business models (Uber or Netflix).

Come meet today’s superhero innovators appearing next week at Cisco Live! Europe in Barcelona, where the latest digital solutions will be demoed at the Cisco Innovation Network booth in the World of Solutions. We are also unveiling the Barcelona Co-Innovation Center, which will surely be another mighty force in our enterprise network where super innovators will help to make the world a better place.

The Origin and Evolution of the Phonograph

Let’s step back in time to some innovation origin stories, see how they evolved into modern-day innovations, and how we can learn from them for what’s possible in the future.

For example, the phonograph was invented in 1877 by Thomas Edison. This was the first device capable of reproducing recorded sounds—an unbelievable breakthrough at the time. However, Alexander Graham Bell’s Volta Laboratory later made vast improvements on this invention before another innovator, Emilie Berliner, advanced the recording surface from cylinders to flat discs with spiral grooves.  Each iteration of improvement was an innovation in its own right, yet still linked historically to that first, scratchy-sounding phonograph. Now we have digitized MP3s, and no doubt there are new sound waves of innovation emerging somewhere nearby.

Further, Edison originally didn’t even think music was one of the top use cases for the phonograph. He thought his invention would be more valuable for letter writing and dictation, phonographic books for the blind, and the recorded voices of family members who could “live on” after they died.  It took many incremental advances before innovators turned the phonograph into jukeboxes where listeners could select their music with the drop of a coin.

For us today, “innovations” aren’t just about the technology, but often about the marrying of that technology to new business and consumption models for the content. In the evolution of the phonograph, one final and critical component was needed:  a new format of music. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, people typically listened to live music, and there was little recorded reference point before that. Certainly no mass market recorded options.

The phonograph required songs to be shorter to fit within the device limitations. The innovation also lies with how music changed and adapted to the new format.   “The three-minute pop song is basically an invention of the phonograph,” says Mark Katz, a professor of music at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Capturing Sound: How Technology Has Changed Music.

The Innovation Story of Synthetic Fertilizer

Let’s now take a look at another origin story of how a new technology was born from an existing problem and business opportunity – synthetic fertilizer.

During the Industrial Revolution as more people moved to new factory jobs in cities, rural populations diminished along with the farming communities. This created a new problem for business and society: how to feed growing urban workforces with fewer farmers.  Realizing nitrogen’s critical role in plant growth, scientists in 1909 developed a new chemical process to create the first synthetic fertilizer. Basically, they extracted nitrogen from the air, converted it into nitrate, and injected it into the ground to fertilize crops. This ushered in a new era of modern agriculture and farming practices where food could be grown much more productively, helping to solve the problem of feeding burgeoning populations in cities.

However, sometimes dark forces can overtake a positive innovation, just like a superhero.  Nitrates and derivative innovations were also used to manufacture a new generation of weapons for modern warfare, and led to new environmental challenges: When these chemicals are introduced into bodies of water, they can have toxic impacts on aquatic life.

The Ongoing Super Sage of the Wheel

What happens when innovation occurs but the market isn’t ready to adopt it?  Let’s look at one more iconic example to solve this puzzle – the wheel. Historians believe wheels were first created as potter’s wheels around 3500 B.C in Mesopotamia. This was some 300 years before some creative thinker decided wheels could be used for chariots, and thus introduced a whole new way of transforming transportation.

Since then, the wheel has stood as a universal example of an invention and an innovation that has had myriad evolutions altering so many aspects of society over time. Wheels have been used in vehicles, airplanes, used in pulleys for construction, wheels have revolutionized so much of our world.

Let’s fast forward and ask, “When was the first time wheels appeared on a suitcase?”

Suitcases didn’t really sport wheels as part of their design until very late in the 20th century. In fact, the current rollaboard format was not seen until 1987.  That’s quite late when you think about water and train travel that existed for centuries.  Did people not have to transport their luggage easily?

Wheels were first patented on suitcases in 1972, but they were used to pull the luggage from a strap in the front, like a dog on a leash.  But the market wasn’t ready for them. This innovation was met with lukewarm response. Men thought it conflicted with their masculine image (remember this was the 70s),  business travel was still at its infancy, the culture of travel was just emerging, airports were still relatively small, international travel was just really taking off, and it wasn’t until later that decade when more women traveled alone on business trips.  The market wasn’t quite ready for this innovation – at scale.

In the 1980s, we saw the emergence of the rollaboard with two wheels and a telescopic handle, which was pioneered first by pilots and flight attendants within the industry.  When they did hit the market they were met by a very different travel community — one that had a very different type of travel, frequency of travel and a new volume of travelers.  The whole industry was different and ready to adapt to the innovation.

 

Wayne Cuervo, lead of the Toronto Co-Innovation Center, alias The Co-Innovator.

 

Superheroes and Innovations Have Many Forms and Impacts

Often innovation happens and markets adapt to the product or solution, creating entirely new opportunities. Sometimes the innovation drives transformation and creates new markets.  And sometimes it’s the convergence of the market and the innovation that drives true industrial transformation.  Like superheroes, innovations can take many forms and exert different impacts.

Digital innovations today present unprecedented opportunities to transform business and society for the better. Even with our advanced technologies and know-how, it’s always worth taking learnings from the past to guide us toward the next big thing.   How can we think about putting wheels on our own metaphorical suitcases? There are many more origin and evolution stories yet to come—both for superheroes and innovations.